Given the collapse of the Icelandic Krona, dining has become relatively affordable now – Iceland used to be horrifically expensive.
On a recent trip we tried to find the best – with moderate success.
Most of the destination places are in the downtown/port area – all within a 10 minute walk of each other. We arrived early morning so had plenty of time to scout out places.
The first snack was in lieu of breakfast – some skyr – available at all grocery stores. Think yoghurt, although it’s technically a soft cheese. Delicious – and every visitor we met wondered why this isn’t exported worldwide. The vanilla was my favourite closely followed by the pear (it comes in similar portions to yoghurt, with a spoon included). Followed closely by a Pylsa – the local hot dog from Baejarins Bestu – a hot dog shack almost opposite the weekend market building (reputedly the best – continuous line-ups). Just a little more ‘crunch’ than most hot dogs I’ve had, so pretty good texture – but not a food I’m particularly fond of at any time!
Outside these two items, the item that we were seeking was the ‘putrefied Greenland shark’ (or harkarl) which is a local ‘specialty’ (if that’s the right word). We found it at a retail fish outlet (but in no restaurants) but also saw it inside the weekend market at a fish stall with a model shark hanging above it. There it came in a ‘large plastic thimble’ for sampling. Eaten raw, it is no longer buried for 6 months, but aged in a freezer. When thawed it has the consistency of slightly overcooked seafood (squid?) but reminded me of tuna that was past its ‘best before’ date. The shark lacks kidneys, so the waste has to escape through the flesh, leaving a mild, but discernible, ammonia character. If you get a choice choose the white pieces in preference to the pink parts (which seemed to have more ammonia).
On to the more standard dining options. Lunch was at Icelandic Fish & Chips Organic Bistro. Although about 10 types of fish are listed on the ‘order-it-yourself’ menu – that reflects the possible choices – which are fresh daily. Only two options existed that day Haddock or Ling (a variety of cod). I ordered the Ling in a spelt barley batter and AmuseGirl had the Haddock oven-roasted in ginger and garlic with a mint-lime chili sauce. Two orders of oven-roasted fries – one garlic and one rosemary and a selection of skyronaise – dips/sauces made mostly from skyr: tzatziki; tartar sauce; coriander & lime; mango; basil & garlic; chili & roasted pepper; honey mustard; and coconut curry. It all sounds better than it really was. Perfectly fine – but the fish, although obviously fresh, was VERY mild in flavour – a little wetter than I usually find (due to freshness) and although the batter was non-greasy the intensity of flavour wasn’t that assertive (aside: I find extremely fresh sashimi to be similarly very mild in flavour, so don’t really appreciate that either – maybe my taste buds have become acclimatised to slightly older fish). And the fries were dripping in an oily sauce. Baked fries just don’t have the same texture - and I’m not sure that the variety of potato used made particularly good fries anyway – too waxy. And the oven-baked Haddock was similarly over-sauced.
We had several places to check out for dinner – and eventually ended up at Seafood Cellar (Sjavarkjallarinn). This, at least had a menu outside – many places don’t do this (although if open for lunch we did check the menu by going inside). We passed on Orange (no menu), Saegreifinn (more like a café – better for lunch), Einar Ben (menu too European and unexciting), Laekjarbrekka (no menu and when we went inside could smell the ammonia - the stale fish smell) – and gave up before checking the Fish Market (where some friends had what they thought was the best meal of their visit).
Seafood Cellar was pretty good – but the chef has a few strange tendencies – each dish was pretty good (some exceptional) but the meal in total was all over the place. And some things (even though tasty) didn’t make a lot of sense in the context of a meal. However, the acid test is – would I return? – and certainly I would.
We had the tasting menu – and this allowed the chef to follow his flights of fancy in many directions.
The amuse was crab & mango on a cracker. Good texture and flavours. The bread was also good, served with a chili/sesame dipping oil, after which the bread was dipped into a cashew/wasabi mix. Very tasty.
The tasting menu was presented entirely ‘tapas style’ i.e. a single serving placed between us for sharing.
The first two dishes were served simultaneously: Lobster ‘Pick Me up’ served in a jar – lobster with foie gras, cauliflower and black truffles; and Duck & Goose Confit – duck prepared in a goose confit in a ginger sauce with apple sorbet and a coconut crisp. These were to be shared but were substantial portions. Both were rich to the point of over-the-top with great flavour and some good textures. This promised to be a filling meal!
The next 3 courses were promised together – but came out as a pair, with the third dish following substantially later – it really emerged as a separate course. The first two were a ‘Fantastic Four’ fish selection; and a Breast of Duck with Pork Belly ‘Hot Pot’. Bizarrely, the utensils for these two dishes (and the third) were chopsticks. The Fantastic Four was four different presentations of fish on a single plate. These were
- Salt cod with soft-shell crab on potato rosti with almond shoots
- Blue Ling with cauliflower and red rice (and I think some more crab)
- Flounder with mashed (creamed) potatoes and corn confit
- Salmon with yuzu ice-cream and some other form of potato (which I failed to record)
Accompanied by a chocolate sauce (in a pot) to be poured over all the different fish “to tie the dish together”.
