Reykjavik is not a cheap-eats town. As trawlers, seiners, barges and battered military ships churned in and out of the icy, early-winter marina, bowls of fish stew from the dock shacks cost as much as a steakhouse dinner in the states. This wild island, this legendary home of Vikings who could weather any hardship, offered up Europe’s most expensive city and standard fish frys most generously called “old Nordic”. We decided to take the low-high approach to Iceland’s fare and spend 3 days going Viking stark: food was simply an economy fuel. Afterwards, we would reward our (OK, my) luxury-loving souls with a splurge into the chic, au courant, “new Nordic” cuisine.
My husband does not like to travel much but he sure likes boats. I hauled him to Iceland for our 25th wedding anniversary for a festival of boats* for him, and everything fishy for me. At our harbor-side airbnb with a close view of these rugged docks, we watched fishermen haul in herring, arctic char, and king crabs. We read a few books, dipped in geo-thermal waters every day, and learned a little Nordic history. Our Viking frugality pact held firm with fish and chips from kiosks and cheese sandwiches from the gas station. But soon the magic dimmed. We had 25 years of better and worse to celebrate, and we were going to need to discover a top restaurant serving those filets, winter berries, seaweed foams, and foraged green leaves that comprise the runaway food trend of “new Nordic” led primarily by Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen.
The famous Blue Lagoon, scene of geothermal plant-generated heat, steady 100 degree pool with a bar, a spa, and a touch of the waterpark vibe. Iceland has more geothermal springs, or “hot pots”, than any other country.
Into the North
Before that big dinner, we headed north on a road trip in the morning darkness which did not lift until noon. We hit frost, mist, fog, black ice, frayed driving nerves that couples with long history seem to always have, and then a pink-hued dawn finally arrived in the early afternoon, bold and otherworldly. We made it to Akureyri, the second largest city on the island where we were welcomed by warm cafes and bookshops even a few fleeting glimpses of the northern lights.
Nat, my daughter at 12, who would have enjoyed nat cafe.
The Fish Company is a moody, chef-driven waterfront restaurant recommended by my friend and former culinary student, Ingo Palsson, now the propreiter of the lovely Freyja Guesthouse. He knew we had to graduate from those hit-or-miss kiosks and sports bars favored by bundled-up British tourists and survivors of the open-Jeep tours of Iceland’s waterfalls, geothermal hot-pots, and moon-like lava fields. The facade of the restaurant did not tip us off – it was dark, understated, and appealing, like so many others. But inside, the scene turned serious as black-clad waitstaff swept bright dishes of colorful fish through a bustling bar and into a packed house. What followed at our table, the sophisticated sauces and foams, vegetables made to bend then crunch, the freshest fish, the hint of brine, the pristine European presentation, left us with a eureka moment: THIS was new Nordic. This flamboyantly unpretentious, confident cuisine was the fusion of historic techniques, local ingredients, and contemporary flair. Sea urchins; wild dill; gooseberries; seared scallops; buttery new potatoes; foraged, hand-cured salt. The flavors of Iceland are its elements: fire, sea, salt, and ice. Our dinner was the highlight of our trip, and the bright northern light among all the restaurants we have visited in our 25 years.
Reviews of The Fish Company:
“It spreads over two handsome floors and, most important, has a menu that lets you know you’re in Iceland.” NY Times
“Salmon skin–wrapped railings, backlit bamboo walls, low banquettes, and sexy lighting make this Reykjavík’s chicest hangout.” Conde Nast Traveler Continue
Despite being worlds away from any chocolate growing region, lavishly-wrapped chocolate bars screamed color and style. In these photos, you’ll see chocolate-covered pop rocks and blackthorn sea truffles. Surprising! And here’s a good review of Iceland’s bizarre donut landscape.
Arctic Char is much like salmon – red-fleshed and tender. Sear it with generous lemon squeezes as you would a salmon filet, then finish it in the oven for about 10 minues @350 to finish the cooking inside. Serve with asparagus, olives, tatziki and white wine. Or, try …
Arctic Char En Croute
- 1 pound Arctic Char
- 1 large sheet Puff Pastry (see recipe below; or use a storebought brand such as Dufour from freezer section
- 3 potatoes, boiled & mashed
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 cup carmelized onions (sautéed in butter & salt)
- 1 cup sauteed spinach
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon chopped chive
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard (or 1 teaspoon dijon mustard)
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon milk
- Salute the onions, then the spinach and set aside. Prepare the potatoes by mashing them with butter, sour cream and salt. Trim the skin off the fish. Lay the puff pastry on a sheet pan, the put the potatoes, the fish, and the spinach on the lower half of the pastry. Fold the other half over and seal the edges of the pastry to form a tight package. Prepare the egg wash by combining the egg and milk, then brushing it onto the pastry with a pastry brush. Bake at 350 until golden brown - about 35 minutes.
- You can shape the pastry package as a fish with scales or other decorative designs.
- 1 pound butter
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 oz. bread flour
- 8 oz water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 3 oz. AP flour
- First, make the butter block with room temperature butter in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Transfer onto a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper, shape as a rectangle about the size of a business envelope, wrap, and refrigerate. Rinse the mixer bowl and paddle. Next, make the "detrempe" or "drenched dough" on the mixer by blending the water, salt, and butter, then slowly adding the flour. Mix until it is blended, then remove it from the bowl and turn the dough onto a floured workspace. Knead the dough 5-10 minutes, until some gluten strands develop. Allow to rest for 10 minutes or so, then roll into to a large rectangle. Place the butter block onto the detrempe and fold the dough over the butter block, as if folding a letter. Flatten the dough into a paper-size rectangle again and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. This is the first "turn". Repeat the process three more times, then the dough is ready for shaping and baking.
- Keep the dough cold at all times.
*Influence of Writer/Sailor Christian Williams here.
Happy Anniversary to Jake!