Listed as one of the “things to do” in London on the last weekend before Christmas last year was to dine at Tënu, a pop-up restaurant promoting Finnish cuisine. Opened by restauranteur and culinary designer Antto Melasniemi and Klaus Haapaniemi, its short December run in London corresponded with daily Twitter updates of the Tënu myth, the inspiration behind the restaurant. Enticed by the cuisine, which I had never eaten before, and media hype, I set about selling its tasting menu (£49.50 per person as opposed to £49.50 for courses to be shared as I had thought, based on the encourage on the Tënu website for diners to share) to my friends, and we went on Saturday 23rd.
However, not everything went smoothly. The web designer of my dining companions was disappointed by the restaurant’s basic webpage, and the restaurant’s friendly social media persona belied its awkward, slightly discomforting telephone booking service; telephoning in, I found there was no voicemail, and when I telephoned during restaurant hours the communication was unclear and left me doubtful whether the correct information had been noted down. First impressions as we approached the restaurant were not entirely positive either. From the sign on the wall and the security presence in the foyer, it seemed as if we were entering a secret club, but it was no winter wonderland inside. We hadn’t even “gone down the rabbit hole”. From the doors with porthole windows we seemed to be in the service quarters of the building. In fact, the decor was conservative and the small, dimly-lit and deep-sea-like, almost windowless room that the dining area was situated in sent us half to sleep.
So it was a good thing that the menu came with an A4-side of “The Legend of Tënu”, which kept the drowsiness at bay. Named after the river in the legend of which the protagonist Deekur was guardian, a raging and unpredictable torrent, it raised my hopes for distinctive and unexpected flavours. It was also entertaining to peruse the illustrations on the tablecloth as we waited for the food to arrive. I wonder whether anyone ever had a storytelling themed dinner on Come Dine With Me, because it isn’t a bad idea. But in this case, the food bore no connection to the legend, and although it was delicious, there were some lows as well as highs. The sea bass tartar was the perfect start to the meal, and having eaten it with scattered chunks of saaristolaisleipä (Finnish rye bread), I can now not imagine eating the bread in any other combination. The rest of the meal failed to reach the bar set by the tartar however, and nothing after that made me think that Finnish cuisine was unique. The salmon broth was quite plain, the cucumber salad with mustard seeds plainer, and the Karelian hotpot plainest in proportion to our expectations, consisting of tender pork slow-cooked in broth. Excitement was only revived by the purple colour of the last course of what the waitress called “liquorice crème brulée”, though it did not taste much different from the classic crème brulée. Only a Londoner – which I should be thankful that my friends were – would forgive the extravagant pricing of the less than spectacular tasting menu. In fact, it took me – not a Londoner, clearly – the whole two weeks until now to recover from the shock the bill gave me. As with its online persona, the sharing ethic encouraged on the Tënu website didn’t seem to translate to the table.
To be fair though, I came away with a positive view of Finnish cuisine. I appreciated its lightness, subtle flavours and contrast with the heavy and strong-flavoured Eastern European cuisines. I can now make full use of the allspice berries I bought for the Christmas roast to recreate some Finnish dishes, which I noticed allspice featured quite often in. The poor booking service was quickly forgotten in light of the excellent table service we received, our water glasses being filled whenever we needed, without our prompting. It was great to see a familiar face (from Twitter) at work in the open kitchen area, which was beautified by an elegant model of Deekur. The conservative decor was not a bad thing either, since it achieved a delicate balance between rusticity and formality, lending a tea-time air to our 8pm supper with its earthenware jugs and pretty patterned tablecloths which you might wish were for sale.
I only feel that there is no need to elevate what I see as simple home-cooking to fine-dining status. After all, while the quality of the food cannot be disputed, Tënu is not as adventurous as Melasniemi’s previous projects, which included a touring solar kitchen. Even its impressive decor seems to have recycled a theme used in 2010. My final verdict is that the passion and attention to detail was lacking, which resulted in the venture seeming a little pretentious. Contrary to my last pop-up experience, no recommendations were made to us, and I was surprised by the answer I received when I asked how the restaurant’s name ought to be pronounced – a deflating “I don’t know”.
I found Tënu at 1 Leicester St., WC2H 7BL