HELSINKI — If a picture is worth a thousand words, dinner at A21 could fill far more space than my editor would allow. A21, a hyper-stylish Helsinki restaurant known for its New Nordic cuisine, offers meals that appeal to all senses, as any good haute cuisine destination should. But the staff doubles down on the visuals: Each elaborate course of the tasting menu is accompanied by a postcard featuring a luminous landscape. Then each course, described on the menu with a haiku-like teaser (e.g. “Cold and icy mountain stream”), is delivered with a succinct narrative of how the accompanying image represents a season and how every ingredient on the plate is designed to do the same.
In lesser hands, this would all play out as a hokey gimmick, like the culinary equivalent of a high-school art project by a student studying Picasso’s symbolism. But as carried out at this sleek locale by these detail-obsessed practitioners, a meal here is more of a wink than a nod, something more playful and engaging than self-serious and reserved, despite the restaurant’s hushed, glamorous atmosphere.
On a piercingly cold winter Wednesday, my “flavour journey,” as the restaurant calls its meals, opened with a prelude, a board of bites, each suggesting one of nature’s seasonal emblems (deep-fried root veggies for autumn, a mound of a creamy crab concoction for winter’s snow). And then the more-cerebral winter’s tale commenced: With a matter-of-fact tone, the server explained: “With the first hints of cold weather, a stream will freeze from the top, so you still have active life beneath,” he said as he poured fennel vinaigrette from a ceramic jug into a shallow bowl, dousing cubes of marinated Arctic char and halved fried scallops. Tangles of fennel, shaved cucumber, and dill stood in for seaweed, and slivers of crispy fish skin sat on pearly dollops of squid ink, just because. All the while a postcard of mammoth ice mounds was perched behind my plate.
Now, here’s where things get interesting: A21 has a sister outpost, A21 Decades, down the street. It’s a dark, spacious hangout that has the appearance of a lounge transplanted from LA, the soul of a laid-back Bavarian tavern, and a cocktail list that is patently Scandinavian, what with imaginative drinks that involve cloudberry jam, Arctic bramble liqueur, and, in one particularly intriguing formulation inspired by Finland’s ubiquitous saunas, a deeply smoky tar syrup.
But the menu’s whimsy is balanced by strong logical components, like a complex matrix-like chart that pairs specific gin brands with specific makes of tonic. Timo Siitonen, bar manager and owner of both outposts, created the drinks. At the restaurant, he designed them for pairing with the food. The aforementioned course was matched with a recipe of thyme-tarragon sugar, pinot gris, and gin that’s been “washed” (a cold-infusion process) with olive oil to soften the botanicals’ bite.
The polar chill petered out as the meal progressed. Introducing a “warming moment,” the server presented a postcard of a cozy bonfire. Out came small slabs of reindeer sirloin prepared with turnips and complemented by an earthy reindeer tongue stew and a fluffy, buttery potato mousse, each served in a small ceramic pot. In perhaps the evening’s best cocktail pairing, the rye-based drink with Scandinavian lingonberry puree and dark balsamic syrup seemed like an extension of the food, a glaze that missed its calling.
Dessert, “Warming rays of the spring sun,” delivered a sign of renewal over the Arctic tundra. A dazzling assortment of cloudberry morsels, like ice cream and preserves. Velvety milk chocolate puree and crunchy clusters of malt cake to offset the Nordic berries’ tanginess. It was intense enough to thaw the slick ice that covered the sidewalks outside, and it was whimsical enough to inspire me to believe that bit of wishful thinking as I prepared to head back into the winter.
A21 Dining, Kalevankatu 17, 00100 Helsinki, Finland, +358 40 171 1117, www.a21.fi/dining.Liza Weisstuch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.