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Helsinki is the new Finnish 'Mini-Gourmopolis'

New York, NY Oct. 19, 2005 – Despite silly murmurings by French President Jacques Chirac and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Finland's dynamic capital has in the last few years become a rising mini-star on the European culinary scene.

"There are now more than 800 restaurants for a city of less about half a million people," notes Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau Marketing Director Kari Halonen. He attributes the changes to a new generation of demanding Helsinkians seeking new, trendy places and cuisine and celebrity chefs coupled with entrepreneurial investors who have risen to the challenge.

In the past two years alone more than eight major restaurants, five of which are part of the fast-moving Palace Group, have burst on the scene with celebrity chefs, superior cuisine and innovative menus that span the culinary globe.

When it opens next month Helsinki's first lifestyle hotel, the Klaus K, will have two "super chefs" at the helm: world-renowned Chef Marcus Samuelsson of NYC Aquavit fame as well as Finland's own "green chef" Chef Markus Maulavirta known for his focus on local produce and products. A fine honing of the city's wine bars, new restaurants offering traditional Finnish cuisine, new additions among eateries representing than 40 different international cuisines, a growing profusion of late-night gathering spots and sidewalk kiosks offering veggie-chocked street food that almost redefines the category make Helsinki a Finnish Mini-Gourmopolis, a very desirable place to live in and to visit.

Helsinki's celebrity chefs include Mr. Hans Välimäki who earned Chez Dominque two Michelin stars and has turned his latest venture, Mecca, into one of the hottest restaurant and after-hours places in the capital. He is one of myriad, young (24-35) highly competitive Finnish chefs who are committed to excellence. Välimäki, along with 11 other prominent Scandinavian chefs, signed a "Nordic Manifesto" seeking to define the Nordic Kitchen, its good taste and special character, as a world-class cuisine. Additionally, 10 prominent Finnish chefs are members of the Helsinki Culinary Team that aims to win the Culinary Olympics 2008 in Germany. Chefs practice regularly and participate annually in competitions organized by the World Association of Cook Societies (WACS).

Sasso (Northern Italian), Fishmarket (seafood), Havis (seafood), La Cocina (Spanish), Mecca (international), Demo (Scan-European), Loiste (international) and Boathouse (seafood/grill) are among a host of gourmet restaurants that have opened in the last two years – to rave reviews and are thriving. They are noted for their emphasis on fresh Nordic produce and European fusion elements. Sasso has put a "spin" on Northern Italian cuisine, not only with its free form décor and style, popular for everything from afternoon coffee to gourmet meals --as well as its signature fennel-seed sprinkled cured black olives-- but also in its presentation. During Eat & Joy week a blazing red Ferrari was parked out front of the restaurant, which faces Helsinki's verdant Esplanade.

Typical of Helsinki's super chefs is Mr. Sami Rekola, 31, of La Cocina. Rekola, a member of the Finnish Culinary Team, traveled through Spain and came away with a new take on Catalonia and Basque cuisines as well as the Latin culture. Among his many well-received culinary innovations is the "Latino Chic Menu" (inspired by the fragrance "Chic" by Caroline Herrera) for 52 euros --5 course tasting menu-- featured during Helsinki's food and culture happening "Eat & Joy".

Moreover, Eat & Joy, a weeklong, citywide celebration of Helsinki as a North European cultural center held this past September, will very likely become an annual event. Music, fashion, design and art are integrally linked with Eat & Joy Helsinki, which is produced in cooperation with Helsinki Design Week. Events took place in 40 Helsinki restaurants, from two-Michelin-star restaurants to clubs and karaoke bars. One-of-a-kind Eat & Joy menus, wine tastings, original shows by bartenders and entertainment troupes at different restaurants, a command performance by Finland's Culinary Team at South Harbor and many other activities were all part of the action.

In the last handful of years Helsinki's bars and nightlife have shifted into radical high gear. Abo, a new bar touted as the "best après ski in town", gives new life to the décor of a former Russian restaurant with added embellishments: pinball machines and a rolling palm tree in a living-room size unisex bathroom. It joins a lively after hours scene that is particularly dense on Eerikinkatu, Helsinki's "Great Bar Way" where the likes of namesake Moskva, film-director Aki Kaurismaki's funky Corona Bar and many others are located. The latest star in underground Clubland, Rosegarden,
is a small cellar-style nightclub with a varied repertoire that begins when other bars close. Finlandia's IceBar located in nightclub UNIQ, which offers disco décor and dancing, is a popular place to stop for a polar nightcap that comes complete with warm robe. For more highbrow clubbing, try Teatteri which doubles as gourmet restaurant with draping décor and a chic clientele. There are also two heavy metal karaoke bars. And for intimate gatherings at almost all times, try the Bar and Library at the Hotel Kämp; it made the 2005 list of the "World's Best Hotel Bars".

"Ten years ago there were only two restaurant choices: family style and haute cuisine," notes Sasso Sommelier Mr. Joonas Vainio. Clearly, Helsinki has come a long way, and is proving to be a veritable force on the international culinary scene.

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