05 December 2006

Hyvää ruokaa Oulussa, part three

Hei, foodies. It’s time for the November edition of Good Eats in Oulu. This month third place goes to the Merikosken Grilli, mainly for yeoman service in the Cheap Eats division.

On the day I arrived in Oulu, I was met at the railway station by one of my handlers, who predicted, as she drove into my neighborhood, that I would have more than one meal at Merikosken Grilli. She was right. I have found it to be a very valuable resource—in part, truthfully, because it is located next to my bus stop. On days when I stay late at the university and don’t feel like either going into the city center to forage for dinner or rolling up my sleeves to prepare a meal in the flat, Merikosken Grilli is a godsend. Aside from the issue of propinquity, it has its own distinctive merits.

Maybe I should back up a minute. When you are living for an extended period far away from home, you have to figure out how to eat well without breaking the bank. And this can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a fully equipped kitchen. We all know the drill. You stay away from the main tourist attractions and the big hotels. You avoid places that are full of empty tables in prime time. You eschew the ooh-la-la Francophone establishments and any joint that has to advertise. You look for ethnic cuisine, diners, and fish houses—places lying ever so slightly north of greasy spoon territory. You stroll around blue-collar districts in search of that special neighborhood-oriented eatery with six tables, a talented mummo (grandma) in the kitchen, and a big dog dozing by the front door.

That formula works in Italy, but not in Oulu. For one thing, while there are loads of fish here, there are no fish houses, per se. Also, there are no diners, and no Finnish knock-offs of that legendary Alexandria monument to incompetent spelling, the Wafle Shop. Yes, there are the usual ethnic restaurants, and we’ve reviewed several of them in previous posts, particularly New Bombay and Pikku Thai. I have tried four Chinese places in Oulu. I enjoyed the Szechuan chicken at Flavour Palace on Saaristonkatu. At Kiinalainen Ravintola Beijing, on Rantakatu, I had a bowl of scrumptious chicken and mushroom soup, but I thought the entrée I ordered there was only so-so. Neither of the other two Chinese places was at all satisfactory; one of them had pizza on the menu. A new favorite is Pailin, in the Kasarmi area, which could with some justice be called an “Asian fusion” place. Oulu’s smart set meets there on Sunday afternoons.

Merikosken Grilli is about as close as Finland comes to a neighborhood diner. It is run by Asians. Whether they are all members of the same family is unclear, though it seems likely. My hunch is that they are Vietnamese, but there is no telling that from the menu, which is a not-all-that-common blend of blue-collar and international.

Some of the staff members are fairly proficient in English, and when they’re behind the counter you can dispense with the menu. One time I just asked for shrimp fried rice; it was excellent. When the non-English speakers are working the counter, it’s more of a crapshoot. They would prefer to have me point at something on the menu—or, even better, at one of the signs posted overhead to advertise the daily specials. A moment’s hesitation, and they are steering me toward the hampurilainen—hamburger, of course. I never order hamburgers out because I prefer the ones that I make at the flat with high-grade ground beef from Stockmann.

The last time I was at Merikosken Grilli I ordered the Szechuan chicken from the generic Asian menu. It cost 6.50 euros. No matter what you order, the wait is about ten minutes. I carried it home and had a very enjoyable meal in the excellent company of BBC World, appropriately enough.

Second place for November goes to Pizzeria Napoli, another Merikoskenkatu institution. I read somewhere that there are 45 pizza places in Oulu, and I would be willing to bet that at least 35 of them are also kebab joints. And they are all essentially the same. All feature salad bars, where the main attraction is cabbage soaked in vinegar. There will be other things on offer, such as cucumbers, pickles, and maybe bell peppers—even chili peppers, if you’re lucky.

At Napoli, I usually order the #8 pizza, which is a seafood medley. It comes with generous quantities of succulent little shrimp, fresh mussels, and tuna fish. I think I could justify giving Napoli the silver medal on the basis of the fresh mussels alone. When was the last time you had mussels on a pizza?

Pizzeria Napoli seems to be a family-run operation. Dad stands at the oven and is clearly in charge. Like Merikosken Grilli, there is absolutely nothing pretentious about this place. I order my pizza and a nice cold Karhu, then fill up a little plate with cabbage at the salad bar. I pick at the cabbage and read my International Herald Tribune while the pizza is baking. After awhile, the pretty blond daughter with the short attention span delivers my pizza. Every time, I think to myself that I’ll eat half of it now and ask for a box to take the other half home. Then I marvel at how thin the crust is, and before you know it, I’m approaching the finish line. I wash down the last bite with my last swig of beer, and then I belly up to the counter to settle my account—never more than 8 euros. I pocket my change, say kiitos and hei hei, and then I wobble home on my bike. Is this the good life, or what?

The Grand Prize this month goes to Ravintola Matala (see photo above), down on the market square, Kauppatori. It’s actually next door to Kiinalainen Ravintola Beijing. Yes, this place is the anti-Napoli. It is definitely pretentious, and it counts as a Big Splurge.

I had often studied the menu near the front door of Matala, and once or twice I pressed my formidable nose against the glass to check the place out. The candelabras on the window sills were, I thought, a good sign, though I made a note to myself to bring my credit card. I decided this would be a good place to order reindeer, poro.

I arrived at about six o’clock on a weeknight. I noticed that the place was set up for two big parties, and the staff was momentarily spooked when I showed up, with no reservation, asking for a table for one. Soon enough, I was offered my choice of two desirable tables, both of which had been set for parties of four.

My reindeer was beautifully presented—three little tenderloins on a bed of vegetables, with port wine sauce poured over the top. I had spent enough time inspecting reindeer—in the kauppahalli and Stockmann—to know that it is extremely lean. Since reindeer doesn’t produce enough juice on its own, the port wine sauce at Matala seemed just the right treatment.

The meat itself tastes a little like venison. Poro would never be confused with any of the common red meats—i.e., beef, veal, or lamb. The consistency is not entirely unlike that of liver, though it is not like liver in any other respect. My reindeer—I ordered it medium—was served with baby kernels of white corn and a mix of julienned vegetables that included peapods and mushrooms, quite possibly shitakes, though I couldn’t be sure.

Good as the poro was, I can’t say that it was the star of the show. On the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the cauliflower soup, which was divine. A creamy cauliflower lagoon encapsulating an atoll of fried foie gras, it was garnished with a few sprigs of basil. Bread infused with sun-dried tomatoes was accompanied by Spanish olive oil. The service was exemplary. With two glasses of Kadette, a South African red wine that nicely complemented the reindeer, plus an espresso at the end of the meal, the bill came to 55.50 euros—well worth the money, though not absolutely perfect in every respect. Let us now pick the nits.

I had unwelcome company at the table. I am starting to think that when we are finished with it, planet Earth will be inherited by fruit flies. The problem with fruit flies is that, first, they are very difficult to catch in mid-air, and second, while they are likely to drown in your wine, that is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The espresso was excellent, with a nice creamy head, but it was not quite hot enough, and it was missing its partner of choice, lemon peel. Plus, it was accompanied by a little square of milk chocolate; dark chocolate would have been infinitely better.

Finally, the background music was provided by a commercial radio station offering an eclectic mix of artists ranging from the Grateful Dead to Patsy Cline. True, it was barely audible, but that is not an acceptable defense. A restaurant maintaining the highest standards in its kitchen needs to have classical music—Handel or Vivaldi, perhaps, but certainly not Jerry Garcia—on whatever one calls a “turntable” nowadays.

Hyvää ruokahalua! Heippa!


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