I managed to fulfill my longest, most desired and dreamt about traveling endeavor this Summer—and God was I a combination of all the best and worst feelings one can feel when traveling.
First is first; jet-lag. Guys and gals, never, ever, EVER travel to Europe or anywhere else in the world with a near twelve-hour time difference and stay for only four days; it won’t be the most memorable trip. I learned this the hard-way as most of my stay was sleep two hours here, one hour sleep there, four hours naps at four p.m Helsinki time: never in my life have I been so sleep-deprived and never in my life have I been so tired, irritable and just run-down.
This aside, I did enjoy Europe very much. From sightseeing in Helsinki, exploring small town Finnish life in Lappeenranta and then making it to the big city in London, I made the most of my time in all of these despite my mental disparity. Finland is a beautiful city with amazing infrastructures, parks, historical sites and very friendly people; I have only great memories of everyone I spoke to there.
London: my God was I in heaven. I was there for a fifteen-hour layover and still felt it to be the best abroad experience of my life. From Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, The Coca-Cola London Eye (yea, I know, how touristy) and just running through the streets of London, from pub-to-pub, Uber-to-Uber, and street-to-street in the freezing air of a London night—I loved it. I loved the people—from the chain smokers, belligerent, street-wise to the easy-going and innately energetic types—they were down-to-earth and kept it real. As noted, fifteen hours well spent.
Now, the food. Let’s backtrack to Helsinki.
After two flights accumulating to over twelve hours, my friend and I arrived tired, haggard, probably odorous (obviously not in the flowery way), a bit delirious and overall—RAVENOUS. Vegan-friendly or not, skyway cuisine is horrendous and I wouldn’t serve it to my worst enemy.
Our Finnish guide/friend of my friend greeted us at the airport and told us he had picked a spot for us to dine at. While my traveling companion had made it clear that I was a vegan over text, I still couldn’t help but feel uneasy as this young man is very aloof to his surroundings (people and inanimate objects alike) at times; my worries further increased when I realized we were eating at a Scandinavian restaurant named “Savu,” known primarily for its heavy meat dishes. I was totally (insert distressed emoji right here)…a little sketched-out.
We arrived at the restaurant, and admittedly, vegan or non-vegan the place was beautiful. Cottage-like in appearance, it was a place that reflected European countryside despite it being only a few feet away from the epicenter of big city Helsinki. The place didn’t open until 12:30, so we wait outside as it starts to rain to add to my excitement.
Finally, we step in and are greeted by a very friendly waitress dressed in what I assumed is traditional Scandinavian apparel ( a checkered apron, braids, overalls, boots). Our Finnish guide exchanges some Finnish lingo with her and relates my vegan lifestyle. She nods and smiles and apparently, she says they can work something out. After looking at the menu several times over, I was still concerned (that and my sleep-depravation kept adding to my paranoia).
First, we are served an appetizer of veggies, nuts and other fine-Finnish finger foods. I wasn’t sure what was ok to sample on until our Finnish guide assured me that the veggies, nuts, and breads were vegan. He didn’t need to tell me twice: I dug in!
Those veggies: Jesus Christ—oh my holy taste buds—best veggies I have ever consumed in the history of my veggie-eating existence; crisp and juicy carrots, potatoes, and a salad drizzled in a balsamic dressing (or so it tasted like it) and topped with peanuts—something about the freshness and flavorful-ness of that appetizer was simply mind-blowing. European produce obviously has the upper-hand on ours.
As to my actual entree. I ended up ordered a grilled mushroom dish served with sautéed broccoli, roasted potatoes and an avocado dipping-sauce. The veggies were just as delectable as the ones from the appetizer, but the all-star of this dish was undeniably that avocado dipping-sauce. It was literally what I imagine the taste of the most wholesome, puréed avocados to be. Give me some pita chips and I could snack on this avo-dip the entire day—and I never snack!
Thanks Savu for my first memorable dining experience in Europe. It was delectable. If only more American, “vegan-friendly” non-vegan restaurants lived up to this standard…if only…
The days that followed were no different when it came to choosing restaurants; our Finnish guide loved his steakhouses and I lucked-out with our meal at Savu—and then my luck ran out. That noted, I am not one to give up easily and luckily Finland is not foreign to Yelp and Instagram and after the one-word typing—“vegan”—“Fafas” popped-up. Oh Fafas! My savior during my Lappeeranta stay.
So what is Fafas? Have any of you been to Zankous? I’m sure you have, and if you haven’t—go; it is Mediterranean counter-food at its finest and that’s exactly what Fafas offers to Findland…except even better. Exceptional. Some of the best Mediterranean food I have ever had. And really, really affordable.
At 10 euros, I got a feast (at least for someone with my belly size). I stayed in Lappeeranta two nights and both evenings were marked by a Fafa’s visit. This allowed me to try two of the four-five vegan items on the menu (yea, they have a whole section specifically for vegan. What a deal, right?)
The Falafel-Gyro: a huge, handful-of-a-sandwich; fresh iceberg lettuce, generous slathering of hummus, chopped tomatoes, tzaziki dressing and a falafel so finger-licking good that it alone would warrant a return trip to Finland. Best falafel-gyro of my life!
The Falafel Plate: Same offerings as the above described gyro except with generous slices of pita bread and an added side of harissa and olives. Also outstanding and so, so, so much food. I was full for like a day after this meal.
Definitely, Finland has the upper-hand on the states when it comes to food as well.
My last night in Finland was spent in Helsinki.
