White table cloths and formal dining are a thing of Helsinki’s past, according to Jesper Björkell, chef and owner of SHINOBI. By paying attention to flavour and authenticity, Björkell has created a place frequented by Japanese officials and hospitality professionals alike. In the words of Kurt Cobain, it’s “come as you are”.

SHINOBI Shokudo & Izakaya is a Japanese-influenced restaurant where guests can enjoy rich flavours in food and drinks from all over Japan. Interior items like paper lanterns, neon lights and yellow beer cases, set against a Scandinavian backdrop, create a vibrant yet zen-like atmosphere. The space is further enriched by the sizzling sound and savoury aroma of chicken skewers cooking over charcoal – known as ‘yakitori’ in Japanese – ebbing out from the open kitchen. With respect to Japanese culinary style and finesse, SHINOBI is a sophisticated yet informal breath of fresh air in a growing Finnish food scene.

SHINOBI: rooting the rough side of Tokyo in the Helsinki food scene

The main ninja behind the restaurant is local chef and Ocean Ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Jesper Björkell, 37. Björkell found his way to Japan via sushi, becoming the first ever Finn in the Tokyo Sushi Academy in 2014, “eating sushi for days on end,” as he recalls.

On a night out in Tokyo, Björkell stumbled upon Omoide Yokocho (otherwise known as ‘Piss Alley’), a maze of narrow alleyways close to Shinjuku station. Decorated with paper lanterns and neon signs, and filled to the brim with decades-old ramshackle yakitori and ramen shops, it is a popular place for tourists looking to experience the nostalgia of post-war Japan.

“We didn’t have anything like this in Finland, says Björkell. Smitten by the roughness, lively atmosphere, savoury smells and flavourful dishes, he couldn’t help but fall in love. “I went to Japan to become the best sushi chef in Finland,” he recalls. But in yakitori, Björkell discovered the unpolished excellence of Japanese cuisine.

SHINOBI: rooting the rough side of Tokyo in the Helsinki food scene

But how do you sustainably recreate something you love, 4,800 miles from its origins? After returning to Finland, Björkell continued mentoring sushi chefs around the country, helping to open and run several seafood restaurants, including a ramen shop. “I’ve helped open more than 30 restaurants in my life, but SHINOBI was different,” says Björkell. With the exception of electrics and plumbing, the entire venue, which used to house Helsinki’s first ever pizzeria, was remodelled with secondhand items sourced by Björkell and his internationally experienced team. “Everything was from the ‘80s, so we removed those roots from the venue and started building our own restaurant. It gave us the freedom to make everything the way we wanted it,” he recalls.

Today, SHINOBI offers diners a ten-course tasting menu in the reservation-only shokudō area, or the option to simply show up and grab a chair by the bar or in the izakaya. Anyone who’s been to Japan and enjoyed a cold draft beer will appreciate seeing Kirin Ichiban on tap, accompanied by a wide selection of Japan’s finest in whisky, sake and shochu.

Japanese tradition, however, states that drinks should always be enjoyed with a bite to eat. For the full izakaya experience, order a Suntory highball – whisky and club soda – with a side of miso-seared eggplant. With respect to flavour and tradition, the tapas-style menu also offers vegan-friendly options and is perfect for single diners to enjoy, or for sharing with friends. Safe to say, with SHINOBI, Björkell has successfully recreated an old Japanese flame in the heart of Helsinki.

SHINOBI: rooting the rough side of Tokyo in the Helsinki food scene

Greener horizons for Finnish dining

Throughout the years, Björkell has expanded his own understanding of sustainability in restaurants and, in particular, the impact of our dining culture on the oceans. In 2016, nearly ten years after he first started rolling seaweed, Björkell began asking what could be done to minimise seafood wastage. “When we asked the fisheries what they would do, the answers were always different,” he recalls, understanding for the first time that something in the system had to change.

Today, as an MCS Ocean Ambassador, he works to promote awareness amongst customers and colleagues, choosing organic ingredients and trying to implement the Nordic manifesto of sourcing locally whenever possible. But sometimes it’s a question of definition rather than choice. “What is domestic?” asks Björkell. “In Japan, seafood caught 1,000 kiloetresm offshore is domestic. The same distance for us is salmon in Norway, so can we call it ‘local’?”

“The good thing overall is that there are now better products and people are more aware of how their food is made and where it comes from,” he says. Whilst striking a balance between sustainability and quality remains difficult in the current climate, Björkell remains hopeful that, in a few years, he’ll be able to get high-quality sustainably-grown scallops from continental Europe. Until then, diners at SHINOBI can enjoy a Shiso Gin Sour at the bar with a side of the sustainably grown Nova Scotia scallops seared in miso butter.

SHINOBI: rooting the rough side of Tokyo in the Helsinki food scene

Web: www.shinobi.fi
Instagram: @shinobirestaurant
Facebook: shinobizakaya

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