Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Chilling in Iceland (Part 1): Eating Our Way through Reykjavik

We just got back from Iceland and I really don't want blogging this trip to fall through the cracks (like Japan and Taiwan, sadly!), so here is one post to kick off a series!  Seven days was a good amount of time to thoroughly explore the southern coast and a little bit of the Northwest in our trusty rental car.  Since we flew in on a redeye and landed at 8 in the morning, it was most ideal to "chill" (quit literally) in Reykjavik for that first day.  Our pilot had said that the winds were blowing at 45 mph - we believed him the minute we stepped outside.  The wind whipped our car rental papers out of Wes's pocket and my straw was almost instantly expelled from my drink.  It was hell trying to find our car in the car lot; we clicked the alarm button while frantically pacing the rows of cars while being sorely clobbered by the weather.  Thank goodness we decided to change into all of our winter clothes in the airport bathrooms first.

The drive to Reykjavik from Keflavik Airport was a wild ride - a great preview of what to expect from this untamed country.  Our tires gripped the road while snow and rain swirled in huge torrents all around us.  We had been making weekly trips to the mountains for snowboarding in December and January, and we totally froze or faces off in Mammoth, but we surely have never experienced wind this wicked (this is why people never use umbrellas in Iceland - they'd be blown straightaway)!  At least this was just the jolt that we needed; sensory input was at an all-time low over the past fourteen hours of travel.  No longer sleepy and sluggish, we were ready to explore the world's northernmost capital city!

The first thing we did was pick up our portable wifi from 1011, which is their version of 7-Eleven.  Having Google Maps was essential for getting around the barren parts of this country in our next few days.  We grabbed some chips from here: Ost & Lok (cheese and onion) potato chips and paprika-dusted crisps from inside the 1011.  It was immediately obvious how expensive food was going to be in this country - each bag was around $5.  However, tipping is not customary here and everything is extremely fresh and minimally processed.  In addition, the people of this nation are so genuinely happy and trusting of us outsiders - the society itself was inspirational.  I would say that it was worth the money to support local farmers, small businesses, and traditional artisanship.

Initially, it took a little bit of effort to figure things out, such as paying for parking at a machine that was all in Icelandic.  Icelandic words are very interesting - they're either super long and unpronounceable, or short and distantly related to English, “opid” is “open” and "fiskur" is "fish," for example.

Walked through a bit of rain to the Kolaportid Market (weekends only) and got our first tastes of Icelandic food: fermented shark (a small tidbit was tolerable), smoked Arctic char, Icelandic bread and Christmas cake, pickled herring, and dried fish. We saw lamb and horse sausages for sale as well.  Also bargained with the lone Chinese-operated flea market stall for a lopapeysa, an Icelandic wool sweater. Rather expensive, but as it turns out, the thick and scratchy sweater kept me very warm throughout the next few days.  Many locals wear only these sweaters and not our weatherproof snow-jackets.  

First try of fermented shark (hákarl), and it was quite the nose-wrinkling experience.  But once you get over the taste of ammonia, it's not that bad.  Just tastes like a tough piece of fish.  Apparently though this delicacy isn't even that popular with Icelandic people today.  We also got to have some cured Arctic char (the salmon of Iceland) for the first time.

In addition to the quintessential rye bread, we sampled other delicious traditional baked goods.  Bread is a staple of the Icelandic diet - we had it at every meal.

Yup, they eat horse here.  We did get to try some horse meat later, during one of our daytrips away from Reykjavik, and it was delicious!

Another must-see landmark in Reykjavik was Hallgrímskirkja, the famous church that was designed to look like the basalt cliffs and sea stacks of Iceland's landscape.  The view from the top of the church is as awesome as the view from the ground looking up at it, but it really was sooo windy up there!

We later went back and took some long exposure night shots after dinner at Kaffi Loki across the street (more on that next).  Such cool architecture!

The food scene in Iceland was also fascinating and refreshing.  Flavors are robust and clean: cured wild-caught fishes, hearty soups, innately high-quality meats, cakey rye bread with the best butter we've ever tasted - thick and very, very yellow.  We ate at a few places in the city, and were impressed with every single thing, from a local favorite hot dog stand to a six-course Icelandic tasting menu at a trendy restaurant. 

