TURKU, Finland — Mikko Rantanen’s favorite Finnish foods are difficult to spell. They’re even harder to dislike.
Rantanen spends his summers in Turku, the third-largest city in Finland, and grew up in Nousiainen, a small town approximately 15 miles away. So the star winger has plenty of experience eating in the city, and he’s more than willing to point out a few spots to try. With the Avalanche set to play two Global Series games in Finland — Friday and Saturday in Tampere — the 26-year-old winger recommended two restaurants and one cafe to try in Turku, all along the Aura River, as well as a specific brand of Finnish chocolate.
His favorite hometown spots didn’t disappoint. In the leadup to the Global Series games, I tried each one to do some hard-hitting Finnish food reviews. So come along for the Mikko Rantanen Turku Food Tour, featuring insights from Rantanen’s sisters, Laura and Noora, as well as teammate Artturi Lehkonen, who also grew up in Turku.
Occasion: Breakfast, coffee or a snack
Cafe Art is quaint and cute, decorated with mustard-colored curtains and mismatching chairs. But as you enter, you notice its most important feature: the tasty-looking pastries in a glass case.
Laura and Noora Rantanen are fans of the cafe’s carrot cake (porkkanakakku), but Mikko recommended a different treat.
“Just ask for cinnamon,” said Mikko, who usually also gets a latte there. “They’ll know.”
That turned out to be the korvapuusti, or cinnamon roll. It had large, hail-sized pieces of sugar on top but no glaze, which usually coats the American version of the pastry. Without the icing, the korvapuusti wasn’t the sweetest dish in the world (it’s Finnish, not Swede, after all), but it allowed for the cinnamon flavor to have more of a presence. You could really taste the spice. The barista heated up the cinnamon roll before giving it to me, and the inside was soft and moist. I appreciated that you could eat it with your hands without your fingers getting sticky.
Then there was the carrot cake. The Rantanen sisters know what they’re talking about, because it was quite tasty. It’s topped with a light cream cheese icing and small almond pieces to add texture, and the cake itself was soft enough to cut easily with a small, three-pronged fork. It was sweeter than the cinnamon roll, and since I have a sweet tooth, that was A-OK with me. Plus it was made with carrots, so it’s healthy.
My initial plan was to eat half of both the porkkanakakku and korvapuusti, but how could I have claimed to do a complete review had I done that? In the name of food journalism, I persevered and finished both, rotating bites at the end to keep my taste buds honest. That’s how it works, right?
Occasion: Lunch or dinner
The best type of pasta dish, at least if you’re a glutton for gluten, is one with so much noodle that it looks like a mountain. The lamb pasta at Blanko, located just down the street from Cafe Art, fulfilled this criteria. The noodles, which were spaghetti length but a bit thicker, were fresh and coated with red pesto. Plus there was a bunch of arugula on top, which means it was healthy, just like the carrot cake.
I’m not a big lamb guy, but Laura Rantanen recommended the dish — lammaspasta — and I wasn’t going to stray from her advice after the superb carrot cake at Cafe Art. Sure enough, the lamb tenderloin was of such high quality that even a hater like myself could enjoy. It was juicy and easy to chew. The latter is important to me; I hate when I’m worried I’m going to choke on meat because it’s so tough.
We’ve checked three boxes so far: Lots of pasta, meat that doesn’t threaten suffocation and an extremely healthy dish. The question was if it all worked together. The answer, of course, is yes. Would the Avalanche have drafted a player No. 10 overall if he didn’t know how to give good food recommendations?
Lamb, it turns out, is best when smothered in pasta, and the red pesto struck a good but difficult balance: tasting great without being smothering. There were pine nuts on top of the dish, which effectively juxtaposed the soft noodles. The greens, meanwhile, added both nutrition and flavor. Each bite marked an explosion of goodness. I had no trouble finishing this meal and enjoyed listening from my table as pans sizzled in the kitchen.
Occasion: Lunch or dinner
Having grown up in St. Louis, I have an unfair association with fish. My hometown isn’t exactly a seafood hub — it’s better for Italian food and barbecue — so most of the fish I ate as a kid wasn’t super fresh. That’s stuck with me. Nowadays, when I order a seafood dish, I find myself anticipating a weird smell and unfortunate aftertaste.
In good seafood restaurants in good seafood cities, my instinct is usually proven wrong. That was the case when I went to Halifax in August, and it was the case at Nooa, where I ordered the pan fried white fish. My fork sliced through it easily, and the crispy exterior gave every bite a crunch. The fish was as fresh as I’ve tasted in my limited seafood-eating experience.
The dish was served with a lemon butter sauce that put any worry of a weird fishy aftertaste out of my mind. There was also a pea puree that mixed well with the lemon butter and complemented the flavor of the fish. So did the leeks on the side of the plate. They were flavorful but not overwhelming and, when I took bites with no fish, they mixed well on their own with the pea puree and lemon butter. You could say the leeks were similar to Rantanen: elite alongside a superstar but also capable of carrying a line (or bite) by themself.
Along with the main course, I tried tonic with Napue Gin, a Finnish brand. The drink came with cranberries and a rosemary sprig, and it had the right amount of sweetness. Speaking of sweets (not Swedes, to be clear; I’m in Finland), I capped off the evening with chocolate marquise, which was rich and served with pistachio ice cream. The vanilla crumble under the pistachio ice cream sneakily might have been the best part of the dessert. Had Homer tried a bite of the ice cream and crumble before his death a few thousand years ago, it likely would’ve inspired multiple epics. Plus the marquise sat atop gooseberry jam, which is pretty much a fruit and therefor healthy.
I likely could have had 80 plates of the dessert but limited myself to one. That’s what we call restraint.
Karl Fazer Chocolate
During Stanley Cup media day in June, Ismo Lehkonen walked up to the table at which Rantanen answered questions from reporters. Lehkonen, who was reporting on the series for Finnish Broadcasting Company and whose son Artturi is an Avalanche forward, slid a Karl Fazer chocolate bar across the table — a taste of Finland for Rantanen. The winger smiled in appreciation at his teammate’s father.
Take one bite, and it’s clear why Rantanen welcomed a chocolate bar brought from his home country. Karl Fazer is quite good, folks. If you’re in the mood to try it, Rantanen said to make sure you get the milk chocolate, which comes in a dark blue wrapper. That’s the most traditional in Finland.
Turku has a Karl Fazer cafe in its downtown square, only a couple blocks from the river. It had multiple types of chocolate, as well as various pasties, but I looked for the blue wrapper Rantanen recommended. Once I left with a bar and opened it at my hotel, the chocolate didn’t last long. It was sweet but not overly so, and it was easily chewable, too. You don’t feel as though you might chip a tooth. Having intact teeth is important for your body, meaning the Fazer chocolate also falls into the healthy category.
As I ate, I tried to pinpoint exactly what makes Fazer different from other chocolates. But sometimes the right words are hard to find, especially as an amateur food critic. So I’ll borrow from Artturi Lehkonen’s press scrum ahead of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s just so much better,” he said. “In every way.”
I’m likely a victim of recency bias, but it’s hard to disagree.
(Top photo: Peter Baugh / The Athletic)