Suffice it to say that this dish was certainly ‘creative’ – and certainly the chocolate sauce did ‘sort-of work’ with all the ingredients. But the real problem was that all the fish was luke-warm (as was the chocolate sauce) – the time and effort to compose this dish didn’t allow the heat to be retained. And the different ingredients didn’t all work together – it was really 4 dishes that ‘weren’t quite’ together. No clunker components just overkill! And have you ever tried eating ice-cream with chopsticks?
The duck hot pot was breast of duck and pork belly topped with ‘apple blossom’ and served on Icelandic couscous (whatever that is – seemed a little wetter than the couscous I’m used to), but this dish actually had great textures, although the flavours were a little confused. Of course, by this time we had asked for a spoon to help the eating logistics.
The supposed third dish in this trio arrived later (although if we’d only had the chopsticks we would still have been struggling) – this was a sushi platter – I think 3 different items: flounder (actually sashimi) which was very sweet and fresh; tuna (on rice) and a salmon maki roll, served with wasabi, ginger, yam and a very light soy sauce.
This turned out to be the last of the savoury dishes, and overall we were left with a confused palette of tastes. The richest came first, the lightest last – the reverse of most expectations. Some ingredients were repeated (duck, salmon) without any real sense of progression. Apple ‘tastes’ popped up seemingly randomly. And yet there were good, tasty ingredients; well-cooked (for the most part) but instead of a ‘controlled tour’ of the kitchen we seemed to have experienced more of a ‘random walk’.
Two sweet dishes followed – again served simultaneously, and the same general comments applied here too.
One was ‘all about colour’ – a fruit and ice-cream platter that was vivid colours – papaya, strawberry and lichee ice-creams (separate) separated by dragon fruit, pineapple, blackberries and several red fruits – all served over a dry ice bed on which water was poured at the table to get a dry ice volcano effect. The colours were indeed vibrant, but the tastes (although all fruit) again seemed random – no real link or contrast between the flavours. The other was a bit more cohesive but lacked almost any colour – all creams and browns – a caramel cheesecake with a fruit confit, some chocolate and caramel ‘bits’ and a tuile (for crunch).
All round, this was a very enjoyable meal (and reasonably priced for what we received tasting menu about $80US) – like being on a roller-coaster. This seems to be a chef with some credible ideas – and with a firmer hand the meal could be lifted from ‘interesting’ to ‘exciting’. I’d happily return here again to see how it has evolved.
The second night was pre-arranged. Dinner at Thrir Frakkar (about 15-20 minute walk from downtown). Initial research had shown this had many Icelandic specialties and we weren’t disappointed. No tasting menu – but lots of choice on the menu. We had to pass on some of the specialties (e.g. Fish Chins, Horse, Icelandic Shark (not the same as the Greenland, or harkarl, mentioned above) in favour of the reindeer pate; and smoked puffin (both appetizers) and Wild Guillemot Breasts, and Whale Pepper Steak (both mains). Given the choices, this is a ‘must’ destination, although there will be some disappointment.
The style of cooking is more ‘bistro’ (e.g. duplication of vegetables) and the saucing is a bit heavy-handed. So, hearty food (and filling). The standout (by far) was the smoked puffin appetizer (don’t miss it) served with a honey-mustard. It has a ‘different’ flavour – my best efforts at describing it was sort of a ‘duck bacon’ – some give to the meat but not overly chewy. The reindeer pate was fine – served with a Cumberland sauce – but needed a little more fat – the texture was too crumbly (OK a country pate). The whale pepper steak was fine – but the pepper sauce was overwhelming. Cooked medium and just slightly chewy, but the flavour was masked by the sauce. I understand the whale is frozen – so this treatment may have been deliberate. And the guillemot breasts were similar to any wild duck – again the sauce tended to overpower them. A little chewier than the puffin with a ‘gamy’ flavour. The potato accompaniment here was a little disconcerting. The potato was noticeably sweet – not unpleasant, but I got the impression it was from a ‘coating’ rather than intrinsic to the potato (variety unknown).
Dessert was a skyr brulée. Competent at best. Would have been improved with some vanilla flavour.
But, again, a MUST visit – where else can you try these dishes?
And the last evening (also pre-reserved) at purportedly the finest dining in Iceland. Vox in the Hilton, Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. This is probably a 30+ minute walk from downtown (I took a cab). The most expensive too – and just not worth it.
This is really ‘continental cuisine’ – but why bother when there are so many local options? The place is certainly ‘well-appointed’ and well-patronized. But the dishes were just safe – no flair. Everything was well-cooked – but totally unexciting after the other places. Service was also fairly weak. The wine-pouring was erratic – nowhere near evenly distributed (ran out before completing top-ups) and no wine expertise. Didn’t know the wine list – was unable to give any information (e.g. grape) on a wine I’d never seen before (it was Danish – really – and the back label was all in Danish which I can’t understand). But if you’re wine savvy, you might find a relative bargain as the wines have a consistent mark-up, so older wines can be reasonable (we found a 1995 Washington State blend from Hedges). Also we were given different menus – one was the previous set of offerings.
But all of the fish, lamb (supposedly Icelandic lamb is sensational) and beef were ‘just OK’ – well-cooked but hardly seasoned and lacking any distinctive character. Just ‘fish and meat’ – would never have known I was in Iceland.
Icelandic Fish & Chips
Tryggvagata Reykjav , IS
14 Reykjav , IS
2 Sudurlandsbraut, Reykjavik