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Apr 22, 2009 06:33 PM

Reykjavik Iceland Report

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

3 Frakkar
14 Reykjav , IS

Vox Restaurant
2 Sudurlandsbraut, Reykjavik

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  1. For some reason the Seafood Cellar didn't stick. Here goes again (and it also didn't work this time, so here's the website:

    1. Thanks for the great write-up. We're headed back to Iceland in June, having been there for two days (thanks to Icelandair's great no-extra-charge stopover) two years ago. At that time, we also ate at 3 Frakkar and Iceland Fish and Chips. Can you recall how much you spent at 3 Frakkar? We enjoyed our meal there, but spent upwards of $80 a person. With the collapse of the krona, I am hoping it will be more economical.

      Here's what I wrote after our last visit:

      We're going to be in Reykjavik only two days and then spend three days driving up the west coast, visiting the fjords and small settlements there. If any chowhounds can recommend restaurants on this route, I'd be grateful.

      4 Replies
      1. re: famdoc

        I had read your report before I went - but the time elapsed led me to start a new thread.
        The meal at 3 Frakkar was about the same cost - but that included a bottle of wine (not food only). Around $160US for two. Without wine about $60 per person.

        1. re: famdoc

          Be sure to read about the "bezerkers" legend and this is where they actually ferment the shark underground and you can buy samples and learn about the process - Lonely Planet has the story and directions. Additionally, there is an underground natural sparkling water geyser in that area too we read about in the Iceland travel atlas guide - it is a spectacular short hike to the spring and others were carrying bottles to capture the refreshing water. Be sure to bring a cup and enjoy - ask locals for directions. It is a short way off the main road and then about a 15-20 walk through this spectacular scenery to get to the spring, There is a flag off to the right across a small river bank to mark the spring.

          1. re: glbtrtr

            We found the Lonely Planet out-of-date in many areas.
            I was told (by a local) that both the lamb and shark now have to be aged differently to comply with EEC regulations. Of course, anything can happen outside the legal channels (c.f. moonshine in North America).

          2. re: famdoc

            Would you be able to recommend anything from the west coast? I'm heading for a week in early September and am doing the entire ring road. Thanks!

          3. Great report estufarian. I loved my 6 week visit there back in 2002 and totally agree with you about the skyr.

            I also dined on harkarl, smoked puffin and horse-a culinary journey I will never forget!


            2 Replies
            1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

              Just back from our second visit to Iceland and am pleased to report that prices were much more moderate this time around. Again, the Sea Baron was a great experience: don't miss their lobster soup!

              We discovered a new restaurant in central Reykjavik. Lystin, apparently open less than one year, is located at Laugavegur 73 and features both an a la cart and prix-fixe chef's menu. The chef's menu can be 3, 4 or 5 courses and can be matched with wine. We selected the 3 course menu with wine for ISK7500 (approximately US$58 at current rates of exchange--$1=ISK125). You can indicate food preferences/aversions to the kitchen, but you basically get whatever is fresh that day, which can include any of a number of fish or Icelandic lamb. Dessert was a cappuccino mousse. Service was delightful: two lovely Icelandic young women, obviously new to the restaurant industry, but sincere and helpful, were both attentive. One, who was the sommeliere, was able to describe each wine served in delightful terms, but admitted that she could only taste, not drink wine, owing to wine's tendency to cause her migraines to flare.

              1. re: famdoc

                really? i found the sea baron's food to be utterly disgusting. fishy, unclean tasting, the absolute lowest food culture anywhere in the world.

            2. Great report. Thanks for sharing. Thrir Frakkar is a fantastic restaurant. It's almost as if you're in somebody's home when dining there. I do agree the food is heavy there, but perhaps that's a sign of authenticity.

              Your experience at VOX doesn't surprise me. It's never appealed to me on my visits, but I've walked through it. Your experience confirms my impression. As I understand it, VOX is divided into a bistro part and a restaurant part. Which were you in ???

              I don't know where you got the impression that VOX is reputed to be Reykjavik's best restaurant. It's not. The Gallery at Hotel Holt, a former Relais and Chateaux property,is by far the best restaurant in Iceland - and I go to Iceland frequently. The best lamb I've ever tasted is there...

              Again thanks for sharing. I will give Sjavarkjallarinn a try the next time based on your report.

              1 Reply
              1. re: clipper7

                I ate in the main dining room at VOX. Pity I missed The Gallery - it didn't appear on any of my searches.

              2. Any updates on restaurants in Reykjavik? I'm looking for a fancier spot for one dinner but it is for a milestone birthday that falls on a Sunday. I had picked Orange until I saw their opening hours. I can't find the hours for 3 Frakkar which would be another option. Any others to consider?
                Also curious about the best shops/markets for picking up food products to take home (and eat there). We're staying centrally in the city but will also have a car for a few days.

                4 Replies
                1. re: h2o

                  I just spent 3+ weeks in Iceland and had a few very enjoyable meals and many adequate ones (plus a couple of stinkers). My husband and I enjoyed Einar Ben so much we ate there two evenings in a row! The menu may sound continental, but we enjoyed the following starters (over two nights): creamy haddock soup with smoky haddock pillow/dumpling, celeriac cream soup, raw, marinated minke whale, warm salted cod with a raisin and tomato chutney on arugula with parmesan shavings. All were delicious, though the whale and cod were the standouts. Mains over the two nights were: foal tenderloin, filet of lamb, and Arctic char. The char was delicate, fresh and beautifully cooked, but the foal stole the show. The lamb was exquisite as well. We both enjoyed it on the second night.

