I recently made a weekend trip to Reykjavík, Ísland with my wife and two close friends. We departed from Boston on a red-eye flight Thursday evening and returned home early Sunday evening. The following is a series of short blogs about our long weekend abroad in Iceland. Rather than try and hastily cram two and a half days of observations into one entry I have decided to parse out the journey into short palatable doses.
Unfortunately for you, the reader, my Icelandic travel blog will read like a Quentin Tarintino screenplay. (Without the piece of brain on the windshield.) Specifically, there will be no chronological order to this. I hope you enjoy!
Dining in Iceland
I’ve written this entry about three times–somehow each iteration reads like some sort of imperialistic American criticism towards another country’s culinary heritage.
Let me get this over with…
When it comes to food in Iceland there is what the locals eat, and then there is what the locals want you to think they eat. On the main streets of Reykjavík there are pricey touristy restaurants promising authentic Icelandic cuisine. Some have signs that read “Serving Minke Whale! Serving Puffin! Serving Foal!” (In English, naturally.)
Temporarily sustaining a projection of my own moral universe and accepting Iceland’s decision to be only one of two nations to ignore a worldwide whaling ban, my biggest problem with these edible tourist traps is that these specific dishes are only vaguely authentic. After some research I discovered that Iceland didn’t begin hunting Minke Whale until 1914. Horse meat wasn’t dined upon until the ruling Danes lifted a ban in the late 1700’s due to a starving Icelandic population. Starvation… hardly a condition of modern present day Iceland.
If you want an insight into what the locals eat (of any culture) one only has to a visit a grocery store. (As a food package designer I visited many.) Puffin yogurt, Minke whale jerky and ground foal burgers were not to be found. Not even the high-end specialty grocery stores I visited offered whale, foal or puffin.
Iceland wants your tourist dollars; the problem is that they are willing to hedge their bets betwixt those who could care less about eating a declining whale species and those who have a vested interest in preserving nature. Whale eating versus whale watching. This is a huge problem for Iceland’s tourism efforts.
So please, visit Iceland. Spend your money there. If you want to support Icelandic tourism (not to mention whales and puffins) in a supportive manor, go on a whale watching tour–just make sure it’s not doubling as a whale-hunt scout.
So, what do the people of Iceland eat? The answer is a lot of Skyr (yogurt), seafood and every single part of the lamb (including the brain). They also love their lattés… anyone that knows me can attest to my penchant for espresso and milk. My blood type is latté-positive.
As soon as we arrived at the airport we were greeted by a café that served us our first beverage–a perfectly made café latté served in a colorful ceramic cup. Lattés were to be found just about everywhere, and always expertly prepared. As Heidi pointed out, the one thing that made us stand out as tourists was the fact that we took our lattés “take away”–that is to say “to go”. We may have been the only ones carrying around small paper cups.
My favorite restaurant of our journey was Café Loki directly across from Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s National church and tallest building. Café Loki strikes me as a local joint that serves quintessential Scandinavian fare. It’s no doubt the Danes left an indelible impression here–dark and dense slightly sweet rye bread with paté, fish, egg or cheese served with a shot of Brennivíns (Spirit distilled from potato, very similar to akvavit). Classic.
Café Loki also offers some reasonably priced combination plates (from their website):
- Icelandic plate I Two rye bread slices, one with mashed fish & the other with smoked trout. Flatbread with sheep-head jelly, beansalad & turnip
- Icelandic plate II Two rye bread slices, one with mashed fish & the other with smoked trout. Flatbread with smoked lamb. Dried fish with butter and bit of a fermented shark
- Icelandic plate III Two rye bread slices, one with mashed fish & the other with egg & herring. Loki‘s unique Rye bread ice cream
- Icelandic plate IV Trout – tarte with salad. Loki‘s unique Rye bread ice cream.
- Icelandic Braveheart Brennivíns shot, rye bread & flatbread. Dried fish with butter and a bit of fermented shark
I tried the lamb paté (temporarily lifting my personal ban on red meat) and cheese. The real winner here was my friend’s plate with mashed fish and egg and herring. So, so good. Sounds so, so gross.
Dried fish with butter is a staple in Iceland, I would say it is the equivalent to peanut butter in America. It’s everywhere–grocery stores, cafés, bus terminals. It also comes in a small potato chip sized bag for when one absolutely needs dried fish on the go.
Tapas was another restaurant that was a hit with our entourage. They served eclectic small plates tapas style (as the restaurant name would suggest). The thing that stood out to me was the dark, dark decor and barely lit dining rooms–possibly an affectation of the midnight-sun. (Hence making it impossible to photograph.)
Our final dinner before departing was at a restaurant a bit off of the main drag called Snaps. (Or as I kept calling it, “Oh Snaps!”)
I couldn’t get enough of the smørrebrød so I started with shrimp and egg on rye for an appetizer. We also ordered the Moules et Frites (locally sourced) and they were magnificent–the broth was garlicky, buttery and damn straight up dreamy. My main entrée was the Arctic Char (also a locally caught specimen) served atop mashed potatoes and corn. Fantastic.
We tried several local brews most of which were fairly tasty. I was just happy to find a Danish Pub that served Gammel Dansk… a bitter spirit that I have yet to find in the states. I managed to pick up a bottle at the duty free shop so one of these days I will break it out when I am feeling homesick for Denmark.
So this is interesting… as we rolled through the suburbs en route to Reykjavík I noticed American fast-food places everywhere. Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dominoes… it kind of saddened me to think that this American garbage is imported to the working class of even a remote volcanic island in the middle of the icy Atlantic. Not too surprisingly in the city-center American fast-food wasn’t to be found. But, really? Subway?
To be honest a sick part of me truly wanted to experience an Icelandic Taco Bell. Forget bragging about eating fermented shark… digesting an Icelandic Taco Bell chalupa? That’s bravado.
Not being a fish person, I would have completely starved there…………unless I hit the Subway.
Especially loved your blog page about food in Reykjavik. We are leaving for a week in Iceland on Nov. 12 from Colorado. My husband, a foodie and trained chef, has been researching the culinary scene in Iceland and was particularly interested in what you had to say about the food there. Our big question is what exactly is “mashed fish?” We are those travelers who like locally popular eateries and it seems as if you have found a couple. Thanks for some good information.
Hi Anne! Thanks so much for reading. So, mashed fish: Haddock (or mild white fish), potatoes, scallion, butter, milk, flour… salt & pepper. Mashed. I know, it sounds disgusting, but the version we tasted was sublime!