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Friday, March 27, 2009

Springtime in Finland

Finland – this reviewer’s first foray into the beyond for ’09. Departing Aeroport Charles de Gaulle on a rare sunny, Spring-is-in-the-air sort of morning, I quickly learned that Spring means something quite different in Lapland. As my plane descended from the clouds, the effect was startling – what started in color transformed into black and white. True, I never made it to Lapland, limiting my visit to Turku and Vaasa in the southwest, but I did learn that Springtime in those Finnish locales consists of a 10-inch snowstorm and –12C temperatures. Fortunately, I learned those meteorological details upon my return to Paris, having missed the fresh burst of Winter by one day. Nonetheless, the already snowy terrain and temperatures lurking around zero put me in the mood for some hearty grub. Hardly known as a gastronomical wonderland, it is my firm belief that there are gems to be found even in culinary wastelands like Finland; I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. Seek and you shall find.

First up, Fransmanni. This chain restaurant was coincidentally selected as the go-to place by my hosts as I arrived in both cities, Turku by plane and Vaasa by train (or, more accurately, Vaasa by four trains). I don’t know if that was a happy accident, a lack of imagination, or simply a Finnish custom whereby when you take your guest from France to dinner, you take him to a restaurant which in Finnish means ‘French man.’ Whichever, I was surprised to see that Fransmanni evokes both exceptional good (‘food is great and dear’) and exceptionally bad reviews (‘food – inedible’) online. I would have to say that based on my two experiences, I fall somewhere in the middle and concur with the self-appraisal on the restaurant’s website – to wit, ‘homely and unpretentious’. Of my four dishes across two dinners, the main dish of fried perch fillets (19.90€) breaded with crushed rye biscuits, chanterelle sauce, mashed potatoes and oven-roasted root vegetables truly excelled. Light, flaky, and tasty fresh fish. One appetizer, recommended by my host as a Finnish specialty also rated a thumbs up – Fransmanni’s salmon rillette (8.90€), described on the menu as slightly smoked salmon in spiced mayonnaise, marinated shrimps, red onion, tomatoes, dark French Blé Noir bread and basil pistou. Less satisfying was the Fisherman’s scallops (10.70€) appetizer (two – count them - two scallops, lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke, red onion, roasted pumpkin seeds, balsamic syrup, and lobster sauce). The pumpkin seeds were a nice touch, but overall, a forgettable dish. Somewhat disappointing was the other main dish of Provence fish and shellfish casserole (15.90€), comprised of mussels, salmon, shrimps, mushrooms, fava beans and onion in creamy white wine broth, with baked potato. For my taste, this dish was a bit on the rich side – I couldn’t finish it. In short, when in Fransmanni, go native – order Finnish dishes and leave the French cooking to the French.

Fransmanni Turku Sokos Hotel Hamburger Börs
Kauppiaskatu 6
tel. (02) 337 3241
Fransmanni Vaasa Radisson SAS Royal Hotel Vaasa
Hovioikeudenpuistikko 18
tel. (06) 212 8240

The highlight of my Turku dining experiences was found at the relatively
new, somewhat trendy Mami restaurant, located in downtown Turku along the Aura riverbank. I started off with the Savulohta entrée (10€) – salmon with beetroot marinated in balsamic vinegar accompanied by small strips of marinated dark rye bread. I loved this dish. This was followed by a main dish of gnocchi in rosemary butter, with zucchini, eggplant, and roasted peppers (17€). Gnocchi is not one of my favorites, but ordered out of necessity – the three other main dishes did not appeal to me. Evidently prepared with care, not unnecessarily complicated, it was a satisfying, if not exactly memorable dish. Two refreshing additions that are all-too uncommon in French restaurants – an interesting selection of breads, and a global wine list. On my own, and shaken by the lofty prices of bottles, I opted for a couple glasses of Argentinian Pinot Noir and a couple Spanish Cabernets (each priced 6.20€ a glass).

Mami, how I love ya – but get with the program and start up a website. Nice little restaurant, recommended if you’re ever in Turku. And one final advantage – you can drink all the wine you want without worrying about falling into the river on your way home. In Springtime, the Aura is still frozen.

Restaurant Mami
Linnankatu 3, 20100 Turku
Tel. +358 (0)2 231 1111

No matter who I asked in Vaasa for restaurant advice, I received the same two recommendations – Gustav Wasa and Bacchus. I checked out the online menus and found the two restaurants rather comparable. As people always mentioned Gustav first (thus negating Bacchus’s alphabetical advantage), I used that as a sign. The restaurant itself is a converted coal cellar with an extensive wine cellar. So if you are afraid of heights, this is the restaurant for you. Overall, I had a very satisfying and enjoyable dinner there, albeit a bit on the pricey side.

