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When we went to Finland we did not expect to have one of the best meals of our lives. The country isn’t exactly renowned for its cuisine so we were surprised to discover that Helsinki has a growing organic food scene and many restaurants serving fresh local products.
A21 started as a cocktail lounge serving innovative drinks from local ingredients and five years ago opened a restaurant to show how food and cocktails can work perfectly together. Many restaurants offer wine pairings but we’d never heard of cocktail pairings before. At A21 you choose a 5 or 7 course tasting menu which changes with the seasons so each dish is a surprise and comes with a different cocktail.
The cocktails aren’t the only unusual aspect of a meal at A21—each dish and paired cocktail is inspired by a Finnish painting. In spring the theme was Land of the Thousand Lakes as Finland has 187,000 lakes and local artists have long used them as subjects. Before he served us each dish our waiter brought us the cocktail and a postcard of the painting and explained how the drink and food were inspired by it.
I admit we were rather dubious about the concept and waited a little apprehensively for our first course. Was this just a gimmick? How could a meal be inspired by a painting?
The first painting was of light shimmering on a lake and birch shoots on its shore—the notes said the light and lively feeling reflected springtime. A refreshing cucumber and rye cocktail was served with deep fried Finnish brie in a crunchy coating with fennel and herbs that had been foraged by the chef from the forest. Our doubts left us as we ate the creamy crunchy cheese and fragrant herbs—it was unlike anything we’d eaten before and utterly delicious.
As we waited for our next course our waiter brought us the next postcard and a tarragon and chive cocktail inspired by the lake water. The drinks always sounded so strange but each one was wonderful, unique, and well designed. This one was spicy, herby and fruity and smelled blissful, a mix of white wine, vermouth, white pepper, and herbs.
Each dish was a work of art itself, matching its inspiration. Our second course recreated the quiet lake scene with asparagus representing the roots and plants hidden beneath the surface, and quail eggs and truffle mayonnaise as water lilies. The asparagus was a mix of white and green, cooked and uncooked, creating a nutty, crunchy and fresh feeling, complimented perfectly by the cocktail. It even made me like egg and mayonnaise which I never usually eat.
It became a game, waiting to see what came next. We loved putting ourselves in the chef’s hands, having no idea what he’d surprise us with. It made us get out of our comfort zone and eat things we wouldn’t usually order.
The asparagus and lemon cocktail was a mix of white wine, sugar, gin, lemon, and asparagus, frothed up with an egg white. A vibrant and zesty drink to match the colours of the lake on a spring evening. We ate jerusalem artichoke cream soup over fried chanterelle mushrooms and parsley mousse—wonderful.
It was sunset in the next painting so darker, richer flavours were served on a slate board—pumpkin ravioli with false morel mushrooms. The thyme and honey cocktail with apple cider and dill aquavit had a slightly spicy and fruity flavour that complemented the earthy mushrooms.
We did not want this meal to end.
But dessert arrived. First a kumquat and caramel cocktail, then deconstructed carrot cake with carrot ice cream and white chocolate mousse. Zesty, refreshing, and the perfect finale.
Eating at A21 was a true experience, not just a meal. We loved the excitement of waiting for the next painting to arrive and seeing how it had been interpreted into an innovative and delicious dish. The cocktail pairings worked perfectly and were unlike any drinks we’ve ever tasted. As vegetarians we don’t often get to enjoy fine dining like this so we’re pleased that A21 offers a meat-free option. It was a truly memorable and delightful evening and we recommend it to anyone looking for a special meal in Helsinki.
A21 is located at Kalevankatu 17 in Helsinki and is open Tuesday to Saturday 6-11pm. A 5 course menu is €65 and the cocktail pairings are €49. Food allergies can be accommodated if you let them know if advance and cocktails can be made non-alcoholic.
Many thanks to Visit Finland who sponsored our trip.