Monday, 30 January 2012

Iceland - Part 3

Nearing the end of our holiday and feeling the onslaught of something akin to gout, we steered towards the more simple and straightforward end of our list of restaurants. 

IcelandicFish & Chips is a buzzing bistro that claims to serve the classic dish in a healthier way, and has organic credentials.  Daily fish specials are fried in the owner’s own spelt and barley batter, and chips are substituted for potatoes roasted in either garlic or rosemary, or plain with Maldon sea salt.

Ling and Blue Ling were chosen to be coated in the aforementioned special batter.  Substantial chunks of fish with lovely firm white flakes, as you’d expect from members of the Cod family, had been steamed perfectly while enveloped in their coat of golden batter.  The Blue Ling, we thought, provided more depth of flavour than the common variety.  Onion rings deep fried in the same spelt and barley batter were spectacular - shards of crisp batter giving way to the meltingly sweet onion inside.  Being an avid chip lover, the potatoes didn’t really do it for me and were overly greasy, making me wonder whether proper chips might actually have been a healthier option.  Homemade accompaniments on offer include ketchup and Skyr mayonnaises.

Busy tables, happy diners and a queue of waiting customers demonstrate that Icelandic Fish & Chips clearly has a winning formula, as well as being exceptionally good value.

And finally to the most quirky dining experience of our trip - Saegreifinn.  Run by the Sea Baron, a retired fisherman who came up with the recipe for what has been called the “world’s greatest lobster soup” by Egon Ronay.

The lobster soup is the main dish on the menu, but there’s also a wide range of seafood served kebab style including Mink Whale, Angler, Catfish, Cod, Skate, Lobster, Halibut, Salmon, Lemon Sole, Plaice, Blue Ling, River Trout, and the Sea Baron’s famous smoked Eel.

It is the lobster soup however that takes pride of place. Served in a mug, the rich and deeply flavoured broth carries nuggets of sweet lobster (actually langoustine, which are sometimes called Icelandic lobsters).  We also purchased a ridiculously generous pile of sweet scallops for pennies.

While not the most comfortable of dining experiences, perched on sea buoys and surrounded by fishing memorabilia - and a stuffed seal - I’ve never tasted anything quite like that soup, and would happily have guzzled a further mug or three.  There were plans for this tiny place in the old harbour to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments.  Who would have thought the economic downturn would have benefits?  

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Iceland - Part 2

New Year’s Eve, and what better way to spend it than with a 38ºC bath, good drink, good food, and throwing health and safety to the wind as Reykjavik’s residents ignite enough gunpowder to obliterate a small town, at the Hallgrímskirkja church fireworks.

First thing, a trip to the Blue Lagoon as detox in anticipation of the forthcoming night of debauchery.  A truly bizarre place - superheated water from the ground near a lava flow is used to run turbines that generate electricity at the nearby geothermal power plant and provide heat for hot water systems.  The water is then fed in to the lagoon.
Once you’ve put the fact that you’re bathing in power plant water out of your mind, it’s a fantastic experience.  The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and everyone looks equally ridiculous as they float around with silica mud smeared all over their face.  I came out as soft as a baby’s bum.  Definitely a must do experience while in Iceland.  Oh, and there’s a bar, so you can sip Viking lager while you relax.  Perfect.

Back to the hotel, and we’d planned ahead and booked in to VOX, the restaurant at the hotel we were staying in - the Hilton Nordica.  Not only damn handy, but also one of Reykjavik’s hottest restaurants at the moment.  The set menu made life easy, especially as we had slipped on our Stolichnaya overcoats in preparation for the chilly evening ahead.

The first two courses of Langoustine followed by Arctic Char were delightful.  Light and interesting with clever contrasting flavours and textures.
Skyr butter
Arctic char from Haukamyri - lightly smoked and fresh char with char roe, cucumber and creme fraiche
Slightly cooked langoustine with tomatoes, rose hips, horseradish and tomato foam
Then it got more challenging.  Lamb tartar is something I’ve certainly never had before and, not being a big fan of tartar generally, I found this hard to get my head around.  Having said that, the Icelandic berries worked perfectly with the rich lamb flesh - I actually found myself kind of enjoying it.

