I’d like to think we are the type of family to throw their baby in the backpack and just travel—drive around France or hike to the Himalayas. We are, in spirit, but most of our trips are destinations to see family—mine in Chicago or California, or András' in Hungary. So, when booking our flights to Hungary this summer presented us with the opportunity for an 18-hour layover in Helsinki, we jumped on it. We’ll skip the car seat and travel light, umbrella stroller only, we decided, explore the city on foot and have one celebrated Nordic meal.
We arrived easily in Helsinki, but our luggage, stroller and all, got unintentionally sent all the way through to JFK. So, we’ll travel really light, I thought, casually. I had diapers and PJ's for Greta in the backpack, and we had the nearly warm enough clothes on our back. All European hotels have feather duvets, so we'll be warm at night. Plus, to our utter delight, a rosy Finnish steward at the gate kindly lent us one of the dozens of umbrella strollers that never met their destination. Kitos. (Thanks).
I thought our choice of hotel was quite smart—affordable, chic and cozy (to say the least—Greta’s crib abutted our bed, though, per usual when we’re away from home, she slept with us anyway) but our timing in terms of feasting was poor. Inside the hotel, while Greta and András napped off our flight, I luxuriated over the online menus of three or four alluring eateries I’d researched (Grotesk, Rafla, Olo). But at the end of every query for a table, I got the same response— closed for the month of July.
The maître d’ confirmed. Most small restaurants with the kind of new-Nordic cuisine I sought closed in July for summer holiday. But there was Salve, a sailor’s retreat built when “ships were of wood and men of iron,” right on the water in walking distance from the hotel. Sure, tourists go there, he said when I asked if it was a local spot, but their salmon soup is legendary among the locals first and foremost.
We borrowed two oversized umbrellas, wrapped Greta in András’ coat and marched the 8 blocks to the pier where we found the restaurant brimming with families, mostly Finns, round faces and shades of blond around every table, celebrating one occasion or another. It was jammed packed.
“Reservation Madame?” a flustered server asked, after we’d been standing there ten minutes. “We’re fully booked tonight.”
“Oh, no. But we’re just two and a baby.” I said in the same breath. “She can sit on our laps. We’ll eat fast. And we’re flexible. We can sit anywhere. Anywhere except outside in the rain.”
He seemed to sense my determination (was it that obvious?), so he promised he’d try and find us a tiny table somewhere. I turned to András—“no worries, it’s just a short wait.”
When you have a hungry baby and a grumpy husband, and it’s pouring down rain outside, most women don’t insist on waiting on the mercy of strangers for a bowl of salmon soup. But in times like these, I tend to error on optimism.
After chasing Greta around every table, befriending the bar maid for nibbles of pomme frites and making our presence known to the sole English-speaking server via smiles and nods each time he passed us, increasingly flush, we were seated. Plates were stacked before us with instructions to head immediately to the salad bar, included in every meal, and load up on shredded beets bathed in cold crème and dill.
And then came the salmon soup, served in pedestal bowls with stacks of rye bread. Simple. Flawless. Nourishing. And easy to repeat, I decided, at home with a little my own flair (using arctic char, tri-color baby potatoes and cherry tomatoes from the market)—my reward for patience, if you can call it that—a Nordic night right here in NYC.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 pound tri-color potatoes, halved
3 cups filtered water
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound arctic char or wild salmon, skinned, in bite-sized pieces
1 handful tomatoes yellow cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1 beefsteak tomato, chopped
1 1/2 cups 2 % milk
1/4 cup fresh chopped dill
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and light brown in some parts, about 4 minutes. Add the potato, water, salt and dill stems; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
Toss together the tomatoes with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of your best olive oil and set aside.
Reduce the heat to low and add the milk to warm through. Add the arctic char. Stir once and turn off the heat immediately to let the fish just cook through. Add the dill and stir. Divide between soup bowls and spoon the seasoned tomatoes over each of each bowl, drizzling a little of the oil in each bowl. Serve warm with bread.
And, if you find yourself in Helsinki, here’s where to go:
All Photos © Sarah Copeland 2012