An American chef takes in the Icelandic food scene

 

by Eric J. Karell CEC, CCA, AAC

The creative and inquisitive chefs of Iceland continue to stretch the definitions of the country’s cuisine. Long known as the home of rather drab and pedestrian food, the restaurant scene of Iceland’s capital has blossomed in direct proportion to the stunning increase in tourism that has made the country one of the hottest destinations for travelers.

On a recent visit it was apparent that the food scene was more than keeping up with the innovative cuisines of other nations, even surpassing them, in my opinion.

The biggest trend, is the farm to table movement. Iceland is fortunate because what the nation lacks in arable land and a variety of fruits and vegetable, it more than makes up in the pristine quality of its seafood, lamb, dairy products and baked goods. There are an abundance of root vegetables and local herbs such as angelica that flavor the local ingredients which retain their Icelandic origins, yet somehow taste fresh and exciting in the hands of today’s chefs.

The beverage scene is also undergoing massive changes, as local breweries, micro breweries and micro-micro brewers have exploded in the country. Remarkable, considering 30 years ago one could not legally purchase beer in Iceland. A trend towards natural, organic and biodynamic wines has also spilled into the hospitality industry, giving oenophiles some new and intriguing options.

DSCN0116

The first restaurant I visited, Sűmac, is the dream of owner Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon. Chef Þráinn (pronounced Thrainn) has an impressive resume. He was the former Chef of the esteemed Blue Lagoon restaurant, in addition to the iconic Kolabrautin formerly at the Harpa Concert Hall, and was the coach of the successful National Icelandic Culinary Team. He was also the Icelandic Candidate for Bocuse d’Or Europe 2010. Head chef Hafsteinn Ólafsson was voted Iceland’s Chef of the Year in 2017, making Sűmac’s culinary team second to none.

Þráinn’s previous stops were firmly dedicated to using local ingredients but serving them in an updated, more contemporary style. Sűmac was born out of his love for Middle East cuisine that was inspired by his journeys to North Africa and Lebanon.

Vigfússon says he had the idea for the restaurant since 2011, “I’ve been an enthusiast of Middle Eastern cooking for a while, and I just wanted to bring something new to the Reykjavik culinary scene, something different, but using Icelandic ingredients.”

The restaurant’s name refers to the tangy, citrusy flavored spice used all over the Middle East. Sumac, cinnamon, harissa paste, yogurt, cumin and citrus juices are used in seasoning, marinades and even find their way into cocktails at the establishment.

The menu is a mix of small plates and starters, vegetarian offerings and more substantial grilled items, many of them on skewer as you would find in Morocco or Lebanon. Some items are grounded firmly in their Middle Eastern origins such as the grilled flat breads and the crispy falafel with herb dip. There are also nods towards modern bar food such as harissa chicken wings, hummus and baba ghanoush.

The restaurant places a strong emphasis on providing some strong vegan and vegetarian options. The grilled eggplant with tahini, pomegranate and cumin was outstanding and the cauliflower, roasted with almonds, pomegranate and cumin yogurt sauce would tempt any carnivore.

As outstanding as the Middle East influenced dishes are, it was the ones that combined local Icelandic ingredients with Levantine flavors that I found most dynamic. Deep fried cod cheeks with Sumac aioli was a perfect example of this pairing, as were the grilled wolfish skewers with Moroccan-style preserved lemon and a garlic aioli.

My favorite dish was, as Þráinn termed it, the “hot/cold” salmon. The salmon, cured until the texture was perfection, then seasoned with fennel and coriander, was served with candied kumquats, lemon oil and a soft milk foam. The other ingredients never overwhelmed the flavor a of the salmon, as they all combined to create a single harmonious dish. The tangy citrus and sweetness of the fruit made the dish pop like a flavor-filled balloon.

There are only three desserts offered on any given night: a date cake, pistachio ice cream and skyr ice cream made from the justifiably famous yogurt-type product of Iceland. I sampled the warm date cake with roasted hazelnut sauce, vanilla ice cream and licorice crumble, made by freezing the candy almost all Icelanders cherish, with liquid nitrogen. This was an outstanding combination of tastes, temperatures and flavors that again used Middle Eastern products with Icelandic ones.

Þráinn told me he is quite sanguine about Sűmac’s future.

“At present 70 percent of our guests are locals. I believe as more people learn about the restaurant we will see a pretty good increase in tourist business. The restaurant scene in Reykjavik is quite competitive but we all support each other.”

The physical attributes of the space have a warm, Scandinavian ambience with wood floors, soft, brown leathers sofas, raw concrete walls, potted plants and books serving as décor and natural stoneware used for dishes. Þráinn told me he was inspired by some of the bistros he visited in Beirut, however there is no doubt the influence was filtered through Icelandic sensibilities. The adage that Beirut was once the Paris of the Middle East is highly evident in Sumac’s design.

There is a small, comfortable bar area where diners can sit and order food. The bartenders are gracious and knowledgeable about the cocktail and wine menus. A sleek glass enclosed, refrigerated wine room ensures the restaurant’s selection of predominantly European and Lebanese wines are served at the proper temperature. The Sűmac Cocktail and Arak Sour are two of the many house specialties that are offered.

The bar is adjacent to the open kitchen where diners watch the chefs prepare their meals a la minute.

One would think that Sűmac would occupy all of Thrainn’s time, but tucked away in the back of the space is an intimate restaurant within a restaurant named Őx. Available by reservation only, the venue serves a twelve course meal with beverage pairings for up to eleven persons per evening.

