Inari – nothing lukewarm
Helsinki 2020 New Wave – that is how Kim Mikkola’s and Evelyn Kim’s restaurant Inari could be described, if a description were needed. The pair prefer to keep their menu a secret so the customer – in this case the guest – can enjoy his or her meal free from expectations.
text: Anna Väre photos: Mikko Mäntyniemi
Inari doesn’t play it safe, at least. It plays with unusual textures and taste combinations which make the dishes “physical”. On the menu, the whole is more important than individual dishes. The share of protein in ingredients is very small and no bread at all is served.
The kitchen has also seen a lively debate about whether food that tastes heavenly but “looks like it’s already come out once” can be put on the menu.
– That’s how the food was described on TripAdvisor, Inari chef Kim Mikkola says.
Avant-garde divides opinions. In addition to the mostly laudatory reviews, Inari has been accused of seeking a special status and not meeting expectations.
– It’s hard to categorize what we do. That seems to bother people. “For example, an artwork can be rewarding, even though it feels difficult or you don’t like it. In that case it’s interesting to think about why that is. Food, on the other hand, goes into so many areas where the experience has to be safe and recognizable. If that’s what you want, you can go anywhere else at all.
1,000 pages about Noma
The expectations probably have to do with the Noma history of Mikkola and his wife Evelyn Kim. The couple meet five years ago when working in the Danish restaurant, ranked the fourth-best in the world, at the same time.
Thanks to that, the restaurant, on Albertinkatu, has apparently been overrun with foreign journalists in the six months it has been open.
Mikkola worked as a sous chef in Noma for five years. Looking at the customer flow, he came to the conclusion that an exclusive experience, built with respect for traditions, was passing many people by.
– I believe that of 10,000 visitors only a thousand understood what the restaurant was really about. One year we got a lot of American visitors who came just because Anthony Bourdain showed the restaurant in his programme. The popularity stemmed from media hype. The restaurant’s database had 1,000 pages of articles written about it.
However, in Noma Mikkola learnt that anything is possible. He ended up working there by chance.
– I probably applied to a hundred restaurants abroad and Noma was the only one that responded. I worked for free for a month and got the job. Suddenly, I got to see how the larger players do it. Instead of five people, the restaurant kitchen had 50 working in it, Mikkola, who previously worked in Carma and Olo, says.
Life as inspiration
But now it’s the time for a restaurant of his own. Mikkola opened it because he wanted to make Helsinki an international food tourism destination. After some static years, he believes the sector is rising thanks to the young professionals who have long been waiting in the wings.
In the kitchen, Mikkola is inspired by art, music, travel and life experiences. At the same time, he wants to show young people that things can be done in many ways.
– If a young person gets inspired by my work, I can even open a hot dog stand. I hope that young people get to grow up in better conditions than I did and that I can pass my torch on.
Mikkola, who has grown his kitchen team in Kannelmäki, Malmi and Salo has gathered lads he knows from his neighbourhood who share the same background and philosophy as him. And then, of course, there is Evelyn. He may even agree to reveal something about the menu.
– I experiment with a lot of things at home, and Kim often gets excited by them. I cook a lot of Asian, but now I am excited by Finnish food. Karelian pies are amazing, and as for long drink! Evelyn Kim, who moved to Helsinki a year ago, says with a laugh.
As a New Yorker, she sees potential in the Helsinki restaurant scene, whereas in New York everything interesting has already been tried. That might mean a restaurant of one’s own, for example.
The host chats to his guests
The staff in the light-filled kitchen are prepping. The chefs are chopping vegetables, mushrooms and fish for the evening service. The couple says it uses ingredients that are as local as possible. For this reason, the restaurant also keeps its doors open in July, when product availability is at its best. It is mostly spices that are imported.
In six months, Inari’s surprise menu, priced at €70, has changed seven times, with several dishes changing each time. For vegetarians there is, apparently, no need to worry, as the menu mostly consists of vegetables and fish.
The couple wants to keep the mood relaxed in the dining room and the kitchen. Mikkola likes serving as a host and asks guests how they’re doing – just as if he’d invited them to his home.