Europe

Iceland’s Dining Scene Heats Up

Like most countries, Iceland’s culinary tradition is based upon the needs and lifestyle of its ancestors. Hunting, gathering and farming on a rocky island in the middle of a frigid ocean meant centuries of fairly basic preparations of lamb, cod, puffin and whale. However, a booming tourist industry, the building of greenhouses and a worldwide interest in local, artisanal foods have all helped usher Icelandic kitchens into the territory of New Nordic Cuisine. And without the entrenched food philosophies of, say, France or Italy to guide them, Iceland’s chefs are free to let their imaginations run wild. Here are 5 restaurants that prove Iceland has more to offer diners than that infamous fermented shark.

Elizabeth Parker
Dill Restaurant
At first, you may wonder how a world-class restaurant came to be in what looks like a classy community center. But the fact that Dill is located in Nordic House, a cultural center that seeks to foster connections among the Nordic countries, was quite intentional -- and having a restaurant on-site meshes perfectly with the center’s mission. The building is surrounded by a garden used by Dill’s kitchen and a wild bird preserve, and the expansive windows offer views of a lake and airplanes landing in nearby Reykjavik airport.

Chef-owner Gunnar Karl Gíslason is on the forefront of New Nordic Cuisine, a movement that is transforming the way diners think of Icelandic food. During lunch, the restaurant keeps things simple and casual. By night, the tiny dining room becomes a glowing laboratory for Gíslason’s imagination, where he experiments but never strays too far from his earthy cooking style. A new 7-course menu with wine pairings is created each week; diners can also opt for a 3- or 5-course tasting. With such frequent menu changes, you’re guaranteed to have a new cultural experience each time you visit.
Kiersten Chou, flickr
Grillmarkadurinn (The Grillmarket)
A temple to grilled meats, fishes and vegetables hides in an alleyway in downtown Reykjavik, and those who seek it are rewarded with a gorgeous, glowing space in which to explore the freshest ingredients this country has to offer on land and sea. And while menu items may sound simple on paper, chef-owner Hrefna Rósa Sætran and her team employ the experience they gained in Michelin-starred restaurants around the globe to inspire their elegant yet hearty dishes. (Sætran is also on the Icelandic National Culinary Team.)

This little brother of another beloved Reykjavik restaurant, Fishmarket, puts an emphasis on sourcing ingredients, giving credit to each farmer and purveyor for their role in creating their dishes. Sitting at the bar upstairs gives diners a peek into the open kitchen -- but beware, it gets hot when the grill fires up. Eat your way around the menu, which includes everything from skewered meats to crispy duck salad to “big steaks,” or order the chef’s tasting menu. Before leaving, be sure to head downstairs for a cocktail in the beautiful lounge. It might be the last civilized thing you do before heading out into Reykjavik’s thumping nightlife.
Rusty Blazenhoff, flickr
Lava
Dining at Lava is a wonderful way to conclude a relaxing soak in the Blue Lagoon, a series of outdoor geothermic pools about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. Lunchtime bathers can throw on a robe and head to Lava, which is built into a lava cliff, for an a la carte menu in winter and a buffet lunch in summer months.

Not only does chef Viktor Örn Andrésson offer creative and modern versions of Icelandic classics -- such as a sophisticated bowl of the normally rustic fish soup and a gorgeous filet of cod with lobster sauce -- but it’s all served with one of the most stunning views in the world. Imagine milky, baby-blue pools with steam rising up among the surrounding piles of dusky volcanic rock, which sport an occasional streak of bright green moss. It’s positively otherworldly.
Elizabeth Parker
Restaurant Hotel Geysir
A great way to venture outside of Reykjavik is to take a tour of the Golden Circle, a day trip through Iceland’s countryside that takes visitors through some of the country’s most beloved natural wonders, including the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall and a geyser area that features the dormant Great Geysir and the active Strokkur geyser, which erupts about every 10 minutes.

Groups can arrange to have the restaurant’s chef prepare sweet, moist rye bread baked with geothermic heat, and eggs are hard-cooked in one of the nearby heated pools. The bread is served with a heavy smear of rich Icelandic butter, herring and those eggs, as well as a frosty bottle of Icelandic schnapps. It’s a memorable experience, if you can swing it. When the wind gets the better of you, head inside for an outstanding buffet that includes crisp-skinned roast pork and luscious salmon. The floor-to-ceiling windows in this lodge-like room allow diners to take in the rugged hillside opposite the geyser area -- and on blustery days makes you even more glad for the coziness of the stone and wood room.
Getty Images
Sjavargrillid (Seafood Grill)
Down the street from one of Reykjavik’s most iconic structures, the Hallgrímskirkja -- a tall, pale, austerely designed church that can be seen from just about anywhere in town -- sits this, one of the city’s newer landmarks. Since opening in 2011, Sjavargrillid has made a name for itself with its nightly ode to Iceland in the form of a menu that puts modern spins on some of the country’s most beloved ingredients. The corrugated metal behind the bar was salvaged from a fish-freezing plant found during chef-owner Gústav Axel Gunnlaugsson’s travels through Iceland, and several dishes bear the names of friends and purveyors, giving a personal touch to the seasonal menu.

Sure, the a la carte offerings of sushi and “grilled catch of the day from Jón the fisherman” sound tempting. But it’s much more fun to get a group together and take advantage of the restaurant’s multicourse, family-style grill dinners, which might include puffin served with European shag (a species of cormorant) and minke whale or grilled Icelandic lobster with golden perch and mussel sauce. With these festive meals, the restaurant “promises to leave no one hungry.” Sounds like a challenge this restaurant can meet, if you ask us.

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