Lamb tartar, estragon cream, pickled onion and Icelandic berries
 Then Reindeer - not something I’m squeamish about as it’s such a close relative to venison which we’re so lucky to have in abundance in Scotland.  While I like it rare, this was slightly under for my tastes, but the dish came together in earthy deliciousness with the cabbage, kale, mushroom and smoked marrow accompaniments.

Reindeer from Herad - panfried reindeer, cabbage, mushrooms, kale and smoked marrow
‘Icelandic nature’ for dessert unfortunately failed to push my buttons.  Maybe we just didn’t like moss? ventured our waiter.  Maybe, maybe...

Icelandic nature - moss pudding with spruce sorbet and berry juice
For all it’s promise, I wouldn’t rate VOX as the best meal we had in Iceland (see Sjavargrillidin Part 1) and enjoyed the meals we had there in the Bistro (see below) more than this one in the Restaurant.

Waking up the next morning after a night of revelry and fireworks, I was feeling delicate to say the least.  It was all we could manage to have a refreshing walk in the snow and then back to the VOX Bistro for some sustenance and to force down the first beer of the day.

It’s always good to choose a hotel with a good in-house restaurant I think, for days like these where you don’t have to feel guilty when it would be just too much to drag yourself any further than the hotel lobby.  This would be the second time we ate in the VOX Bistro - the first being on the night we arrived and just needed to eat immediately.  Both times were great.
A simple burger and fries the first night was an exercise in near burger perfection - a rare steak patty topped with good cheese was served in what was unfortunately a bog standard burger bun - nonetheless along with crispy skin on fries, overall very very good.

Then there was the ultimate New Year’s Day hangover food - “Roast Beef”.  Grilled sourdough bread was topped with a mountain of rare roast beef, fried mushrooms, lightly pickled cucumber, sautéed onions and horseradish shavings on top.  Oh dear, I can’t think about it without drooling.  I’m going to have to stop now.  Part 3 still to come - with some cheap eats and the lobster soup Egon Ronay rated as the best ever.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Iceland - Part 1

There are at least 4 good reasons to visit Reykjavik now: 
  1. The devaluation of the Icelandic Krona means it is eminently more affordable for us Brits than previously; 
  2. The scenery is just breathtaking;
  3. The restaurants; and
  4. The restaurants (yes, they’re that good).
While a few years ago many lamented that Reykjavik would never be a culinary destination, they have been more than proven wrong.  It’s not only a great place to get a taste of those Nordic flavours everyone is (understandably) predicting will be so big for 2012, Reykjavik has had a bit of a foodie revolution.  With amazing local produce and creative chefs, my wish list of places to eat was positively overflowing.  

So, couple all this with visiting over New Year and a nation who party hard and have a penchant for lots of very big fireworks, I had a feeling that we were in for a treat - and I wasn’t wrong.

I’ll be upfront here and say that I’m not in to trying funky, endangered or previously cute food for the sake of it - fair enough if it looks and tastes delicious, but I heard neither of these things about whale or puffin (common for eating in Iceland), so you won’t be reading a review about either of those meats here.

We started our 5 night stay with a bit of a blow-out day with 2 really good restaurants, which I’ll cover here.  Part 2 will be New Year, and part 3 will report on the latter half of our stay, where we tried some of the more down to earth, good value places (including the place Egon Ronay rated as the best Lobster Soup ever).  Enjoy!

First up, lunch at the Fish Company - A gorgeously cosy but deceptively large restaurant, this place comes with deserved rave reviews.  Wonderful Nordic touches such as the knitted curtain tie-backs gave the place a homely feel that belies the classiness of the cooking. 