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur:  translates to the "best hot dogs in town."  The links are mainly composed of lamb, with a little pork and beef.  Lamb is their primary meat type, which is why I felt so happily at home with Icelandic cuisine.  It's like the chicken of America, but sheep outnumber humans 2 to 1 in Iceland and they roam free and feed on whatever grass or hay there is.  Maybe that's why they say that Icelandic lamb is some of the best in the world.

Everything on it = raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade (a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs).  The first three condiments are under the hot dog and the last two are on top.  Oh, so, good.

The little stand was not hard to find, we were right by when we were poking around at the Kolaportid Market at the harbor.  There's always a line, but it moves super fast.  People know exactly what they want (generally "everything on it") and the hot dog man working inside is like a total hot-dog-slinging machine!

Raining, but nobody cares.  

We came back on our last night in Iceland and each got our own, after we had already eaten dinner somewhere else.  They're that good!  Wes also ate a hot dog another time at a gas station when we were in the middle of nowhere, and even that one was really good, and came with all the same toppings. Surely, all of their hot dogs are made with meat that is free-range, grass-fed, organic and hormone-free, as in this country, it is against the law to import any meats or use any modifications or enhancements.  Every kind of meat tastes as it would hundreds of years ago, it was really obvious, especially in all the lamb, seafood, and horse that we also ate.

For our first sit-down meal, we went Icelandic Fish & Chips, where they make their fish with spelt breading and serve it with skyrronnaise, which is a creamy dipping sauce made of skyr (Icelandic yogurt).  We ordered the redfish (special of the day, local Icelandic fish that we’ve never tried before) and it was so flaky! The spelt batter was very light and crisp, and the coriander skyrronnaise was on point. It came with potatoes (baked, not fried), and a seemingly out-of-place mango coconut salad. 

Also got fisherman’s stew, which was not what we were expecting. It was whitish-yellow and more like a casserole than a stew, with root vegetables folded within and crusted cheese on top.  This stew actually was super delicious, with plentiful strands of fish throughout. We didn’t know that we’d be seeing this everywhere we went.

Ah, and this was our first taste of rúgbrauð - Icelandic rye bread!  And that butter...  swooning, we asked the waiter what kind of butter they use, and he laughed, "This is just typical butter, it's like this everywhere!" Little did we know that we'd be consuming a lot of this butter over the next week.

For dinner that first day, we were met with more rúgbrauð!  It isn't at all like the rye bread that we get at the diners and delis here - it's sweet and dense, and very satisfying.  We went to Kaffi Loki, a small bakery cafe across the street from the Hallgrímskirkja church.  They baked their own rye bread.  The dining room was on the second floor.  This is their herring combination plate, with three kinds of pickled or cured herring, over eggs, over butter, and over bread.  Delicious.

Lamb pate with beets on rúgbrauð.  Also loved this!  I tend to not be a fan of the dirty, iron-y taste of pate, but this one (and all the others that we had in Iceland) was mild and the flavor was very clean.

Plokkfiskur - "mashed fish."  It tasted just like the fisherman's stew from earlier.  The history behind it is that making plokkfiskur was actually how families used to preserve leftovers and make use of the fish from the meal before.

Smoked lamb on buttered rye.  Arctic char, cured and spread over buttered rye, with a bit of cottage cheese.  Harðfiskur - dried fish with... why yes, butter.  All of these are signature Icelandic foods.  And in the center there, more fermented shark.  Squirm!

I surrender to the shark! Hákarl is made by burying whole shark for 6-12 weeks and letting it decay and ferment.  It was traditionally eaten by the Vikings, but needed this kind of treatment to eliminate life-threatening toxins.  I guess it worked for them.

Housemade rye bread ice cream!  I could go on and on about the dairy products in Iceland, and their frozen dairy is no exception.

So given that fact, it's totally okay to go on hunts for delicious ice cream in 3-degree C weather, right?  I found this place called Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, which is their version of Cold Stone or 21 Choices, but with electric blenders and a bewildering array of mix-in's.  Wes noted that this was the number one time during our trip when he felt the most overwhelmed and helpless.  He's actually being serious.

I would have to agree... the menus around the store were indecipherable and I couldn't make any sense of the endless candy types that they had there (although everything seemed to have licorice in it).  The storeworker was really patient with us (the only two non-Icelandic customers, and probably the only two people over the age of 25 in there) and named each mix-in, but even that did not help much.  We just pointed to the interesting-looking ones in the end and gaped as she pumped a large pitcher full of soft-serve and shoveled in the chosen candies.  Didn't we order the smallest size?!  The crazy thing was that all of these girls here were ordering larges all to themselves - and I'm not exaggerating.  We felt like idiots ordering the small.  And we felt even more idiotic when we couldn't finish it.

