Reykjavik trip report: 6+ days from hot dogs to chef's menus...
I wanted to report back on 6+ really great days in Reykjavik. We definitely fell in love with Iceland and had a lot of fun wander, exploring and nibbling our way through. We were there the first week of November so the days were getting a little short and we had a couple of days of brutal wind, but the harsh weather added to the stark beauty of the landscape. Seriously, is there a more amazing environment than Iceland?
Three quick notes: Some of our food-related activities were actually part of research that my wife is doing for an article so I'll be leaving them out. My completist nature is going crazy but that's the name of the game when you're tagging along with a pro!
Secondly, while we were expecting to try whale, puffin, hakarl, etc… when it actually came time to eat we ended up bypassing a lot of the "weird" stuff, not because we were grossed out but because it just didn't feel right. We heard multiple locals downplay whale and read that the majority of Icelanders are against whaling on ethical grounds regardless of the endangerment status of the minke whale and we don't travel to places to do things that the locals specifically are against. As for hakarl, every time I almost ordered it I decided that I wanted to eat things that taste GOOD not BAD. We probably would have ordered puffin if it was in season but it wasn't. Anyway, not knocking anyone who orders these things, just pointing out that we didn't.
Finally… eating in Iceland is EXPENSIVE! I mean, everyone tells you that it will be but that doesn't lessen the surprise! But within that the bigger surprise is that the expensive meals are often more "reasonable" than the cheap ones. Meaning, $240 is obviously more money than $60, but $240 for a multi-hour, multi-course chef's menu with amuse, cocktails, wine pairings, etc is a lot easier to justify than $60 for two soups and two beers. But either way, prepare to drop some coinage! We were hoping to find more "neighborhood" joints, maybe that served old-schoool favorites like sheepshead or blood pudding, but we didn't find anything like that, even after asking around. I'm guess that sort of food is cooked at home or is served outside of the city. The fast food restaurant in the bus station servers sheepshead but nothing else on the menu looked interesting to my wife so we skipped it. But I'd like to hear from someone who went there.
Even so, it was all worth it since the food was great.
Ok, on to the report (I'll try to keep it brief since I tend to go on, but I think it's already too late!)
We got to our hotel (the charming Guesthouse Snorri) at about 9am on Friday, just in time for a little breakfast. Snorri's is a great place to stay, a few blocks on the far side of the Hallgrímskirkja church. The breakfast spread offered a nice way to start out every day. After resting up from our overnight flight we headed out into the strongest winds we've ever experienced. I wonder if it was the system that included the Sandy superstore making its way across the Atlantic. Numerous people, when finding out we're from the general Washington DC area, said that we "brought the winds with us." It was crazy.
We stumbled through downtown Reykjavik, getting our first taste of the city's layout, and braved the blustery harbor-front in order to have our first Reykjavik meal at Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron) where we intended to warm ourselves with the famous lobster soup. It's a tricky thing when you hear so much about one specific dish, travel across the globe for it, and then have it right in front of you. Can it live up to that level of build-up? In this case the answer is a resounding yes. The broth has a really balanced creaminess without being a gloppy bisque: It's somehow creamy and light at the same time. The lobster is sweet and delicate and there's a salty sense of the sea that gives it a brightness and freshness. Absolutely one of my all time favorite soups. Also, after seeing it served in styrofoam in photos and video I was glad to have ours served in time-worn mugs. We also had a plate of grilled monkfish which was minimally prepared and showed off the freshness of the product. This treatment would work for us again and again as we had some of the most beautiful seafood we've ever had all week. The tender cubes of lilly-white monkfish were only accompanied by the char from the grill.
We wandered much of the afternoon, checking out the main commercial stretch of Laugavegur up to Noatun, where we popped into a really cool cheese shop called Búrið. If you're near there you should check it out.
That evening we had dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips. We had a couple of plates of their famously fresh fish (one ling and one cod) along with some fresh salad and their oven roasted potatoes. Again, there was little done to the fish: It's just battered with spelt and served up flakey, tender and moist. We couldn't choose which "skyronnaise" to get so we got the full range which presented us a crazy line-up of dips made with skyr. If I recall, the basil and garlic, the tartar and the chill were our favorites.
The next day, Saturday, we did more random wandering. We stopped in at various sight-seeing locations but mostly just wanted to relax and take in the city. We hit the world-famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand for a quick mid-morning snack. While the wind was still kicking our butts, causing us to eat rather quickly, we did find out what the fuss is all about: The lamb hot dogs taste earthy and the selection of slightly sweet mayos and mustards perfectly complement the crunch of the onions. A cheap eat not to be missed. We also bought a few packets of Cronions at a grocery store later to garnish our own hot dogs back home. Yum, Cronions!
