Meghan and I like to travel in a style that one might call “slow travel”. Of course, limited vacation time means it’s not as slow as we’d like, but still, we try. We like to travel to one town or city and plop ourselves down there for several days. During a vacation to Copenhagen, while we explored the incredible cafés, we also cooked breakfast at home using summertime produce from the market outside Torvehallerne. In Bologna, we’d buy produce from one of the local markets and eat dinner on our apartment terrace.
We love slow travel, but I like transit travels just as much: short hours of transit time in between flights. Transit points like airports are an interesting place. Unlike a city like New York or London, where people from all over the world have made it home, people don’t always choose to be in the airport they are in — transiting, on their way to a different place, means they kinda just have to be there.
Perhaps because of this alienating diversity, there always seems to be an extra sense of urgency amongst business travelers. I’m not sure these same people would be furiously typing away on their keyboards, or discreetly talking on their cellphones in hushed tones as if frantically closing business deals. I wonder if it’s the sense of abruptly being cut off from the only conception of society one has — the one in the world outside, not the ad-hoc airport society you now find yourself in. I feel a little uneasy being around these folks, because I start wondering if I have it all wrong and maybe these people have been let in on a little secret I wasn't privy to; perhaps I should be doing something “productive” with my time; maybe read the Financial Times to learn about what new financial instruments are being conjured up. Eh... why worry about earthly concerns when you're going to be up in the air soon?
Because we fly to Asia often, my most frequent transit travels have been to Singapore or Hong Kong. I have enjoyed making congee runs to Sang Kee on 4-hour layovers in Hong Kong, or fish ball noodle pitstops to Tiong Bahru Food Center during morning layovers in Singapore.
Most recently, I spent a leisurely Saturday exploring the specialty coffee scene in Helsinki, concluding my evening with a delightful meal that let me vicariously explore Helsinki and its surrounding forests. Instead of indulging in the almost masochistic pleasure that can only result from knowing the pain of separation that comes from familiarity, transit travel allows one to experience the beauty in fleetingness itself.
Good Life Coffee
While neighbors Denmark and Norway have long led the specialty coffee movement, Finland has only recently started experiencing a wave of specialty coffee cafés. At the forefront of the specialty coffee scene in Helsinki, Good Life Coffee was founded by 2011 Finnish Barista Champion Lauri Pipinen. Located in hip Kallio, with typical Nordic sensibility, the café manages to be both beautifully designed and minimal, yet cozy — like being in someone's living room.
Good Life Coffee started as a multi-roaster café that rotated between local roasters Kaffa Roastery and Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo, and other Nordic roasters, but has since started roasting their own. After a red-eye from New York, the Kenya Kagumoini on an Aeropress was just what I needed to start my morning in Helsinki.
After spending some time reading and people watching at Good Life Coffee, I made my way northeast toward Dallapéparken, also in Kallio. Located right across the park, Kahvila Sävy is a wonderful neighborhood spot. On a nice day, the outdoor seating at the corner café is wonderful. Inside, mismatched couches and chairs allow for a variety of configurations.
I ate a vegetarian sandwich made using excellent sourdough for lunch, along with a flat white.
Before and after lunch, I spent time working at Kahvila Sävy. Now I was starting to fade, and so it was time for a pick-me-up.
Similar to Kallio, just a short walk from Kahvila Sävy, on the other side of Teollisuuskatu, Vallila has been a working class neighborhood that has, in the past few years, attracted artists and young adults. Helsingin Kahvipaahtimo is on a quiet block on Päiväkahvibaari that overlooks a strip of greenery. As is not uncommon around these parts, the bright airy space feels less like a café and more like an artist's studio.
Strewn around the café, on the floors and the walls, were a bicycle, chairs, lots of frames, and other curiosities.
It was a beautiful August day in Helsinki with bright blue skies, mild enough for just a light layer on. I had a while before my dinner reservation, so I went for a stroll through Market Square, near the harbor. I bought some figs to munch on, while admiring the forest mushrooms I thought I'd sautée with some butter and eat with scrambled eggs if I were waking up here next morning. I walked on, west, and found myself walking through Esplanade park. The pedestrian walkway was flanked on both sides by food vendors, with musicians performing on stages spread out at regular intervals as part of what turned out to be Espa Stage that runs all summer through the end of August.
I wasn't feeling like wading through a dense crowd. I made my way out of the park and found my way to Théhuone, a cozy tea shop on Eerikinkatu. I had had enough caffeine by this time, so I decided, with the help of one of the staff, to get a tea with dried fruits and Rooibos. I had worked up an appetite by this time, and the butter cookie that came along with the tea was just the amount of food I needed to hold myself over until dinnertime.
After spending some time reading and sipping on tea at Théhuone, it was time for me to make my way to dinner. Restaurant Ask is a short couple of kilometers' walk northeast. The pretty street it's on, Vironkatu, in the Kronohagen/Kruununhaka area reminded me of the streets of central Stockholm. When I got to the restaurant it was just about 6pm, the time for my reservation. Another couple, both locals, were waiting outside too, just as excited as I was for our first time dining here. The doors opened and I was shown to my table by the window.
Restaurant Ask is a truly family affair, run by the husband and wife team Filip and Linda Langhoff. The intimate, 26-seater restaurant is cozy, offering an ingredient-focused seasonal menu that features vegetables heavily and prominently. All the ingredients are meticulously sourced from local farmers and producers and others are foraged from the forests just outside Helsinki.
The evening started with a rapid fire assortment of snacks that included rice crackers and whipped goat cheese; green peas, herbs and whey. Before settling in for the main courses, homemade bread and house-churned butter made its appearance.
Sommelier Joni Lötjönen helped me choose a 2010 Domaine Etienne et Sébastien Riffault "Les Quarterons" Sancerre to pair with my first few courses. Bottled unfiltered, the translucent orange-red natural wine delighted all my senses. I liked it so much that I ended up sticking to the same wine throughout my meal.
"Yellow Forest" concentrated the flavors of wild mushrooms from the nearby forests into a paté, draped by, what I assume were, wild herbs.
"Crayfish and Potato" swam in a deeply flavorful broth, adorned by dill blossoms.
"Roses & Lamb" came on a slate. Raw slices of lamb were showered with shredded wild roses. A spray of rose essence enhanced the aroma. While certainly intriguing, this dish didn't delight as much.
"Broccoli & Butter" showcased cooking precision, heightening the flavor of broccoli.
erfectly cooked pike perch was accompanied with grilled cucumber (yum) and foraged orpine leaves.
When my plate of “Parsley Root & Rooster” arrived, I was greeted by a slow-cooked piece of parsley root, flanked by dollops of a purée made with egg yolks, and the rooster makes its presence known from the crisped skins. My instinctive reaction was to think “but where’s the rooster?” When I dug into it, the flavors came together — the dish was sweet, grassy, earthy and rich. Unexpectedly delicious.
I was happily surprised when a course of the braised rooster in its jus arrived soon after.
I don't normally eat dessert, but I was convinced to try the "Tagetes & Sea Buckthorn". An ice-cream sandwich concentrated the flavors of tagetes (or marigold) and sea buckthorns. Tart and sweet, a floral treat.
I ended my meal with an alpine style Finnish cow's milk cheese.
I thanked the kitchen before leaving. Satiated, a detached contentment washed over me. The Nordic summer sun still faint at 10pm, I made my way back to Helsinki International, for my midnight Finnair AY 81 flight to Singapore.