We also went to a very popular gelato shop in the old harbor area of Reykjavik on our last day and got in just as they were closing.  Luckily, they let us poor desperate tourists order and graced me with some of the best gelato I've ever had.  This gray one is their salted licorice gelato, which I only had a sample of, but was very impressed by how cleverly they were able to incorporate traditional Icelandic licorice so nicely.

I actually ended up with a sweet cream gelato with Kinder Egg (milk chocolate) bits in it, and Wes got the banana nutella gelato.  We ate it, shivering in the cold, outside of their closed shop.  It was the perfect ending to our vacation in Iceland.

And this is how we started our mornings for those days that we stayed in Reykjavik.  We made sure to book a hotel that would include daily breakfast.  It's guaranteed delicious, convenient, and free!

Our hotel breakfast spread blew us away...almost as much as the wind did later on that first full day.  We were so excited to see pickled herring in dill mustard, pate (probably lamb), cured meat and cheese, brown eggs, skyr, fruit jams, and an array of breads (yup, more rye!) and crispbreads with loads of that lovely Icelandic butter.  The coffee was also very good, most likely because the whole milk that I added to it is made by totally happy cows.

On this first day out, we circumnavigated the Golden Circle, a 300-km loop from Reykjavik to central Iceland and back.  This day was crazy - nature showed us what it was capable of, and we were thoroughly humbled, but at the same time, we felt very blessed to have been able to do what we did.  At one point early on, we were soaked to the socks, there was a film of cold snot covering the lower half of my face, and our lovely 99-cent ponchos from Target had ripped in the wind as we struggled up a fully iced-over trail to a waterfall in Þingvellir National Park.  We also lost our pocket wifi charger (to the wind, most likely), but somehow miraculously found a secret lunch buffet in the middle of nowhere, and continued driving to see the famous geysers and a vast, half-frozen waterfall (another blog post to follow).  After all this, we were tired but so excited to return to a proper 6-course dinner at one of Reykjavik's most popular dining destinations, Apotek.

The meal started off quite strong, with a shot of Brennivin, a 38 proof alcohol specific to Iceland, translating to "burning wine."  It is made from fermented grain or potatoes and caraway - nice and sweet, although it did set our insides ablaze, and nearly wiped me out.  I was already so sleepy!

Smoked puffin - not uncommon in Iceland.

Slow cooked ocean perch with a beautifully applied beetroot puree, cubicles of serrano ham, and spicy butter. The fish was cooked sous vide, but looked transparent and texturally almost as if it were raw.  It was so fresh!  Also wanted to mention the root vegetables - in Iceland, mainly root vegetables are cultivated due to the harsh climate.  Any other veggies would have been either imported or grown in greenhouses.

Minke whale with shallot vinaigrette, artichoke cream, and crispy Jerusalem artichokes.  We had whale again at another place, and I do have to say that Apotek does it really, really well.  Whereas it is a very tough and steak-like protein and tastes rather iron-y, this rendition was tender and the flavor combinations balanced out the gaminess.

Icelandic sea trout, tasting just delicious with yuzu mayo, truffle mayo, crispy quinoa, and apple.  Loved the play on flavors here, never would have thought!  That crispy quinoa gave it a really interesting textural component, too.

Wes raved about this continuously:  Plaice with samphire (seaweed), green asparagus, blood orange, lime beurre blanc.  The green stripe had dill and spinach in it.  Wes proclaimed it one of the best fish preparations he has ever, ever eaten.  The plaice was pan-fried to a crisp all around the outside, but melted at the touch of a fork.  The sauces and accompaniments were also oddly perfect - it seemed like a whole bunch of random stuff, but it worked out so well.

Rack of lamb with leeks, pickled onions, browned celeriac, baked carrots, spinach, and dill cream.  Again, noting the use of root vegetables as a nod to domestic Icelandic agriculture.  This lamb was perfect, loved each juicy bite and also the chunky pieces of celeriac buried underneath.

Dessert was this red rose filled with chocolate mousse, with raspberry and mango sauce and an avocado chocolate cream on the side.  This was our first encounter with avocado way out here!

We highly recommend anyone who visits Iceland and is willing to splurge a little ($75-ish) on a unique, upscale meal to go here and get the Icelandic tasting menu.  We appreciated how the chef artfully and seamlessly edges the more outlandish local delicacies into the foreigner's comfort zone (not that we would have been uncomfortable eating puffin and whale anywhere else, but this fancy place made it a lot more fun).

