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Best of Reykjavík: Icelandic food

A few people remarked on the last Best of Reykjavík post [Cheap Eats] that we we were focusing only on ethnic food and left out the Icelandic food.

There’s a reason for that.

One, there’s the tricky business of defining Icelandic food. Are we talking traditional Icelandic food — the kind that the tourist brochures really, um, make a meal out of when seeking to exploit the “weird Icelander” image, like singed sheeps’ heads, pickled ram’s testicles, rancid skate, putrid shark …

… or do we define Icelandic food as the more gentrified stuff we like to eat these days: seafood fusion of various types, languistine, lamb filets, skyr cheesecake …?

If you put Icelandic food in the first category, turns out there aren’t many restaurants serving it [surprised?].

If you put it in the second category, turns out it’s not cheap [and therefore does not quality as cheap eats].

Be that as it may, Icelandic food has been enjoying a bit of a revival these days, what with the rise of nationalistic sentiment after the collapse and whathaveyou. A couple of places serving Icelandic food have opened: Íslenski barinn on Austurvöllur and Cafe Loki, across from Hallgrímskirkja church. I have to admit that I don’t know anything about the food at the former [have only been in there once, for coffee], but I have tried the kjötsúpa [traditional lamb soup] at Cafe Loki, and it was pretty good. The atmosphere was nice, too, light and airy, and the service friendly and efficient. [In fact, I think someone made favourable mention of that place in the comments to the last Best of Reykjavík post.]

Of course, if you just want something quick and easy [and, yes, cheap], try the local supermarket or grocery store. Any of those will stock the basics, like Iceland’s ubiquitous skyr [kind of like a thick yogurt, or Quark to the Germans] and harðfiskur — dried fish [haddock, or cod or catfish] which must be eaten with butter. Some supermarkets do hot lunches, and those will include, for example, svið, singed sheep’s heads. Melabúðin, for example, a popular local supermarket in the West End, usually does svið at lunchtime, as do many of the Nóatún shops. The cafeteria at the central bus station [BSÍ] is also famous for their kjammi og kók, i.e. half a head of svið accompanied by a bottle of coke.

As for the more upscale stuff, there are numerous restaurants in Reykjavík that do excellent lamb and seafood. In fact, just about every restaurant does excellent lamb and seafood, by simple virtue of the fact that you really can’t go wrong with lamb and seafood in Iceland. The lamb is outstanding, and fresh seafood is an unwritten law. Any restaurant that serves seafood that is not fresh won’t last a week in this country.

So I can only tell you about my favourite, and my favourite upscale restaurant in Reykjavík is Sjávarkjallarinn, hands down. I’ve been there twice, have had their “Exotic Menu” [taster menu] both times and it was out of this world. Granted, there’s a whole lot of fancy fusion going on there, but there’s plenty in there also that can be classified as “Icelandic”, simply because there’s lots of Icelandic ingredients. And that’s key.

And now, I’m going to cheat a little bit and mention one more upscale restaurant that isn’t in Reykjavík, but which is amazing and well worth the hour or so drive from the city: Fjöruborðið in Stokkseyri, on the south coast. Lobster is their specialty, and lobster [or, actually, linguistine] is what they do best. The setting couldn’t be more lovely, right on the seashore, in a quaint little village with a beautiful coastline. Highly recommended.

And so, over to you. Where, in your opinion, is the best place in Reykjavík [or beyond] to sample some real Icelandic fare?

Comments

comments

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  • Lissa June 17, 2010, 9:24 pm

    Incredibly silly question time. How does one eat svið ? I chicken out every time I’m at the bus station because, well, I already look like a clueless foreigner, why should I act like one, too? Do you just pick the meat off? Is it ok to avoid seeing or touching the eye?

  • Charlie June 17, 2010, 9:35 pm

    Cafe Loki has a website. It is at:

    http://www.textil.is/ENGLISH/index.php

  • alda June 17, 2010, 9:40 pm

    Thanks Charlie! I’ll embed that now …

  • rod June 17, 2010, 10:14 pm

    Sheep’s head figures in that uplifting Icelandic film, Jar City.