                  Other notable meals were at the 4-star Hotel Ranga, near the volcano Eyjafjallajokull and the 5-course dinner at Hotel Budir, near Snaefellsnes, as well as at the hotel in Isafjordur. A few standout dishes were had at the Haumar Husid (sp?) in Hofn, particularly the potato-based seafood soup (non-creamy!) and the lamb.

                  We sampled a variety of exotic animalia, such as puffin, reindeer, porpoise, whale, shark, foal and pink-footed goose. We were sorry to have missed out on svid (singed sheep's head), pickled ram's testicles, the haggis cousin, slautur and the raw smoked lamb leg, which is much like Italian prosciutto. Special mention must be made for the fantastic herring and cured fish options (though I found the smoked fishes a bit mealy, smoky and too salty).

                  The skyr is fabulous, as is virtually all dairy in Iceland. I discovered a new love of eggs, particularly soft-boiled. The breads were mostly delicious, particularly the hearty rye breads.

                  My greatest disappointment was with the vegetable matter offered in restaurants and stores. I completely understand the climate, terrain and availability of fresh produce (or lack thereof), but eating 3+ weeks worth of meals in restaurants really opened my eyes to what the average restaurant can afford to offer a guest as a salad or side vegetable. Higher end restaurants offered a much better range of vegetables, but in the more remote regions, salads of iceberg lettuce, wholly underripe and colourless tomatoes and ubiquitous cucumbers were the standard, occasionally with no dressing at all. A couple of times, we were served vegetables from a jar (sometimes pickled), such as red cabbage, peas, sundried tomatoes, corn. Occasionally, though, we were surprised by salads of arugula, microgreens, pine nuts, peppers, etc. Geothermal greenhouses are scattered in areas that have access to the natural energy. In the "greenhouse" regions, the tomatoes were excellent.

                  The weirdest food we had was the pizza. We tried pizza in two different "towns". One place made a variety that had roast beef slices, bearnaise sauce, onions and mushrooms. It was strangely addictive. The other pizza that night was a disaster, with a sweet ketchup-like tomato sauce, a pile of vegetable toppings and 3 types of cheese. The sweet tomato sauce and the blue and feta cheeses clashed terribly. On a different night, my husband had a simple pepperoni, mushroom and garlic pizza, which he thought was pretty decent. It was tasty, but not my idea of a pizza (dough too think and like a biscuit dough).

                  To summarize: I was disappointed with produce and the cheeses (not interesting), but loved the fresh fish, seafood, fowl, eggs, game and meat options in Iceland. The skyr was delicious, as were the hearth breads spread with butter.

                  Prices in general seemed much higher than they should be for the quantity and quality served in restaurants, but considering a) prices in general, b) service is included, and c) taxes are included, it didn't seem as if we were spending a whole lot more money than we might in
                  Toronto, where we'd have to pay HST (13%) plus liquor taxes on booze, plus tip for the server. A bottle of wine that would cost us 10 or 11 bucks in Canada would be 4 or 5 dollars more in
                  Iceland. Add the restaurant's markup and you get the picture.

                  1. re: 1sweetpea

                    Could you please elaborate on your meal(s) at the Ranga?

                    1. re: graceface

                      A lot of wine was consumed during those meals, so they've become a bit of a fuzzy memory. LOL. Our first lunch was an extremely rich and creamy seafood soup. Two of us shared a salad and each had soup and house baked bread. We were stuffed.

                      As I am not a fan of traditional North American breakfasts, I was thrilled to find many Euro-style breakfast items, such as herring, smoked/cured fishes, meats, soft (and hard) boiled eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, buttermilk, yogurt, skyr, muesli and a wide array of rye crispbreads and house made breads. All this was in addition to cereals, waffles, eggs, sausage, bacon, etc.

                      Dinners are where things get fuzzy. We opted for 4 and 5-course meals each night, as we were celebrating our elopement. The pattern was typically an appetizer, soup course, something seafood/fish oriented, a meat and veg main, plus dessert. Courses were surprisingly hearty and always too much to eat, but generally to good not to eat. Food at Ranga is meant to be elegant and refined, reflecting seasonal availability. Last September (2010), many dishes made use of wild bilberries, blueberries and strawberries. Ranga went to great lengths to provide a variety of produce for salads. I'd guess they have dedicated greenhouses for the resort.

                      Puffin always seems to be on menus. I understand it is available on at one time of year, but culling results in a whole lot of frozen puffin meat. I had plenty of salmon and trout in my breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Pink-footed goose was the main one night. We definitely had lamb at least once during the 3 days, and it was excellent.

                      The main points to take away are that all courses are hearty. Soups tend to be purees, usually with cream. If vegetables are important to you, consider including a salad. One of my main dishes was accompanied by a few different root vegetable purees, which, while typical Icelandic fare, looked a bit bleak on the plate, particularly the mashed potato with dulse, which came out an elephant grey. Tasted nice, though!

                      1. re: 1sweetpea

                        Sounds amazing! I'll be traveling with a pescetarian, so it's good to know that there was a good variety of seafood/veggie options for all meals of the day. Thanks again!