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.  

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