  • Max June 17, 2010, 10:19 pm

    Íslenski barinn is good for trying traditional Icelandic food with a modern twist… they have a sample platter where you can try harðfiskur, reindeer pâté, hakárl and I think some kind of lamb. I’ve had the pâté there, it’s quite nice but comes served on a really chewy piece of rye bread (it’s obviously made the morning/night before and simply stuck in the fridge).

    Sægreifinn is an old favourite for some Icelandic lobster soup. It really is wholesome and warming, and comes with as much bread as you like. Then there’s the atmosphere. Newspaper clippings all over the wall and the charming old man who walks around talking to himself, but will later come clear the table.

    Café Paris does kjötsúpa… not sure what it’s like but I think it’s hard to go wrong with that really. They also do a good lamb steak, but I went there today and it was NOT pink in the middle like it was the first time I had it (tut tut). Also it took ages to arrive for some reason… the service is a bit lacking there.

  • Joerg June 17, 2010, 10:21 pm

    I am not sure, if it would pass for real Icelandic fare, but I have recently been to 3frakkar and had some, um, whale steak. It was actually quite surprising, because it didn’t taste like seafood at all (I got the tip from your blog, so, thanks again). They also had horse steak on the menu, which I did not try. But it made me wonder, if Icelanders really eat horse meat or if this was just some touristy thing.

    My favourite Icelandic dessert is plain Skyr with fresh blueberries and cream.

  • hildigunnur June 17, 2010, 10:22 pm

    Lissa, absolutely, you just scrape the meat off the upper half, only a small percentage of Icelanders eat the eye, the lower half has some very nice meat back of the jawbone. A small part back there isn’t very good, looks stringy and blackish.

    Hmm, proper Icelandic fare of the more expensive kind, Humarhúsið serves excellent scampi, Perlan and Hótel Holt hardly miss out (Holtið had some downtime but I think it’s recovered pretty nicely) for some good lamb. Silfur does an exciting Icelandic menu but I haven’t tried that myself. Does look good on their homepage, though.

  • alda June 17, 2010, 10:23 pm

    Max — have to disagree with you about the lobster soup at Sægreifinn. Had it last Saturday and it was terrible. WAY too salty and just like they’d thrown in tons of stock cubes and hadn’t bothered to boil real lobster shells — the hallmark of good lobster soup. And we both felt really queasy afterward. — It wasn’t like that a couple of years ago, last time I had it, so maybe it’s changed.

  • hildigunnur June 17, 2010, 10:25 pm

    and a word of warning, Sjávarkjallarinn does like fresh cilantro too well, take care to ask for no cilantro if you’re a cilantro hater like I am. They used to call it Kóríanderkjallarinn (Cilantro Basement) in the branch, the first year anyway) this might have changed, though.

  • alda June 17, 2010, 10:32 pm

    Hildigunnur – haha, EPI is a cilantro hater too. HATES it. I LOVE it. 🙂

    Apparently it’s a genetic thing — people who hate cilantro taste it differently than those who love it. Tastes like soap to them, or something.

  • Max June 17, 2010, 10:34 pm

    Re: Sægrefinn — I haven’t eaten there since last summer, so maybe its changed. I loved it at the time though. I remember getting some shell caught in my teeth… maybe they just add some in for effect!

  • hildigunnur June 17, 2010, 10:59 pm

    yep, there’s a metallic taste to it, at least that’s what I taste rather than soapy – bleh! Spit it out by instinct as soon as I taste it 😀

  • Mark June 17, 2010, 11:03 pm

    The “Sea Barron” is hardly ever there now, it’s usually a bunch of young girls trying, I think they are trying, to make the soup right.

  • Maria June 17, 2010, 11:03 pm

    Well for regular homely food I would go for Múlakaffi in Hallarmúli. I had lunch there every day for many years and always liked it. It might be that this type of food is for lunch only.
    http://www.veislurettir.is/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2&Itemid=25

  • Maria June 17, 2010, 11:13 pm

    Joerg, Icelanders do eat horse meat, even the horse people. And why not? It’s very nice.

