Alexander Nevski, Helsinki

This will have to count as a memory, since I believe the Alexander Nevski has vanished in the years since I went there.  It was somewhere in the early years of the new Century, though I can’t remember which, possibly 2002.  My children were relatively small but my parents, bless ’em, offered to have them for a weekend so we (my then-wife and me) could get away for my birthday in November.

That we chose Helsinki was not a reflection of this being the best time to visit the capital of Finland, but that we both wanted to go there while there was a chance, and in the process enjoy a touch of pampering (the deal included a five star hotel with spa and massage), a boat trip around the islands in the bay, and definitely some five star grub at the best restaurants in town.

Worth saying that the Finns are serious about their food, and are famed for excellent ingredients: fish, particularly smoked and cured fish; fruit and berries; game meat, notably reindeer but wilder still!  This informs restaurant menus throughout the city, which are expensive but very fresh and stunningly good.

The first night we were there we tried a restaurant called Fishmarket, which proved excellent in every way, but for the big finale, based on the recommendations of the hotel concierge, we booked a Russian restaurant called the Alexander Nevski, just a stone’s throw away.

This was quite a grand affair, set in a red plush dining room, with stiff and formal service guarded jealously by an old-school maître d’.  The sort of establishment where the tablecloths and serviettes were made from three-fold poplin that made a satisfyingly solid noise as you opened them out.

As I recall we ordered the special set dinner, complete with accompanying wine.  Not cheap but the best value, all the more so since the more esoteric end of the menu included some true wild game like bear ragout – which cost as much as our entire 5-course dinner!

The starting point was scallop tartare, coming as tiny white balls of delicate chilled shellfish served in a martini glass with equally tiny chunks of tomato flesh, seasoning, a dressing and a garnish.

Second course was even better.  I’d known for some time about how to make real tomato consommé, which requires hours of filtering seasoned and flavoured tomato puree through a fine-net muslin sieve and then clarifying with egg white.  The results are truly spectacular, a deeper and more intensely tomatoey flavour than you ever thought possible.  I can understand why restaurants rarely serve it, given the time required to create the dish, but this is very much worth the effort.

Third course was elk fillet in a sauce; can’t remember what the sauce was but I remember vividly that the elk arrived skewered on a sword, was then flambéed and carved at the table.  A more dramatic entrance for a piece of meat was rarely seen, but when it did arrive on the plate it was perfectly rare and with a hint of muscular gaminess that hit the spot.

Sorry, but I can’t remember either of the following two courses either, but the other memory came while we were drinking coffee.  A soprano and her accompanist were making their way around the tables, taking requests.  I can’t even remember if they were asking for money, but it proved the highlight of our weekend when she sang us a beautiful romantic aria.

That’s about all I can recall of the Alexander Nevski, but it’s certainly good enough to feature among my memorable foodie nights.  Another time I may return and find more gastronomic treats!

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