More wandering through the wind-swept city (including a whirl around the interior to the Harpa performance hall) left us wanting a sit-down lunch. Luckily Jómfrúin appeared just in time. Obsessed with small open-faced sandwiches from our visits to Vienna, the concept of smørrebrød is right up our alley. We also loved the vibe in Jómfrúin where the late-lunch crowd had a bit of a New Orleans vibe: Big tables of grown-ups drinking, laughing, and just generally enjoying a leisurely meal. The menu is absolutely stuffed with beautiful sounding sandwiches, but we settled on the hot-smoked trout with lemon and dill and the roast lamb with sautéed mushrooms, mountain cranberry jam, deep-fried parsley and a dark sauce. The trout was great, with its creamy dill sauce and flaky smoked meat, but the lamb was a genuine stand-out, one of the best bites of the trip. The earthiness and the sweetness of the various elements blended perfectly and the deep-fried parsley added a surprising crispness to the tender perfectly-cooked lamb. I wish we could have gone back for another go at this fantastic plate of food!
After lunch we headed back to the Ingólfstorg square to listen to some live music in the little house set up by Iceland Airwaves. We popped into the B5 bar for a late afternoon drink. I had a beer from a smaller Icelandic brewery (I had mostly been having Gull and Viking up until that point) and my wife had a "bartender's choice" cocktail, which turned out to be a mocha martini or something. It was ok, but the best part was when he ran across the street to another bar for an ingredient that he didn't have. Which is hilarious considering that he chose what to make! Endearing.
For dinner Saturday night we had 10pm reservations at Fish Company where we both ordered the Taste of Iceland menu with wine pairings. The four course chef's menu is meant to take you on a tour of different regions and the produce that's specific to that area. They started us out with an amuse of beef tartare in a little jar with some pickled vegetables. The first course, which was inspired by the Westmann Islands, was a slow-cooked arctic char with a celery puree, pickled horseradish and a little piece of dark bread. There was a really distinct freshness to all the ingredients and the dense, sweet little bit of bread with the earthy garnish, comforting puree and tender fish made a great little plate.
The second course featured a cube of tender plaice along with a disk of lobster terrine and tiny cubes of smoked mountain cheese. The plate was artfully arranged but it wouldn't have mattered if the flavors weren't there. Everything worked together and the lobster terrine was a particularly special element, with sweetness and even a little nuttiness. Another favorite bite.
The third course featured a fried leg of lamb as well as some pork confit and roasted root vegetables in a crowberry beer glaze. There was also a piece of pork sausage that was the only idiosyncratic element of the evening, with it's peppery kielbasa-esque flavor. Otherwise this dish, with many elements, was a beautifully coherent plate. The confit and the lamb shared a comforting earthiness with the veggies and the sauce. The final course, a dessert course, was a good match of the rest of the meal. Not overly sweet, the various bits and pieces served to enhance without trampling on what had come before.
The pairings throughout the evening were really smart. Even though there's no sommelier at Fish Company, apparently the owner is knowledgeable enough to pull from global wines (mostly South American) to match the dishes. Even though Iceland is an expensive place to eat, as I said earlier, this was actually a pretty reasonable meal considering the level of serves, the quality of the ingredients and preparations, and the leisurely pacing.
Finishing up well past midnight we decided to dip our toes into the famous Saturday night Reykjavik nightlife. Not big nightclub people, we decided instead to do our celebrating in the streets, glomming on to roving bands of other night owls, sipping our duty-free scotch from flasks and, in the wee hours, snacking on another hot dog from a convenience store. We stretched the night out well past our usual bed time and had a ball.
Our last day in Reykjavik was spent visiting museums and slowly walking the coastline from the downtown area up past the crazy sculpture garden house. The grey skies, black rocks and rough seas gave us an otherworldly feeling, one that you wouldn't expect to find when you literally have a capital city just behind your back. Plus we had the path all to ourselves, making it easy to imagine yourselves all alone in the world. A cool feeling. When we returned downtown we had one last visit to the famous hot dog stand (this time we were able to sit and enjoy as the winds had died down) and then, feeling knoshy, returned to Islenski Barinn to try a few more items. Their fish stew was thick and tasty, while not as transformative as some of the other seafood soups and stews we'd had, but the leg of lamb with sugar coated potatoes was a succulent choice. Again, the lamb was juicy and just perfect. And the treatment of the potatoes, with their sweet gravy, was new to me and totally amazing. I even loved the little pot of buttery peas. A very satisfying lunch.
