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Reykjavik, Iceland
by Andrew Mersmann

Iceland in winter—it’s not as foreboding as it sounds. The waning days of February are no colder than in New York, and the situation is significantly brightened by the annual Food and Fun festival (http://www.foodandfun.is), where renowned chefs from around the world come to Reykjavik’s finest restaurants to commandeer the capital’s kitchens and inject a little color and excitement into the culinary scene.

The end of February is also the time of Thorrablot, the feast of Thor’s month (end of January through the end of February), also celebrated as the end of the dark season. By this time of year, the sun is again making a daily appearance for several hours, unlike January’s relative darkness, and even less like mid-summer, when Old Man Sol is like a party guest that just doesn’t know when to leave. The final weekend of Thorrablot is when families dine at home, eating the traditional Viking foods that, prior to preservative methods and importing, were the bottom of the barrel before the spring thaw. Hakarl is putrefied shark’s meat, nicely countered with singed and boiled sheep’s head, seal flippers, and pickled ram’s testicles. All of it is, understandably, chased with many shots of Brennevin, “the Black Death,” a carraway-flavored liquor that’ll singe your head just like the sheep’s.

The Food and Fun festival, however, doesn’t rely too heavily on the heads of livestock for culinary innovation, but this festival and competition, spearheaded by Iceland’s best-known chef and former TV host, Siggi Hall, does require loads of imagination and rebellious experimentation. The main event is a day-long cooking contest where all meals must be prepared from indigenous Icelandic ingredients. Woven among gala luncheons and dinner dances are specialized menus at the city’s finest eateries.

It’s worth noting that in Iceland, nobody tips at restaurants. A server’s salary is regulated and starts at about US$3,000 per month with minimum 30 days vacation each year, so they don’t rely on (or expect) gratuities. Also of note is that most of Reykjavik’s restaurants and cafés have free wireless internet service.

Ask any Reykjavikan where to grab a snack pre-bar hopping (the favorite sport on Friday and Saturday nights, usually lasting until 6 or 7 A.M.) to fortify your strength (and line your stomach) and they will direct you to the tiny, corner hotdog stand celebrating its 70th birthday this year. Bæjarins Beztu has a line around the corner each night and a fair cluster of people throughout the day. Not bad for a place with no seating. They specialize in hotdogs, but these are no Oscar Meyer weiners. Made predominantly of lamb, they are extraordinarily tender and inexplicably good (my personal recommendation as a breakfast hangover cure). You can get them with just ketchup, or mustard only (as Bill Clinton ordered, repeatedly) but the only way you should ever consider them is “with everything,” Ein meò öllu. Everything means a healthy squirt along the dog of sweet mustard, tomato sauce, a remoulade of mayonnaise and relish, raw onions, and crispy fried onions. Less than three bucks (cheapest eats in town) and you are in junk food nirvana, along with everyone else in Reykjavik who has stopped off for the famous “sheep dog” here at the stand whose name translates, rightfully, as “town’s best.” Tryggvagata and Pósthússtræti. Tel: 354-894-4515.

While still in snack mode, grab a cup of joe at any one of Reykjavik’s numerous coffee houses, where relaxation and camaraderie are on order and patrons sip their beverages for long, languorous spells. Then make your way to this unfussy storefront for very popular Danish open sandwiches at Jómfrúin. The wide array of plated sandwiches are a great grab for a picnic or day trip into Iceland’s other-worldly landscape. Jómfrúin (which means “young frau” or “young maid”) was started by gay owner, Jacob Jacobsson, who studied in Copenhagen to learn the very specific, women-only sandwich skills, and became the first ever male Jómfru in all of Scandinavia. Jacob embraces the camp of it all (and the guests) in his welcoming, understated shop. Læjargata 4. Tel: 354-551-0100.

The Hilton organization took over the Nordica Hotel, and while adding a taste of international style to the décor, they wisely left the Icelandic cuisine of Vox alone. Hearkened in many local papers as the best restaurant in town, Vox specializes in wonderfully fresh seafood like fried plaice with stuffed fennel, and ubiquitous Icelandic lamb, loved for its gentle taste and tenderness (unlike the lamb most Americans grew used to in childhood with a strong aftertaste only killed by mint jelly) served on a light puff pastry in cream sauce with fresh herbs. Starters here are predominantly fish course options, and desserts are overwhelmingly fruit-based, like cobblers and crisps with steamy fruits percolating beneath crumbly toppings. The dining room’s red upholstered walls, cream-colored leather booths, pearlescent tiled columns, dark wood, and dramatic low-hanging lights lend trendy coziness no matter the chill factor outside. The kitchen is partially open, providing a floorshow for tables in proximity, and the evening crowd gets rowdy as the night wears on. Vox’s elaborate buffet lunch remains popular with locals for a wide selection of sushi (one of the chefs told me “we keep trying to take it off the menu, but the locals won’t let us”), and an array of salad options. Aside from bristling at the public’s demand for some very un-Icelandic items, the service is exceptional, with very patient explanations of each dish. Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, Sudurlandsbraut 2. Tel: 354-444-5050. http://www.vox.is