I was so addicted to Fafas and the sleep-deprivation was getting to me so hard that the simple act of yelping “vegan” seemed extremely laborious, so instead I yelped “Fafas” and alas, there were three in this big city. After a full evening of exploring Helsinki in its culture and infrastructural-aesthetic, I was ready for a final rendezvous at Fafas.
My traveling companion had eaten with our Finnish guide at the steakhouses and in Russia (they went there on a day trip via the ferry; I did not) up to that point, so I was almost sure they would dine together during our last night in Helsinki at another, meat-centric establishment. Well, so was the case until this young Finnish man’s own mental exhaustion and sleep deprivation began to sink-in…really abruptly and really heavily. Without much notice, he pulled a Houdini and disappeared before our eyes. So, it was just me and my traveling companion for dinner.
My traveling companion is not vegan, but is an extremely caring and flexible friend who’s eaten countless times at Veggie Grill and Doomie’s with me, so he was open to Fafas.
Before heading out to dinner, he suggested going to the roof of our hotel (Sokos) to check-out the view of Helsinki. Turns out, the hotel had the best view of Helsinki through its roof-top, which also happened to be a restaurant. My friend and I were both impressed and so I figure “Let me give the menu a look-see”. To my surprise, it had not one, but TWO vegan options. In the name of friendship and the name of being an adventurous, wandering foodie, I suggested to my friend we dine there and he accepted in a micro-second.
The service was excellent; from my friend’s Diet-Coke being served perfectly calibrated in a chilled, glass cup to my warm water refills to our server’s general amiability; our experience was wonderful even before our food arrived. And of course, there was that beautiful view of the city.
As for the food…
Tofu-Crusted Burger with Sweet Potato Fries:
This burger was oh-so flavorful and I am not all that crazy about tofu at that; it was seared and marinated tofu crusted with a crunchy breading that was cooked to perfection and steered away from ruinous oiliness; I loved it. It was also served with an amazing vegan aioli that made me ask my server for a second helping to dip my fries in. The Sweet Potato Fries were good, almost as good as the “Sweetheart Fries” at Veggie Grill and you all know that’s a BOLD statement; perfectly salted and tasting oven-baked, these fries complimented the sandwich excellently. This meal was nothing short of spectacular and a great way for my palette to bid its farewell to Finland.
Now, after finally syncing with Finland’s time zone and sleeping a solid seven hours, we wake up to pack our bags and head back home, with a fifteen hour lay-over in London—and I couldn’t wait. This lay-over was the sole reason I even agreed to go to Finland. Since I was a wee-lad and growing up with “Harry Potter”, “Bridget Jone’s Dairy” (you can judge me, it’s the truth), “Love Actually”, and “The Holiday”, I had dreamt about setting foot in England’s most popular city.
We arrived there at six-thirty p.m and with a ten a.m departure the following determined to make the best of our time there. We checked-in to our hotel and before you know it, we were on the subway towards Piccadilly Square. We arrived at around nine-thirty and you’d best know it—I’m ready to eat.
Again, thanks to Yelp and Instagram I had been able to scope the vegan food-scene in London, and one name seemed to rank supreme amongst all vegan restaurants in Piccadilly Square: Mildred’s.
The menu looked, to say the least, finger-licking good; from the Mushroom and Ale Pie, Tofu-Lentil Burger, Sri Lanka Bowl, Mushroom and Ale Pie, Chips, Mushroom and Ale Pie, and chips, MUSHROOM AND ALE PIE and CHIPS! God! I so wanted chips and that pie looked as good as pot pies look!
We arrive and the host greets us with the personality of Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon combined: there was personality radiating all-over from this young woman and we knew from then-and-there we were in for an experience. She quotes us fifteen minutes and under-promises and over-delivers by seating us in ten; she was wonderful.
Now, the way this place is setup immediately reminded me of “Little Pine” and “Araya’s” back home; chic decor, wooden table and bench seating, and a romantic ambiance despite its general loudness due to the proximity of each table: I liked it. It was inviting in its own way.
As for the menu: I had a look through it for the sheer sake of looking (maybe something had changed from the Yelp site; I was set on that Mushroom and Ale Pie and CHIPS!). Everything on the menu was actually reflective of the yelp photos, but what resulted a game-changer ended being the platters being served from table-to-table. While the Mushroom and Ale Pie still looked delicious, the Tofu-Lentil Burger looked amazing; it was big and hearty looking and served with those delicious-looking chips; I then-and-thee realized I was HUNGRY and ready to make it day two of European Vegan Burgers; I went with this and my friend opted for the stir fry. In a matter of minutes we get our food. Lo and behold, my first meal in London: EXCITED!
We dig in and…nothing short of what I expected and the boastfulness from previously read Yelp reviews; that tofu-lentil burger is one for the books; mushy (in a good way), well-balanced addition of spices and just tasty all-around; I loved it from first-to-last bite. The chips—I could have just eaten this and been happy; paired with an exquisite garlic aioli, I was in potato-loving heaven that lasted for hours on. The saddest part of leaving London so fast was not getting to try these again (only half-joking). I tried a bite my friend’s stir fry and found it quite good. He loved it. I can’t compare it to my dish because they were on completely different categories, but it was good in its own respect.
Mildred’s was a worthy way to seal our European food ventures. I miss London!!!
Honorable Mentions: Brunberg Chocolates homemade in Finland. These come in a variety of options, and about two-three are lactose-free: score! Also, creamy, melt-in-your mouth consistency and the perfect touch of sweet. A great chocolate bar from chocolate lovers and lite-dessert goers alike.