Helena Puolakka cures, smokes and pickles authentic Nordic ingredients at this new Nova restaurant, says Neil Gerrard
London Victoria seems an unlikely location for what must be one of the UK's only Nordic/French restaurants. In an area where the locals had few options beyond the usual fast food you'd normally associate with a rail terminus, suddenly the huge Land Securities development, Nova, has offered an embarrassment of choice, bringing creations from the likes of Jason Atherton (Hai Cenato), Will Ricker (Stoke House) and ETM Group (Greenwood).
Among them is new D&D London-backed Aster, fronted by Finnish chef Helena Puolakka. Puolakka made her name working for Pierre Koffmann and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris before launching D&D's Skylon at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2007.
After a spell as operations director of Cirrus Inns and as culinary director for Company of Cooks, the appeal of the multi-faceted Aster project brought Puolakka back into the D&D London fold. The restaurant occupies a huge steel and glass site on the corner of Nova, consisting of a café and deli selling Nordic produce downstairs and a 110-cover restaurant upstairs, all designed by Russell Sage.
"An ideal customer comes in and buys a coffee and has such a good coffee that they come back. That is the beginning of the journey; to return, to get to know the café and the restaurant. Just being able to accommodate guests' needs is a big thing for me," says Puolakka.
Given Puolakka's origins, it's not hard to see how Aster ended up being Nordic/French in style, but what characterises it? "The French element comes through the classical cooking technique," she explains. "And the Nordic influence is through the seasonality, the ingredients, the freshness of the food. When you live in a Nordic country and you come to winter, you have to be creative beforehand to get through these months. You may only live on root vegetables and game, so through processes like pickling, you bring ingredients from the summer as far as possible."
Curing and smoking are also significant parts of that, and they're evident all over Aster's menu, in dishes such as the Aster ured salmon, pickled cucumber, roe and crisp rye (£9.50). Smoking may have become a popular technique in recent years, but Puolakka is a stickler for getting it right.
"To hot-smoke properly is challenging," she says. "You need to have the right temperature. The first smoke is always bitter and you need to let that smoke go and then lower the temperature." Produce used in Aster has a mixture of origins, but Puolakka ensures that all the Nordic fish roes are from Finland.
"I really wanted to buy them in because it is a very traditional thing to eat," she says. "There is a certain amount of Russian heritage in Finland and you have roes with blinis. I think some of these roes are equally as good as caviar."
The chef has been surprised at how popular produce like this and items like the reindeer salami sold in the deli have been. "People are very adventurous. I am really surprised to see how broadly we sell dishes across the menu."
Nonetheless, there are favourites, one of which is the starter of scallop, celeriac, sea buckthorn and liquorice (£14). Sea buckthorn may seem somewhat acidic to be paired with the sweetness of a scallop, but Puolakka makes a vinaigrette of the sea buckthorn juice, sweetened with maple syrup. The liquorice is also a syrup, served with dried kale and freeze-dried sea buckthorn and berries. "The creaminess and earthiness of the celeriac, the sweetness of the scallop and the liquorice combine well and we get really great feedback," she says.
A main of hot-smoked Arctic char with Greenland prawns, aubergine caviar and dill (£21) has also proved popular. "We hand-peel boxes and boxes of prawns every day. They seem ordinary, but when you hand-peel them, the flavour, the juiciness and the sweetness is just out of this world," she says.
When it comes to desserts, the chef is most pleased with her Skyr parfait, quinoa and lemon meringue (£6.50). "I think this dessert talks for myself and for my style," she says.
"I have left that classical French, heavy cuisine behind me and I have taken the elements - the technical skill, the beautiful ingredients - and poured the light, Nordic style into it."
From the menu
•Nordic fish roe, blini, sour cream £15
•Jerusalem artichoke barigoule, malt crisp, tarragon oil £7.50
•Pyrenean lamb shoulder, braised January King, lingonberry £21
•Sea bass 'in paper', fennel, olives, tomato £19.50
•Apple terrine, cider granite, treacle ice-cream £6
•Blood orange jam and curd, almond cake, rhubarb sorbet £7
Aster, 150 Victoria Street, London SW1E 5LB