“Iceland” and “cuisine” aren’t two words you would automatically think to put together. And it’s true, the country’s cuisine certainly doesn’t have the cache of France, Italy, or Spain. But among Nordic countries, Iceland offers a surprisingly sophisticated food scene, particularly in the tiny capital, Reykjavik.
Home to about 200,000 of the country’s 300,000 or so people, Reykjavik is a small town, yet it’s the largest city in Iceland, and much more cosmopolitan that you might expect. Luxury shops line the streets, there are dozens of museums and performing arts spaces, including theatres, dance halls, an opera house, and the opulent new Harpa concert hall, all over town, and a disproportionately large number of restaurants given the small population. A quick look at the list of traditional foods and delicacies in Iceland – whale, puffin, fermented shark – may not instill high hopes for haute cuisine in Iceland, but modern Icelandic cuisine has managed to find new ways to incorporate traditional foods into dishes that are as good as you’d find in any major city, yet undeniably Icelandic.
For an Asian twist on Icelandic favorites, make Fish Market your first stop. The chef trained at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Luxembourg before returning to Iceland and serves an eclectic menu ranging from sushi (with Iceland’s fresh fish) to Icelandic duck served with crispy spring roll dough and yuzu spiced cucumber. Appetizers run for about 2700 ISK and main courses are around 4500 in this swanky, bamboo-filled space.
If you prefer something a little more traditional, try Lækjarbrekka, located on Bankastræti street in one of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik. Three-course set menus start at 7000 ISK per person and feature particular Icelandic ingredients like puffin, whale, or lobster, as the focus of each course. The space is cozy and candlelit, perfect for a cold winter’s night in Reykjavik. At a slightly lower price point, Þrir Frakkar offers well-worn, old world charm in a small converted house. The restaurant specializes in seafood and offers what they claim is the best plokkfiskur in town. A traditional fish dish made of boiled fish mashed with onion and baked with cheese, the hearty plokkfiskur will certainly warm you up from the cold (entrees range from which costs 2890 ISK to 3900 ISK).
Once you’ve tried some of Iceland’s delicacies, put your palate to the test at Dill. With a focus on ” new Nordic cuisine”, Dill offers set menus ranging from three to seven courses, priced from 5400 to 9500 ISK per person. The chef takes traditional recipes and adds a modern gastronomic twist, using only local and seasonal items in the constantly-changing menu.
On the opposite end of the price spectrum, Tapas Barinn delivers big Icelandic taste on a small budget. The name means “tapas bar” in Icelandic and that’s just what it is, but the offerings go far beyond traditional Spanish dishes like patatas bravas and sauteed shrimp (though you can find those here too). You’ll also find small plate portions of Icelandic specialties like smoked puffin in blueberry sauce, grilled whale, and Icelandic seafood in every incarnation. For those who just want a sample of Icelandic cuisine, it offers an affordable alternative in a lively space. (Small plate prices range from 890-1190 ISK each.) Another budget-friendly option is Icelandic Fish n’ Chips, a bustling restaurant near the harbor that serves – you guessed it – fish and chips. They offer several rotating fish choices depending on what’s fresh, bake the fish in organic spelt and barley, and serve it with flavored Icelandic yogurt dipping sauces, making for a delicious and guilt-free indulgence.
Other food experiences you won’t want to miss in Reykjavik include the aforementioned skyr – a high-protein, virtually fat-free yogurt that comes in a variety of flavors (and is used in Iceland in dips, ice cream and desserts) and sold at every grocery store – as well as the famous Icelandic hot dogs. Some traveling foodies may turn their noses up at the idea of traveling thousands of miles to try a country’s hot dogs, but it would be a shame to visit Iceland and not try what is practically the country’s national food. The hot dogs in Iceland are made with lamb and topped with a combination of fresh and fried onions, ketchup, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. You’ll find them all over the country, and at around $2 USD each, they’re a cheap way to experience one of Iceland’s favorite foods.
About this week’s guest writer
Katie Hammel writes BootsnAll’s Iceland travel guide, offering tips for finding cheap flights to Iceland, where to stay, and how to enjoy the best of the beautiful country on a small budget.
Follow Katie on Twitter.