For dinner we decided to check out Seafood Market since we'd passed it so many times and the menu looked so good. We didn't opt for the tasting menu since we were in wind-down mode and didn't want to go all out again but the menu is full of loveliness. We started with a couple of cocktails but these were unfortunately not up to the level of the ones we had at other places. We started off with an other cheese plate of Icelandic cheeses, partly because it had yet more fried cheese. I like the Icelandic cheese, although there isn't a huge variety and we had some of the same ones that we'd already tried. There was a funky mold cheese that we particularly liked. The Icelandic name for it translates to "Ugly" which I thought was pretty funny.
For our mains we both ordered grilled and fried icelandic lobster with grilled catfish. It came on a bed of barley with a hollandaise and some grilled leeks and other root veggies. The fried lobster was presented almost like an eggroll and was great, but the grilled - slightly charred - lobster was my favorite. Once again, the simple cooking of an exceptional ingredient was just what I wanted. Awesome.
After dinner we wandered downtown as a last goodbye, checking in on the Sun Voyager one last time, with the darkness of the sea in front of us. Very cool.
Our last day, like many, consisted mostly of a trip to the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. Even though it's in all the guidebooks, the Blue Lagoon is still a genuine must-visit. It's very otherworldly, especially if you're lucky to have the crazy weather that we had: Freezing, rainy, foggy and windy, but with 104 degree temperatures in the water. So awesome. We had one last lunch of seafood soup at Lava, the nicer restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, since the sandwiches on offer at the cheaper food stand weren't exciting. On any random day it would have been a great soup, but after some of the other ones we'd had it didn't distinguish itself. Still, a nice finish to the trip.
Overall I'd say that we had a pretty outstanding Chow experience in Reykjavik. We definitely want to return and hit the places we skipped (particularly Dill, which we didn't manage to squeeze in) but more importantly, we'd like to spend more time traveling the rest of the country. Iceland is a very beautiful and very different sort of place and we feel like we only scratched the surface. Hopefully we'll be back soon!
We got a bit of an… ahem… late start on Sunday, although we did manage to rouse ourselves long enough to grab a quick breakfast before snoozing a bit longer. When we did get up we were greeted with the best weather of our trip and decided to reward ourselves with a nice long walk. While our eventual destination (the zoo) was pretty much a bust, the walk was great. Having Mount Esja looming over the city throughout the walk was really cool. Much of Reykjavik shuts down on Sunday and some of the places we had in the back of our minds for lunch along the way were closed so another quick hot dog at the zoo had to do. (Too bad we didn't go to Cafe Flora at the botanical gardens instead, but I'm not sure it was open.)
On the walk back we noticed that the Scandinavian Brasserie was open so we popped in for some fried cheese (gooey and delicious along with a beautiful berry jam) and a couple of seafood soups. These were creamier than at the Sea Baron but loaded with assorted shellfish and shrimp and dotted with a chill oil that gave it a little extra kick. Another winner of a soup.
For dinner that night we went to the Grill Market and had yet another fabulous dinner. We started off with a couple of cocktails (a whiskey sour and a negroni), which I mention because they were expertly made, which wasn't always the case in Reykjavik. We started with crispy dried fish and squid, which were served on a stone slab and drizzled with a creamy sauce. The fish was bright green with herbs and salty and delicious. We also had a carpaccio starter with little vegetable flakes, pear and a yuzu sauce. The little line of pieces was served with chopsticks and had a great little taste. We shared a duck confit salad which came piled on fresh green salad and embellished with sweet potato cubes. The duck was richly, deeply flavorful. Our mains were grilled red fish topped with a crab salad and brightened up with grilled orange and a grilled lamb with beetroot salad and a mushroom glaze. Both dishes were overflowing with flavor, the citrus zing giving the fish a surprising pop and the lamb just bursting with juicy umami.
Eventually we wrapped up with a cheese plate that featured Icelandic cheeses. We learned a lot about Icelandic cheese over the course of the trip and the various little pairing jellies and crackers here made for a nice accompaniment. Again, wine pairings throughout the meal were thoughtful and worked well with the dishes. I'm not a wine expert so I can't get to detailed with the analysis, but considering that Iceland doesn't have a history with wine (I mean, grapes probably don't like the climate, just guessing) a few people seem to be doing the legwork to bring in bottles that are affordable enough to make the trip and that still match up to the cuisine.
