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Iceland's Dining Revolution is Downright Divine


Arctic LobsterNordic Bite: Iceland's Dining Revolution - by Jeanine Barone
Iceland is slowly grabbing the attention of the culinary world, and for good reason—its Nordic food revolution is downright divine, especially in Reykjavik.

My culinary experience in Reykjavik does not begin well, but I blame the Vikings. It was they who concocted the ammonia-laden fermented shark meat I accidentally sample at the food court in the city’s weekend flea market, as well as the boiled half-a-sheep’s-head my tablemate scarfs down at the BSI Bus Terminal’s cafeteria (jaw and tongue intact).These and other not-for-the-weak-of-heart traditional recipes were born as a way to deal with the culinary limits imposed by Iceland’s long, dark winters and brutal weather patterns. Nonetheless, I try not to let these adventurous favorites color my opinion of this diminutive capital that’s said to have a sophisticated culinary scene.

“Iceland hasn’t made a name yet as a foodie country, but the word is spreading,” says my friend Maria, a Reykjavik native. As we walk to a just-opened eatery, Happ (happ.is), for lunch, she tells me chefs are now using locally sourced ingredients and reinventing traditional recipes, especially in the aftermath of Iceland’s economic crisis. (Say goodbye to imported Kobe beef, foie gras and other exotic fare.)
After learning that Happ is an acronym for “healthy and pure product,” I expect pedestrian veggie dishes at this eatery. “We do use meats, but they have to be lean and clean,” says our waitress, explaining that they serve animals that eat healthfully. That means, for example, grass-fed Icelandic lamb.

Maria and I opt for a pizza that arrives with a riot of color, thanks to the raw spinach, cashews, seeds, slices of apples and sweet potatoes, strawberries and several cheeses piled atop a thin, whole-grain crust layered with a rich tomato salsa. It’s pizza gone wild. “Everything we serve has to be good for you and taste good,” says Lukka, the owner.

Housed in one of Reykjavik’s oldest cellars, dating from the 19th century, the Seafood Cellar (sjavarkjallarinn.is) is where one of Iceland’s most creative chefs, Steinn Oskar Sigurdsson—he and his team won a gold and a silver at the 2010 Culinary World Cup—works his magic using the New Nordic style, referring to a slow-food movement that uses Scandinavian (and especially Icelandic) ingredients, such as sea buckthorn, langoustine, shrimp and rhubarb, in a modern way.

The food couldn’t be closer to the land, incorporating berries or mushrooms he picked early that morning. And, though the ingredients may be simple, the result is amazingly complex, passionate food. Tender halibut cheeks are topped with lovage-laced potato foam and bits of charred leek. Straight-off-the-boat shrimp are served with a delicate jelly of rhubarb and a buttermilk-horseradish granita. And the finale of my seven-course dinner is a tongue tantalizer: a dessert of fried birch leaves and birch-flavored ice cream with a side of sweet cheese mousse.

There’s much buzz about top chef Hrefna Rósa Saetran’s just-opened Grill Market, where I join a cosmopolitan crowd that wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan for dinner. The dramatic bi-level space references nature: one wall of Icelandic moss, another of dried, backlit codfish skins, and black lava rocks stacked as a room divider.

This Icelandic décor sets the stage for the locavore-centered menu where a custom-made, ultra-high-temperature grill plays a prominent role and ensures a juicy result. I choose the tasting menu with a course of thinly sliced dried haddock that’s so crispy, it resembles a potato chip, and the tender, rare minke whale, which is surprisingly served with a tangy chile dip.

The next night, I amble 20 minutes from downtown to Dill (dillrestaurant.is), a restaurant that’s set beside a scenic but swampy bird preserve in a landmark building, the Alvaro Alto-designed Nordic House. This innovative establishment is aptly named: Chef and owner Gunnar Karl Gislason, one of the New Nordic Kitchen pioneers, grows several varieties of dill (along with Arctic thyme, chervil, other herbs and fresh produce) in the upscale eatery’s small garden and greenhouse. The petite, seasonal, seven-item menu changes weekly and features food products crafted the old-fashioned way.

Gislason tells me the salt cod they purchase requires a year of preparation. He pairs it with smoked Icelandic cheese in a cold salad. This, and every plate, has a surprise element: He recommends I take a scoop of the olive-green-tinged herb sorbet with each codfish bite. Another unique flavor and texture marriage is the fennel salad that’s a medley of cottage cheese, pickled angelica and spiced nuts.
As I gaze out the window at downtown Reykjavik, an idyllic scene dominated by the soaring modernist church, Hallgrímskirkja, I dig into a bowl of delicate goat’s milk ice cream tinged with deep red and purple hues from local berries. Ah, yes: Reykjavik is culinary heaven on earth.

Where to Stay
101 hotel (101hotel.is; standard rooms starting at $305). This stylish minimalist retreat, a magnet for a fashionable crowd, isn’t short on artistic touches: The owner’s private collection decorates the public spaces.

Hotel Borg (hotelborg.is; standard rooms starting at $239). This circa-1930 accommodation, which has hosted the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Marlene Dietrich, marries a Scandinavian sensibility with an elegant art deco decor. The plum, two-story Tower Suite features 360-degree views.

Getting There
Nonstop service to Reykjavik from Dulles International on Icelandair four times a week.

Getting Around
The city center, known as the 101 District, is very walkable. To get to the surrounding areas, there’s an efficient city bus system, as well as taxis and, for the athletically inclined, a network of bicycle paths (and bike-rental options).

See the article in the Washington Flyer

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