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Last Tango in Helsinki

13/05/2013 12:42 BST | Updated 10/07/2013 10:12 BST

Helsinki. The white city of the north.

'Of course tango is very popular in Finland' said my guide Tuula Rissanen, like it was a well known fact.

We were in a car whizzing around the sights of the city - Tuula had a lot she wanted to show me and we only had limited time.

It wasn't until we were standing at the top of the tower at the Olympic Stadium, breathing in the spectacular views across the city, that I thought about tango again. Dark, moody, passionate - not characteristics that I would associate with the people of Finland. Why would this dramatic Latin dance be popular here?

'Well the Finnish have a reputation for being a bit shy and introverted' said Tuula, 'dancing the tango is one way that we overcome that.'

Finland is an unusual part of the world in many respects.

For centuries this was a country that formed part of the Kingdom of Sweden; for a brief period it was controlled by the Russian empire; and since then, after being granted independence in 1917, it has been a buffer between East and West. These influences are still very apparent in Helsinki today - Tsarist Russian architecture blends seamlessly with a Scandinavian simplicity.

'Stockholm. We always compare ourselves to Stockholm!' laughed local politician Ville Ylikahri. 'In many ways we are much more conservative than Sweden and our western neighbors - that is the Russian influence.'

But the people of Finland are proud of their culture, proud of their language, and proud of this country that feels a little like the frontier to a wilder world beyond.

I was there for five days and I could have happily stayed for longer.

One of the highlights of my visit to Helsinki was dinner at newish restaurant Spis.

This is a small restaurant (20 covers max) - exposed brick work, wooden floors and simple wooden furniture.

The owner was Jani and he was expecting me:

'You must be Gareth?' he said, showing me to a table in the corner. 'So... are you up for a surprise? Let's begin then.'

The first thing served was a Norwegian wheat beer, blended with some elderflower, and served on ice. A small handful of delicate root vegetable crisps accompanied the aperitif.

Looking around the restaurant it was clear that servings were small and precise - everyone seemed to be on the tasting menu. I'm pretty sure that is all that they're offering.

The atmosphere of the restaurant was quiet, restrained.

There's an attention to detail here that is impressive. Beautiful glassware, serving dishes matched perfectly to the food that is being dished up from a quietly focused kitchen - I could watch the chefs in action from where I was sitting, they barely spoke.

The next course was a tasting plate of flavor combinations - difficult to describe without sounding too wanky, but cleverly done.

The next drink was a Polish mead. I think I've only drunk mead once before (at my cousin Michael's wedding in Australia - a lifetime ago). It was a bit surreal to be sipping into a glass in the capital of Finland - the sweet honey-based drink delivering an intensity of flavor that seemed a bold move at the start of a meal.

The amuse-bouche was a carrot puree served with a salt flavored with star anise - this is restrained cooking, flavors blending subtly and expertly. The savory carrot balancing nicely against the sweet intensity of the mead.

Next drink was a sauvignon blanc from Italy - I didn't quite catch the name, but Jani explained that the process used by the vigneron (involving the skins of the grapes) creates a unique orange color and a strong flavor.

'On its own it would be a bit difficult' explained Jani, 'but in the next course you're going to have some licorice that will help the wine'. I love licorice.

The dish was a combination of licorice, horseradish, and parsley root - served on a square of slate. A really interesting combination of flavors and textures.

The use of ingredients at Spis is reminiscent of Noma in Copenhagen, a definite Nordic sensibility, but it's less theatrical - a simpler approach in every respect.

The next wine was a French voignier, low alcohol but quite sweet (like a German wine). This was to accompany a dish of onions and sorrel.

Next wine was a beaujolais, a fresh light fruity red wine. Served with a dish consisting of red cabbage and juniper.

Next up was a riesling from Marlborough in New Zealand (an area almost exclusively associated with sauvignon blanc). This was served with a dish of poached scallop, salsify, and vanilla. I've eaten a lot of scallops in my time, but I can't remember a chef ever getting the freshness, the texture, and the balance of flavors so right.

'This is the first time that we've tried a seafood dish that wasn't fish', explained Jani, 'we're pretty happy with it.' Understatement of the year.

The palette cleanser was a sorbet of Jerusalem artichoke and douglas fir - simply stunning. A clean freshness and unexpected combination of flavors.

'You'll taste lingonberries' said Janni, pouring out a 2011 cabernet franc from France. This was to go with the main course of Jerusalem artichoke with poached veal cheek and rosemary. Extraordinarily tender.

It's the little things that make dining like this a special experience. The bread was served in a precise order of flavor - first wheat, then onion, then thyme.

Dessert was a small dish of carrot and aniseed - which doesn't sound very desserty, but the carrot had a sweetness that worked nicely.

The second dessert was a combination of parsnip, thyme, and caramel, served with a biodynamic white wine from Bordeaux - made from semillon and sauvignon blanc but preserved with a natural sulfite from the Himalayas.

Coffee was cold-filtered and full of flavor, matching with some final sweet taste sensations that included a beetroot marshmallow.

I don't have the words to describe how good this was.

I would fly to Helsinki for this meal. But then I would also fly to Helsinki for the swimming, the nightlife, the shopping - and maybe even the tango.