The next day, Monday, we had our Golden Ring bus tour booked. We are NOT tour group people and would rather miss a sight here or there while we make our own way than be stuck on a bus with a bunch of other tourists. But in order to see all three main natural wonders we decided to just do the bus thing and, overall, I'm glad we did, even though at each stop we lost a good 15-20 minutes waiting for people for whom other people's time has no value. Harrumph. The tour started off with a stop at a tomato greenhouse. While this is the sort of time waster that group tours tack on for financial reasons, being food people we were actually kind of excited to see this fully functioning hot-house in the middle of the severe Icelandic landscape.
I won't go into a ton of detail on the Golden Circle sights since this ain't that kind of recap, but they were awesome, especially in the grey, rainy weather we had. There was just something very atmospheric about it all that we loved. We did manage to have a Chow-worthy experience, however, since we had heard that the lamb soup at the Gullfoss visitor center was extra good and, while it could have been hotter it definitely had an eye-openingly rich and buttery taste. I could have definitely treated myself to another bowl. Alas, the bus beckoned (where we sat for 20 minutes waiting for other folks… grrrrr…)
The bus dropped us off downtown so we decided to reward ourselves for having weathered the rain by returning to a couple of our favorites from the trip so far. So back to the Sea Baron for another round of lobster soups (just what we needed to warm our souls) and then across the street to Icelandic Fish and Chips to try out the garlic roasted langoustine tails that caught our eye the first time but for which we just didn't have room. They had a great flame-kissed char layered on the sweetness of the meat.
Strolling residential streets back to the guesthouse for a change of scenery we stumbled on the Einar Johanson sculpture garden, which was open. A cool, misty, dark ending to a big day.
The next day, Tuesday, we had some research activities set up for my wife's article but when lunch rolled around we hit the little dining area in the back of the Ostabúðin delicatessen on Skólavörðustíg. This little lunch spot only has a couple of dishes per day, depending on what's fresh, and we had a perfectly pan fried fresh fish bathed in a beautiful carrot cumin sauce, sitting atop a pile of lentils and topped with some fresh arugula. This was another example of a perfectly simple plate of food that highlights a great ingredient and treats it with reverence. If I were local I'd nab lunch there often. Afterwards we hopped across the street for some coffee at Mokka, with its beautifully simple wooden interior. We actually stopped off for coffee a few times throughout the trip (and once for hot Nutella) and in the weather we had you can't overrate the need for a good coffee joint!
That night we stopped in at the Slippbarinn in the downtown Icelandair hotel for a cocktail and chose the Damn the Weather, since it features birkir, the Icelandic birch liquor. This was a really lovely cocktail, which also featured cognac as well as violet and almond syrup. The birch kept an earthy undertone to the sweeter elements. There are a lot of house-made ingredients on the cocktail menu and we intended to return for more but never made it back.
For dinner we went to Iselnski Barinn thinking that we might grab a little more rustic Icelandic cooking. We shared a cured salmon jar with mustard sauce and dill as a starter (one of my favorites) and then my wife had an Icelandic meat soup (also served in a jar and full of tender lamb) and I had the beer-braised lamb shoulder sandwich, which was just dripping with richness. What arrived looked like a standard pub grub sandwich but the flavor was intense and spoke to a long, slow cooking cycle.
The guy at our guesthouse said we should have gone to Dill and I've read good things elsewhere. It probably would have cost twice as much as Fish Company so we decided to leave it out but I do wish we would have just done it. We considered going for lunch but honestly I would have wanted to go all out and really have the menu. Another expensive place that looked good but that we didn't try was Einer Ben or something like that, right downtown.
I would not want to miss the Sea Baron's soup, probably Fish Company, Jomfruin, the main harbor-side hot dog stand (but not necessarily any other hot dogs, unless it's 3am), maybe Fish and Chips. If you do the Golden Ring tour get the lamb soup at the Gullfoss visitor center. The lamb dishes at Islenski Barinn (Icelandic Bar) were particularly great. I'd be curious to hear of any other experiences at Ostabudin, the deli with a few tables in the back. It struck me as more "local" than a lot of the other places. Definitely check back in after your trip!
Thanks for the kind words! Something I usually mention up front is that this is just one person's (or two people's) experiences and shouldn't be taken as definitive! We definitely missed a lot! I really wanted to have that blood sausage! If anyone knows where to get it they should post.
And, just in case anyone's curious, here's the menu for the restaurant at the bus station. It's so awesome, as you scroll down it's like burger, burger, burger, hot dog, steak, steak, ... SHEEP HEAD!