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Second Story Sophistication: Art and Exotic Fare at Mr. Helsinki

Above Fish Creek’s maddening crowd you’ll find Mr. Helsinki — a restaurant where sophistication climbs up to the second story in hot shoes and hip clothes for eclectic fare, original artwork, fine wine and sassy conversation. Door County tangos with Chicago at the restaurant that has become the place to be seen on the peninsula.

Owners Mark Martin and Steve Kettells, both with strong backgrounds in the restaurant business, set out to not create a traditional Door County eatery. Instead, they conceived an environment with tactile edges reaching out with food, wine and original art creating a feeling of surprise and wonderment of what’s next.

Most residents that move to the county because of the water and shoreline still enjoy a trip to the city. Mr. Helsinki gets them there without the five hour drive. Egg Harbor resident Tom Brown says he moved here because of the beauty. “But now that I live here, spending a few days in Chicago is like getting a blood transfusion. The juices are repaired. So many people come up here to get away from the city but if you live here, it feels good to go somewhere, like Mr. Helsinki, where it feels like you’ve left Door County.”

Mr. Helsinki’s menu offers a multi-cultural dining experience of exotic tastes. Spices are blended, toasted and ground on site. Diners can observe Chef Martin prepare Coconut Shrimp and Scallops across the bar. Appetizers, such as Swiss Gruyere & Gewürztraminer Fondue and Indonesian Beef Satè begin the experience. The nightly dinner crepe features include entrées like Smoked Salmon Pad Thai with wok-seared fresh vegetables, fresh basil, cilantro, spring onions, and locally smoked salmon in a spicy red chili and peanut sauce. Or Szechwan Chili Peanut beef, a choice center-cut sirloin wok-seared with Chinese black beans, spring onions, sweet peppers, and bok choy.

Original art hangs on 16-foot walls. The art, mostly from local artists, changes monthly. The month of September featured the artwork of local artist David Nielsen.

Jeri Taylor of J. Jeffrey Taylor -Jewelry Fine Arts in Fish Creek thinks it’s a nice alternative to a full sit down dinner. “The food is great. It’s a little lighter fare. All the customers we’ve sent there have been pleased and excited to have a place like this in Fish Creek.”

Mr. Helsinki exudes hip energy and exotic food. The wine, chosen to complement the Latin and Asian influence in the food, enhances both. Diners experience the sensuality of excellent food paired with great wine. With more than 25 wines by the glass from vineyards around the world, they can recommend a wine to complement every menu item from the Crab Rangoon to the Bananas Foster.

Martin and Kettells have made a serious commitment to their customers through their wine list. The restaurant has opened the eyes of wine drinkers, who at one time had a choice of, literally, ‘red’ or ‘white’ in Door County. Offering wines from Australia, Italy, Chile, France, New Zealand, Germany and California, the list challenges customers to be a little adventurous.

“I try to buy wine from people that will teach me something and expose me to something new because that’s what I try to do with my customers. I like to take customers that enjoy wine on a tasting journey,” says Kettells.

“I ask them ‘are you looking for a red or white, dry or sweet?’ It gets them thinking about what they like. I like to steer them away from oak and butter and go to citrus, something with more bite, more dryness, and more tannins. I enjoy customers who are not afraid to taste a wine that I describe as ‘gamey,’ ‘grassy,’ or ‘barnyard.’”

The beers also travel from exotic lands. The international beers consist of big bottles with sophisticated labels often shared between two people. Chimay Ale from Belgium brewed by Trappist monks joins beers from Japan, Czechoslovakia, India, Thailand and Germany.

Only the original art hanging on the 16-foot walls travels a short distance. The art, mostly from local artists, changes monthly with receptions to meet the artists quickly becoming the social event of the month.

“I like the wine and I like the art. It’s one of the few places up here that makes me feel like I’m in a really urban environment,” says Sally Everhardus, director of the Peninsula Art School.

Customers, like Tricia Cramer, owner of Premier Properties of Door County, mention the ambience. “It’s fun, friendly and upscale. They have a nice bistro menu and fine wines and beautiful art on the walls.”

From the stand-up bars to the original art, it’s a different kind of gathering experience. Kettells and Martin hired local artists to add to their vision. Sandra Martinez, owner of Martinez Studio, designed the ceramic plates and the bright naugahyde screen woven into the stairway.

“As an artist, it was fun to do a project that needed a solution. Steve and Mark needed something to divide the dining area from the entrance that was easy to maintain, plus fit the decor. The screen I created absorbs sound and is easy to clean. It’s fun to work with a client to solve a problem in an artistic way.”