  • sylvia hikins June 17, 2010, 11:41 pm

    There was some interesting food for sale in the weekend flea market in Reykjavik. I was especially intruiged with the fish heads! Some one also tried to sell me a mink coat- for wearing, not eating!!! Not Kosher in the UK alas.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Lissa June 17, 2010, 11:42 pm

    Thanks, Hildigunnur. Next time I’m in Iceland, I have to go for it. Can’t always just live on skyr and that lovely lamb head cheese stuff from Bonus, after all.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland June 18, 2010, 1:03 am

    @alda that lobster place you mentioned is pretty much on par pricewise with this place in ireland heres the menu of the place

    http://www.thelobsterpot.ie/Menu.htm

    obviously however coming from the lower socio-economic class comrade citizen I have never eaten decadent capitalist luxuries such as lobster in my entire life, but as being outrageously upscale its what you get here, so as Iceland is supposed to be insanely expensive then in fact its a cheap eat. !!!

  • Karyn June 18, 2010, 1:17 am

    Fjorubordid is one of my favorite restaurants ever. We went there a few years ago when we were staying in Stokkseyri, it’s such an unassuming place right on the coast. The food was amazing. The lobster bisque was absolutely incredible, and the sauces for the breads – well, let’s just say it’s been 3 years and my mouth still waters just thinking about it! I wish I could go back to Iceland today…thanks for this new series of posts about things to do in Reykjavik, I’ve really been enjoying it.

  • Anne-Marie Bernier June 18, 2010, 3:39 am

    I will be in Iceland in 3 days. I love this web site, lots of travel information as well as current events. I am really looking forward for visiting Iceland, and trying out some of the amazing restaurants.

  • snowball June 18, 2010, 10:15 am

    islenski barin and vegamot are my favorite picks for icy food. only because of their beitarsamlokan the guys from islenski barin should be mentioned in the michelin gourmet guide.

  • steph June 18, 2010, 10:52 am

    When I was in Iceland in January (my first trip!) we went to Íslenski barinn because we really wanted to try some traditional Icelandic foods – within reason!
    I had the seafood feast, which was a shelfish soup with cream followed by salted cod with vegetables. My partnet had the Icelandic feast, which was a tradition meat soup followed by Minke steak with Brenivin sauce. He felt a little guilty afterwards, and we had a whole discussion about whaling, culture and tradition.
    Icelandic people have certainly never been a wasteful culture, or irresponsible with the natural environment (we thought).
    It was actually an amazing meal, and we loved the experience.

  • alda June 18, 2010, 10:59 am

    Thanks everyone!! Loving your input here.

    Kevin — Iceland is no longer that outrageously expensive, I thought everybody knew that. Everything is half price now!

    Anne-Marie — great! Glad the posts are useful and hope you enjoy your trip.

  • Elaine June 18, 2010, 11:33 am

    I really enjoy the plokkfiskur on rye bread at Boston! Not sure how traditional their version is, but I like it, and it’s relatively cheap too.

  • alda June 18, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Elaine — not sure when you were there, but I know their chef quit and I think their kitchen may have closed entirely.

  • Quentin June 18, 2010, 1:09 pm

    For a traditional Icelandic workingman’s lunch, Grandakaffi is the place. It’s like stepping back 20 years to a world of meat & potatoes, Bragakaffi and slabs of jólakaka and sandkaka. Grandakaffi is on the quayside down at Grandi, right by the fish docks in Reykjavík. Kaffivagninn, nearer town on the same quayside, used to be the quintessential dockside eaterie, but seems to have been discovered by people in suits and has lost some of its charm. In Hafnarfjördur, the excellent quayside eaterie is Kænan, all three are fine value for money.

  • SLM June 18, 2010, 6:27 pm

    I think the quality in Vid Fjöruborðið in Stokkseyri has decreased a lot. The food was awessome some years ago. But I was disapointed when after visiting the place twice last summer. I’m not going again any time soon….

    My favourite in downtown is nowadays Vid Tjörnina; grrrreat food, speciall fish courses, and the atmosphere of the place is lovely. Fancy restaurant with a very laid back atmosphere.

  • Sue June 19, 2010, 1:02 am

    Thanks Alda and all who post here. I depart the Scottish Borders tomorrow on my first trip to Niceland. Excited, me? Yes, just a little… WHOOPEEEEEEE!

  • Magga Lukka June 19, 2010, 9:20 pm

    Alda, have you tried “Höfnin” in Reykjavik… new place down at the harbour?