I started with the confit of salmon with escargot and bacon vinegrette (12.50€), which I highly recommend. Delicately prepared, the marinated rectangle of salmon nearly melted in my mouth. The limited list of alternative entrees consisted of blini with burbot roe and liver or rabbit consomé. For the main dish, I opted for the piked perch accompanied by goat cheese and almond potato (25€), foregoing the tempting partridge dish and the exotic reindeer option. The grilled fish was satisfying, but the highlight of this dish was the chevre, prepared with beetroot and honey. Let me tell you, until my visit to Finland, had you offered, I would have told you that you could keep your beets. In fact, get them as far away from me as possible. Once you combine deep red beet slices with chevre, throw a little honey on top, there’s no turning back. It’s a bit unsettling watching your white goat cheese turn all pink and everything, but try it, you’ll like it. A distinct taste that for years to come, I am sure, will evoke memories of springtime in Finland. According to my waitress, this is a Russian specialty. The Russians got this one right. For dessert, I went with one of my favorites, nougat with nuts and chocolate ice cream. This was a rather odd preparation of the dish – the nougat consisted of a somewhat chewy concoction, but once the whole mess started to integrate, the overall effect wasn’t bad at all. By the way, I should add that the meal was accompanied by two mise-en-bouches, one before the entrée, and the other before dessert. Both were interestingly prepared and tasty, but I can’t tell you what they were because I lost the little piece of paper on which I described them. If I find the paper, I’ll get back to you.

Once again, the wine list was international, with a good selection by the glass. I’m a sucker for Spanish Riojas, so I started with Domino de Ugarte Reserva 2004, outrageously priced at 18.50€ for 24cl. What's life without a little outrage? I’m never disappointed with a Rioja, but at that price I expected something spectacular. This one fell far short. I followed that up with a few glasses of a more reasonably priced (9.90€ a glass) Chilean Merlot, Varietel 2006 Maule Valley. Given the wine list, I was a bit bemused by the Asian diner sitting alone at the table in front of mine when he ordered a Coke and then proceeded to diligently photograph every single development that unfolded at his table. I asked him about the reindeer dish on my way out. His response: “Good. My second time. Tastes like beef.” Everybody's a critic.

Restaurant Gustav Wasa

Rådhusgatan 24
65100 Vasa
Phone: +358 50 466 3208
Web site: http://www.gustavwasa.com

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hotaru - Wait, I Didn't Say 'Simon Says'!

Although I'm not quite ready to challenge noted French restaurant critic Monsieur Francois Simon to a duel, I feel that maybe he at least owes me a drink. A very big drink. Being the ever-compliant and exuberantly fledgling critic that I am, I duly loaded up my credit cards and proceeded to check out the culinary wonders of two of Simon's recent 'don't miss them' Parisian eating establishments, Le Baratin (panned here a couple installments ago) and, last week, Hotaru, the relatively new Japanese restaurant in the 9th.

Another laudatory online review for Hotaru preceded my visit, that of Richard Hesse, the restaurant critic of note for Paris Update. Though I feel his effusive praise for Hotaru also overdone, I wholeheartedly agree with his first two 'cons':
• Not cheap.
• The waitresses are lovely, but not easy to communicate with if you don’t speak Japanese.
And I can't say I disagree with his number one 'pro':
• Truly fresh fish

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. This was another solo affair on my part, again having planned dinner before a concert. I arrived shortly after the 7:30 pm opening time to find an Asian couple well into whatever they were eating - a large platter of some kind of fresh fish. By the time I packed up and left, around 9:15 pm, they were still ordering large platters of sushi and sashimi, washed down with pitcher after pitcher of, I presume, saki. I shudder to think of their bill, which had to hover well over the 200 euro mark. But I must admit, those platters looked mighty tasty.

At the outset, I humbly admit that I always have the feeling that I order wrong at Japanese restaurants. Having had plenty of opportunities to savor fresh raw fish in my long storied career as a diner, I usually opt for alternative dishes. And so I did at Hotaru. The menu itself was intimidating - long and complex and, don't forget, I didn't plan on spending the entire evening. So I took a shortcut and ordered completely off the little tabletop blackboard of chef's suggestions with its listings of entrees on one side and plates and desserts on the other. I am a big fan of tofu served in restaurants - one of the few opportunities I have to appreciate a dish that, in my opinion, is best served lightly fried on the outside and warm and soft inside (only rarely do I succeed at this in my own kitchen). Give me a well-prepared peanut sauce to accompany a large plate and you will find one happy camper at your table. There's a place in Baltimore, I could tell you about - disappointing in virtually every other category, but their tofu entree is memorable. But I digress. No surprise, then, I ordered the Hotaru tofu entree (9€), and followed that up with a fresh scallops plate with Japanese salad, the so-called Hotate fry (21€).