Starting, as most of the meals we had did, with good bread and Skyr butter (see final para below).  I wasn’t too sure about the Christmas butter with cloves and star anise, though Hubbie loved it, but I scoffed up the plain variety with the apple jam.
Skyr plain & Chrismas butters, and apple jam
 I know I’ve raved about Nobu many times before, but the freshness and quality of our shared 14 piece platter of mixed nigiri and maki here was second to none.  Spankingly fresh tuna, salmon and plaice, as well as some sweet langoustine made these sushi just divine. 
Mixed Nigiri & Maki
Then on to mains.  Hubbie had baked salted cod which was a quivering mass of opaque cod loveliness - purely melt in the mouth.  I had the fish of the day, which was salmon and came cooked perfectly - still pink in the middle and accompanied by some to-die-for potatoes - not only a pomme puree but dauphinoise too. 
Baked salted cod with malt spruce foam & cauliflower-pine nut cous cous, goat cheese, herb crusted potato & raspberry jam
Fish of the day
We paid the very reasonable bill that came in a dinky little purse, and rolled out of there in to the snow very very happy.  Lovely service to boot too. 

Dinner was Sjavargrillid, and I’m going to have to apologise in advance for gushing, but this really was exceptionally good.  Those of us used to over-preened, over-stuffed or just sheer clinical dining rooms at home, might not have thought that the kitchen of this modest but homely dining room would produce the creative and skilled cooking that was to come.  Menu options include a wide selection of set and a la carte options, but it was the Grills menus that caught our eye.  Making choosing easy by perfectly matching starter, main and dessert, Hubbie went for the ‘Lobster Feast’ while I had the ‘Fish Feast’.  And feast this was. 

An amuse bouche of ‘Taste of Icleand’ was a pot of delicious little morsels of various pickled vegetables and something akin to gingerbread crumbs.
Taste of Iceland
The optional ‘surprise’ course was well worth it, proving to be an exceptional example of home smoked salmon.  Thick cut dice of the delicately smoked fish sat nestled amongst lightly pickled cucumber.
Starters were Sea Perch and Langoustine for him, and the famed Shellfish Soup for me.  The soup came with a skewered nugget of sweet langoustine that I left until I had slurped the last deeply flavourful spoonful of soup.  His disappeared pretty quick, but I managed to grab a piece of langoustine and can confirm it was as good as mine.

Hallgrím´s shellfish soup.  Fennel, lobster, mussel, seaweed

Golden sea perch & grilled langoustine.  Jerusalem artichoke, leek, pearl onion, tarragon

My catch of the day main course was salmon and plaice; Hubbie had the veritable feast of lobster and plaice.  All perfectly cooked and served with interesting accompaniments - in particular the barley gave a different texture and nutty dimension to the dishes.

Grilled Lobster & Plaice.  Carrot, spring onion, barley, salsify

Grilled fish combo.  Freshest catch of the day from jón the fisherman

By this time I was full to bursting but the pre-dessert, which I can’t fully remember all of the components of, included tangy tangerine and marshmallows.  Perfect for reviving me enough to soldier on for dessert.

And it would have been a shame to pass on these desserts.  Playful and pretty as pictures.  My flamed crème brulee was like no other brulee I’ve ever had.  It looked like a savoury dish on the plate and indeed included an unusual savoury element - sorrel and sorrel sorbet.  But it all worked so well.  A great balance of creaminess and zing.  His was chocolate cake and pear, with praline and salted nut.  Don’t think I need to say too much more about that.  It was as good as it looks and sounds, including the surprise popping candy ingredient.

Flamed créme brulée.  Strawberry, chocolate, sorrel, cocoa bean

Chocolate cake and pear.  Pear, skyr, praline, salted nut

By the end of our holiday, we both agreed that, if pushed we would say that Sjavargrillid was our favourite meal of the trip.  We’ll hopefully be back in Iceland and would definitely return.

Finally and as a bit of an aside, the butter in Iceland was some of the most unusual and delicious I’ve ever tasted.  ‘Skyr’ is an Icelandic cultured dairy product, similar to strained yogurt but like a very soft cheese.  It makes moreish and slightly sour butter that I’m just desperate to recreate at home.