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Tradition – Tried and Tested

22.2.2018 Text: Violetta Teetor, journalist and blogger Photos: Restaurant Messenius
Restaurant Messenius Helsinki

Restaurant Messenius, established in 1937, has triumphed in the good times and survived in the bad times. When restaurants are opening and closing faster than you can gobble up a blini, you have to hand it to the bohemian staff at this elegant eatery in Töölö.

Chef and owner Nina Kaukonen is too slim to be walking proof of her delicious cooking. She, her partner Harri Lahtinen and third owner Johanna Rekola have kept the old world charm of chandeliers and upholstered seating as well as the traditional dishes that the restaurant is famous for. However, they have added some modern elements to keep it up to date without falling into the trap of complacency. The large painting on the wall has a story to tell. Painted by Paula Oinonen, legendary filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s wife, it depicts the interior and famous figures that might frequent it. Salvador Dali and Gala, make an appearance, as do Jean Renoir and Aki in his inimitable style, from his back view only. The white tablecloths are still in place but in stead of stiff waiters in black waist coats, Dufu comes bouncing along with his rasta hair and big smile. The ambiance accommodates both worlds – the high standards of tradition with the casual feel of a trendy eatery.

Harri, or Hate (pronounced hah-teh!) as he prefers to be called, does not show his face in the kitchen but he does have a say when it comes to the food. When a Reuben sandwich appears on a Finnish menu, you know someone has had some connection to New York. Hate spent some time working there in his distant youth and fell in love with this renowned combination of rye, sauerkraut, corned beef and Swiss cheese. It stands side by side with those blinis mentioned earlier on, and Vorschmack, a minced lamb dish served with beetroot and sour cream. The latter dates back to Marshal Mannerheim’s time who favoured herrings in the mix. Small tapas-like plates are a nod to popular dishes in the here and now with beets covered in halloumi cheese and fish (whatever’s fresh) on a bed of mushrooms, garlic and parsley.

Even on the busiest of nights, no one seems to be phased, least of all Nina. She appears calm and collected and always seems to have time for a chat. Until a table of eight walks in, then it’s all stations go. But you get the feeling that the fun that’s being had in the dining room is repeated in the kitchen and everyone is happy to be there. Their secret? It’s all hands-on, the owners are present, keeping a close but friendly eye on every fine detail, making sure that Aki Kaurismäki will be back soon.

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