Craftsman Ryan Urquhart, Fine Line Designs Gallery, designed and built the wine bar and rack. The owners wanted something rich and gave Ryan the freedom to create it. His solution was a walnut laminate wrap-around bar. The bar is book matched walnut veneer with graphite epoxy. Lindens, Ellison Bay, supplies Asian screens and cabinets that serve as room dividers and add to the motif – especially the 1920s Turkish shoeshine stand.

Described as not your typical “smoky, over-saturated-with-music kind of environment,” the business partners have succeeded in creating a gathering place. The majority of the space is not ‘sit down’ yet the energetic crew pulls off serious food in a casual/ urban environment.

“On a busy night we’re just amazed at how many nooks and crannies there are that people create to eat and drink. It’s a total communal atmosphere,” says Kettells.

“I like to go there to see my friends,” says Tom Brown. “It’s a place where I know I’m going to see a lot of friends that I know without making a lot of advance plans.”

“The atmosphere is really different from any other place,” says Alicia Kersebet, owner of Ecology Sports. “Their menu is fun and different. They have a really good wine list, but it’s not a bar atmosphere. We’ve gone in there when they have live music, which makes it even better. You can get something quick and easy or sit down for a longer meal.”

“The food is so eclectic,” says Sandra Martinez. “I always find something interesting — whether it’s a snack or a full meal. Mark prepares interesting tastes we don’t have in the county. I can get something with a Thai sauce, Chipolte or Asian flavor. Also, I love it because it’s smoke free. You can go in with children- with anybody.”

Arvid Munson, Ephraim, complimented the wine and food. “They’ve put together a nice selection of wines, both red and white. Mark’s food is really good. It’s very reasonably priced and flavorful. Both my wife and I have enjoyed eating there. He does a really nice presentation with the crepes -both in the sauces and with the meat or fish he puts inside of them.”

Early or late, it’s a date. Mr. Helsinki is the only place open with creative energy when the curtain closes. It’s the place still open after the actors take their bows, after the musicians put down their bows, and after most Door County waiters count their tip money. Performers, who are just beginning their evening, frequent the place. During the summer, at 10:00 pm, the energy climbs another level as theatergoers savor a light late-night dinner or a glass of wine.

“We are frequently at the Door Community Auditorium on Saturday nights,” says Amy Musikantow. “Performances usually end at 10:00 pm and Mr. Helsinki is our preferred destination after the theater for wine and dinner. The ambience is warm and cozy. It reminds us of a big city wine bar.”

Kettells and Martin also own Drink Coffee on the corner of Hwy 42 and 57. “There are similarities between the two businesses we own,” says Kettells. “One is a hole in the wall that used to be a garage, the other is a former coffee shop located on the second floor. We are challenged in both locations. There’s something intriguing about turning difficult locations into destinations.”

The innovators have used it to their advantage. “We’ve had to tinker with both places to make them work. They could have been problematic but instead we said, ‘What do we do with limited square footage and seating?’ Do we dream about building our own larger space? Sure. But maybe it wouldn’t be as interesting. We’ve been lucky that our customers have responded well to inhabiting them on a regular basis.”

Kettells says they’ve also made a real concerted effort to find good employees that could and would wear different hats and be versatile. “You can’t do this easily day after day. We’re up early and up late. We have found good people to help us.”

“I have a firm belief that the 20-25 year old generation wants to be kept busy. They want to know the parameters of what is expected. We tell them and let them do it. We ask their opinions on set up, the menu, the decor. Then, they take the place seriously — they have a sense of ownership. They respect the job.”

If you still aren’t convinced to try Mr. Helsinki, get out your city shoes and head for the stairs. It’s worth the climb. Mr. Helsinki is open daily in the summer. Fall hours are 11:30 am – 10:00 pm, Tuesday – Sunday through October and long weekends in November and December. Located above the Fish Creek Market on Hwy 42, in downtown Fish Creek at (920) 868-9898. Drink Coffee is open year round at 7:00am. For more information regarding menus, art shows and special events, check out www.helsinkidrink.com.

Who is Mr. Helsinki?

The restaurant’s name “Mr. Helsinki” is definitely unique. Owners Mark and Steve are continually asked, “Who is Mr. Helsinki?” So, we asked a few people that know him well.

Mr. Helsinki is a well-dressed, slightly effeminate man with very long fingers who massages your neck when you sit down to have your first glass of wine. And then he goes away. – Lucy

There’s a picture of a grizzly bearded guy hanging on the wall at the Bayside. That’s him. – Tom Brown

Mr. Helsinki is a figment of everyone’s imagination. He’s a wonderful art lover and probably the man that is eluding me as my date for Saturday night. – Sally Everhardus

He must be the man with the money because no one ever sees him. – Tricia Cramer

A well dressed European that has very good taste in wine and cheese. And I know my Europeans. – Alicia Kersebet

He is the head of a large Russian employment agency that is responsible for bringing all the Russians to work in Door County and we can thank him for that. – Amy Musikantow

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