Ordering was no small chore. Remember Hesse's second con? Well, this turned out to be a con in more ways than one. I'm speaking of the wine. Try though she might, my waitress, with a limited facility in both English and French, seemed utterly perplexed by my question about whether I could order a half bottle of wine. Most restaurants, this is not a problem, and usually there are at least a couple demi-bouteilles on the carte. As she edged precariously closer to tears, she was rescued by another waitress who appeared to have a bit more seniority, as well as a few more words in her English and/or French (I can't remember anymore which) vocabulary. We arrived at a compromise. I would order a wine of my choosing by the glass, and before I would know it, I will have consumed a half bottle of wine. My big mistake, and I promise myself, it is a mistake I will not make again. I opted for one of my favorite reds, a St. Nicolas de Bourgueil (Les Perruches, 2006) at 7.50€ a glass. Before I had the opportunity to do my calculations in light of my projected consumption, I had already blown the chance to order a full bottle and save myself a couple euros in the process. Oh, well, you can't take it to your grave.

Moving on...first course, Hotaru tofu. A long wait for this baby, why, I don't know, because what arrived at the table was a small soup bowl. Planted in the middle was a little square of uncooked tofu in a puddle of what tasted like a soy/fish sauce combination. Resting on top of the tofu square was a tiny dab of wasabi paste. I maintained a pathetic smile on my face as I downed this dish in all of about one minute. And I took my time. Maybe because I love tofu so much or perhaps because chef Isao Ashibe prepared the bean curd concoction through some sort of magical coagulation of soy milk, or some combination of these possibilities, the tofu was silky and tasty. Nonetheless, I was expecting something quite different, more satisfying, original, and substantial. This was way too minimalistic for my taste. Thumbs down on the chef's suggestion for the entree. (The accompanying photo is not the actual dish I ate at the restaurant, but using a little imagination --pretend the little smiley face isn't there, you'll get the picture.)

The main dish was much better. The five pan-fried scallops with a light batter were good-sized and very fresh. They arrived on the same plate as a salad composed of a green lettuce and a white diced cabbage. It was difficult enough to have the waitress explain the sauce that came in a miniature pitcher. Sorry, but I can't explain her explanation (see Hesse's second con again). The sauce was relatively thick, but poured easily over the scallops and salad. I love sauces, virtually any kind of sauces, but this one was not completely pleasing, and a bit too salty for my taste (too much soy sauce again, I imagine). By the way, I almost forgot, again, as I failed to ask for rice when I ordered (assuming it would come with the dish). As she brought the scallop plate, the waitress asked, late as it was, if I wanted rice. Five times I had to repeat, 'oui, riz gluant, s'il vous plait.' Now my French is pitiful, but this is an expression I have had ample opportunities to practice during my years in France, so I think this would have been understandable to a two-year-old who knew anything about Asian food. (Pronounced, 'ree-glue-ahnt' am I right, or am I right?). But my waitress just didn't get it, and neither did I. If the rice I received was 'gluant' (i.e., sticky), it wasn't noticeable.

I started wondering, as I dug into the scallops with my wooden chopsticks, what would have happened if I had suddenly grabbed my chest, fallen to the floor, and started moaning 'ee-ooh-ant,' 'ee-ooh-ant'? Probably someone would have excitedly shouted, 'my word, this man needs some riz gluant!' Now my riz gluant request was much more comprehensible than that, so you wonder, what was my waitress's problem?

Although I hadn't originally intended to order dessert, given time constraints, I picked up quite a few extra minutes with that entree quickie and so I ordered the tantalizing green tea cheesecake dessert. Well, this turned out to be pretty interesting, although nothing like ecstasy-inducing cheesecakes I'm more familiar with back in the States. Two small triangles of green cheesecake arrived on a plate with a ball of ice cream, a handful of large grapes, peach slices, and a small mound of something sweet and brown that was never explained, but worked in the overall scheme of things. An interesting effort and a decent, though unspectacular, end to the meal.

The L-shaped dining room consists of about 30 seats and a bar. As described at the Internaute website, the room bears an ambiance "izakaya" (bistrot japonais), warm and sympathetic. Izakaya is another way of saying the spartan dining area is unobtrusive and uninteresting, especially when most of those 30 seats are empty, as they were during my visit. Only one other couple arrived during my meal, although perhaps this is the sort of place where people wander in well after 9 pm, I can't say because I was long gone. Where is your clout, Monsieur Simon? So that brings me to the final point, the con job I alluded to earlier. After having downed approximately 2-1/2 glasses of wine from the bottle, duly left on the table, I was charged 22.50€ for three glasses, a price I am more used to spending for a full bottle. I have no one to blame but myself for letting myself fall into that little trap. Nonetheless, my credit card would have suffered a much more substantial blow had I opted for one of the several rice wines listed on the menu. If you have to ask the price, then forget about ordering one of those. The glasses of wine helped jack my total bill up to 66€ (see Hesse's first con).

So what's the verdict on Hotaru? I'd say that it is a decent Japanese restaurant that is way over-rated by the two aforementioned critics. But as I pointed out earlier, I usually order wrong in Japanese restaurants, so maybe you'll have better luck. Like the other Japanese restaurants in Paris, it is not cheap. But if you have a couple hundred euros burning a hole in your wallet for some apparently tasty raw fish platters, put this one on your list. But, wait, I didn't say 'Simon Says.'

18, rue Rodier 75009 Paris
tel: 01 48 78 33 74
Métro: Notre Dame de Lorette
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