Day 2:  caving and snorkeling!  We went down into a 900-meter lava tube and snorkeled in the Silfra Fissure, the natural crevice formed between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  I also "caved" into an eleven-dollar green skyr smoothie and Wes scarfed down a gas station hot dog in between the two activities.  After we got back to Reykjavik, we both crashed and could have stayed in bed until the next morning, but we forced ourselves to get up and eat dinner.  It wasn't that hard, food is always a great motivator against jetlag!

We couldn't tell you how to pronounce it, but our tour guide mentioned that Icelandic people love burgers (and hot dogs, apparently) and that we should really have a burger while we're here.  So, we popped into Hamborgarafabrikkan, a place known for their square burger buns and patties around the corner from our hotel.

According to the English menu, that long Icelandic word means "Hamburger Factory"!

The "Fat Sigurjón": sweet bacon, brown peppersauce, slices of Brie, mushrooms grilled with garlic, caramelized red onions, lettuce and tomatoes. Served with cole slaw and french fries.  Even though all of the patties are cooked well, the meat was nice and beefy.  The bacon was really good too.  Sadly, fries were just so-so.

"The Lamburger": mushrooms grilled with garlic, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, sauce Béarnaise, on a spelt bun.  Of course, made from fresh Icelandic lamb meat.  The funny thing is that they don't charge any extra for a large side salad instead of fries.  

The meat quality in the patties was superb, but sorry Iceland, Americans just do burgers better.

However!!!  I will take this skyr cake over New York cheesecake ANY DAY.  So soft and silky, it jiggles when you move the plate!

We spent the next three days going up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (northwest) and around the south coast all the way over to Jokusarlon.  Those adventures and the eats along the way will be saved for later posts.  I'm just going to fast-forward to our last day in Iceland, which was spent driving four hours back from Skaftafell to Grindavik, where the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is located.

Eek, gotta love that silica mud mask and these healthy bar drinks (Wes's blueberry skyr smoothie and my green smoothie).  It was quite nice to just kick back and relax in this naturally healing 99–102 °F water after so many days of being subjected to nature's free will.  Just had to survive the thirty icy seconds it took to hang up our towels and shuffle in!  

What could be better than huddling up in the corner of a cozy old fisherman's hut back in Reykjavik for dinner?  After we showered away all that silica and sulfur and reluctantly jammed our feet back into our socks and boots, we headed back to Reykjavik for dinner.

We ate at Sægreifinn ("The Sea Baron"), where they serve what is touted as the world's greatest lobster soup, and fresh-caught fish barbequed on skewers.  It used to be a "fisk shop," where a fisherman (who is still around) would sell his goods.  It turned into a little eatery after the fisherman began grilling his fish for visitors, and gained popularity by word of mouth.  Now, it is overrun with all kinds of people, but continues to stay true to its pure, simple roots.  

The cute shack sits by the old harbor in Reykjavik, nestled amongst other clapboard seafood restaurants and touring booths.  In addition to having very little space (rivaling the alleyway ramen shops in Japan), it was lively and full when we arrived, even though it was already 9:00 PM.  Long, skinny wooden planks for tables and barrels for stools, a refrigerated case with all the fish to choose from, and a small cash register facing the front door, are pretty much all that fits.  We shared a table with a couple from New York; the girl and I happily sampled every sauce that we could get our hands on. 

They had everything from catfish, to rainbow trout, to shrimp, to minke whale.  

We ordered one ling skewer and one plaice skewer.  The chunks of fish were perfectly cooked, with just enough of that char.  It honestly did not need any dipping sauce, even though those condiments were so tasty.  A spritz of lemon juice was enough, if that.

But of course, this was still not enough.  We were about to go home, so we had to go big.  Hence, a final visit to the hot dog stand:

And Valdis, the gelato shop, which I already talked about earlier:

Our experience in Iceland was inspiring on so many levels, not only for what we saw in the wilderness, but also what we ate.  We've already come home and cured our own salmon (unfortunately, no Arctic char) with dill, cooked lamb and served it with rye bread, and went to great lengths to obtain Smjor, Icelandic butter.  Sadly, we have not found it yet.  

I'll be blogging more about what we did and saw, and about what we cooked at home after we came back.  We still think back to the trip all the time and would definitely return someday if we could!

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