The royal red floors, chairs, draperies, and the rich fine art collection, not to mention the antique leather-bound book collection and rare cognacs in the library, all give the Gallery Restaurant at Hotel Holt the feel of a decadent time gone by. The oil paintings and other works comprise the country’s largest private art collection, and the dining room is chock-a-block with landscapes and turbulent ocean scenes. The wine list of over 4,000 bottles has a broad range from around the world to accompany long, relaxing meals of hearty French dishes with Icelandic touches. The Gallery, being a somewhat traditional restaurant, has some of the more traditional Icelandic dishes not found elsewhere, like cold smoked puffin paté with its dark, gamey flavor, and horse meat (or more correctly, foal, a baby horse). This one got the best of my brain before my palate could pass judgment, and I tried not to think of the Icelandic horse I would ride the next day…but the tomato sauce with a hint of curry over polenta was great. A stunning chocolate soufflé broken open and filled with hot skyr (an Icelandic dairy specialty like a hybrid of yogurt and soft cheese, usually sweetened) and cozied up to fresh vanilla bean ice cream and tiny cubes of sugared pumpkin, combined with incredibly attentive service, put me back on track to loving the evening. Hotel Holt, Bergstadastræti 37. Tel: 354-552-5700. http://www.holt.is

Seafood of any stripe is bound to be fresher in Iceland than what most of us are used to, and the new organic bistro, Icelandic Fish and Chips, has the whole town talking about their simple and delicious offerings. You’ll order at the counter from an a la carte menu, choosing your fish, side dish, and flavored dipping sauce made of skyr (“skyronnaise”). The list of creamy, flavorful sauces numbers more than a dozen, from coriander and lime to coconut curry. Sides are wonderfully crispy oven-roasted potatoes with parsley and coarse Malden salt, green salad, onion rings, or terrific mango salad with peppers, spinach, and roasted coconut. Three kinds of fish are deliciously fried in spelt and barley batter that is better than anything Mrs. Paul ever offered. It all goes down nicely with a local pilsner or homemade sodas with fresh-squeezed fruit—try the raspberry mint. The simple water-view room with only 16 seats, random candelabra, and Icelandic pop music on the stereo fills quickly at lunch and dinner, so timing is everything. Tryggvagötu 8. Tel: 354-511-1118. http://www.fishandchips.is

It’s one of the oldest buildings in downtown Reykjavik, and certainly one of the city’s most romantic spots. Since Lækjarbrekka is located at the base of the city’s popular shopping street, tourists find their way here fairly often, but locals also make it a special occasion dining choice. The old sea merchant’s house from 1834 has two levels of intimate, homey space. Laughter rings off the rafters at the bar in the peak-roofed attic, a perfect start (or finish) to your meal among funky eclectic antiques. Downstairs parlors and rooms have deep red walls festooned with gilt mirrors, lace curtains, candles, and a grand piano weighted down by top-shelf liquors. The menu is traditionally Icelandic, focused on fish and lamb; leaving it up to “chef’s choice” is a good bet (if you don’t want the whale steak or puffin feast, say so). One of the most popular meals is the three-course lobster feast, but even the simple chicken salad is delicious, and guests are still coming in from the cold well after midnight for a late dinner. Bankastræti 2. Tel: 354-551-4430. http://www.laekjarbrekka.is

The Blue Lagoon is the best-known attraction in all of Iceland, luring nearly three fourths of all the nation’s visitors to its opaque steaming pools. Lava, the restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, takes full advantage of the mysterious lunar landscape with double-height windows overlooking the hot pools and lava stone, as well as a huge black lava wall and glass staircase at one end of the modernist room. This being a nice dining option for an international crowd, you can get the basic burger and fries or chicken tenders, but not all the options are as unimaginative. Much of the seafood is caught locally, with langoustine being a favorite (over salad or drawn with butter) as is the bacalao (salted cod), a staple of the Icelandic diet, here pan-fried in a Mediterranean-style olive and parmesan sauce. The menu may not be the most rarified, but the environment can’t be beat, especially if your dinner is after several hours of soaking your cares away in the mineral-rich geothermal waters. 240 Grindavík. Tel: 354-420-8800.

[Published: May, 2008]