The dishes are often one bite explosions of taste and texture, such as Icelandic pancake with lumpfish roe and skyr crème fraiche. We were served a rose champagne with a morsel of local brie cheese, onion and celeriac, present in a glass bowl, flavored by dried grass smoke, a nod to ancient and modern Icelandic cooking methods.

One outstanding course was a faux doughnut covered in a chunky jam which was actually composed of rutabaga, grapes and horseradish. Served chilled, it was an unexpected and terrific dish incorporating complimentary and contrasting flavors.

Other courses were baked cod with mussel purée and caramelized miso and a dish of lamb with local berries, chanterelles and beets. The two chefs plus an assistant rotate so what the menu consists of on a particular night will change according to the available products and creativity of the culinary team.

Each course is matched with a wine, beer or liqueur depending on which brings out the best in both elements. The cod was accompanied by a dry German Riesling while rye bread cooked over geothermal steam, and sprinkled with pickled angelica seed was served with an amber beer from the local Lady Brewery.

All food is served on custom made pottery by Icelandic artist Aldis Bara enhancing the dining and cultural experience.

Sűmac is open for dinner only 5 pm to 11 pm. All prices listed are in isk, or the Icelandic Krona. Prices range from 390 to 1,490 isk for snacks, vegetarian dishes average 2,000 isk with larger portions costing 3,100 isk to 4,490 isk. Cocktails , beer and wines by the glass will run you 1,100 isk to 2,000 isk. The current exchange rate is $1 per 117 isk. To simplify matters when visiting Iceland, I divided the local price by 10, giving me a rough cost of the items. Yes, Reykjavik is expensive, but it’s all relative. You will pay comparable prices in any modern capital city all over the world. At least in Iceland, it is unnecessary to tip, as gratuities are not expected, except in the case of guided tours and so on.

Down at the other end of Laugaveger just down from the famous (or infamous) Icelandic Phallological Museum is the Hlemmur Mathöll, home of restaurant Skál. The space is designed to replicate the best of Europe’s food halls with a number of food and beverage stalls, but much sleeker and modern. I entered through the door near Braud and Co., where I could view rolling racks of proofing cinnamon rolls, waiting to be baked. The aroma was intoxicating and I made a mental note to return and sample some of their product.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

NÝTT í brunch! BRUNCH bakki með fullt af gúmmelaði á aðeins 2950 kr! (það er góður díll) . Einnig hægt að fá V eða VG! 🤤❤️🌱 . 🥚 EGG BENEDIKT, grillað brauð, hleypt egg, skinka & hollenzk sósa 🥗TÓMATAR, ferskostur, basilvinaigrette & salat 🐖GRÍSAKINNAR í tómat BBQ, reykt súrmjólk & eplasulta 🥞PÖNNUKÖKUR með birkisírópi, rúsínum & brenndu smjöri . (V) 🥚 EGG BENEDIKT, grillað brauð, hleypt egg, reyktar gulrætur & hollenzk sósa 🥗TÓMATAR, ferskostur, basilvinaigrette & salat 🥔SPÆSÍ SELJURÓT & eplasulta 🥞PÖNNUKÖKUR með birkisírópi, rúsínum & brenndu smjöri . (VG) 🥕REYKTAR GULRÆTUR, grillað brauð, graslauksmajó, piparrót og dill 🥗TÓMATAR, agúrka, basilvinaigrette & salat 🥔SPÆSÍ SELJURÓT & eplasulta 🥞PÖNNUKÖKUR með birkisírópi & rúsínur . — . NEW for brunch! BRUNCH platter with nice bites for only 2950 kr! (that’s a good deal) . Also available V and VG! 🤤❤️🌱 . 🥚 EGG BENEDICT, grilled bread, poached egg, ham & hollandaise 🥗TOMATOES, ricotta, basilvinaigrette & salad 🐖PORK CHEEKS in tomato BBQ, smoked buttermilk and apple jan 🥞PANCAKES with birch syrup, raisins and brown butter . (V) 🥚 EGG BENEDICT, grilled bread, poached egg, smoked carrots & hollandaise 🥗TOMATOES, ricotta, basilvinaigrette & salad 🥔SPICY CELERIAC & apple jam 🥞PANCAKES with birch syrup, raisins and brown butter . (VG) 🥕SMOKED CARROTS, grilled bread, chives and dill 🥗TOMATOES, cucmber, basil vinaigrette & salad 🥔SPICY CELERIAC & apple jam 🥞PANCAKES with birch syrup and raisins . . . #SKÁLrvk #hlemmurmathöll #reykjavik #brunch

A post shared by SKÁL (@skal_rvk) on

Skál was created by the renowned Icelandic chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson (also co-owner of Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjabær and Matur o Drykkar), his childhood friend Gísli Grímsson, and Björn Steinar Jónsson (founder of Saltverk), whom they met at a food festival in Italy. When plans for Reykjavik’s first food hall were announced, the trio decided to open a bar and restaurant together. Hlemmur Mathöll finally opened in August of 2017.

Chef Fanney Sigurjónsdóttir, former Sous Chef at Slippurinn, was tapped to head the new establishment. The menu is a wonderful adventure in Icelandic and vegetarian cuisine with a wine list that features many organic offerings. The thought was to use locally foraged products and to keep the menu light but sturdy enough to compliment local beers and Skál’s justifiably famous cocktails.

Fanney and her wonderful Sous Chef, Kuba, prepared a series of dishes for me that best represent the restaurant’s cuisine. The first was the most popular dish at the restaurant: a small plate of smoked, cured carrots on grilled sourdough bread with fermented garlic mayo, angelica and soy. I suppose this could be called an Icelandic vegan bruschetta, but the flavors and textures were a playground for the palate. The carrots looked like Iberico ham, then when bitten into they almost tasted meaty, packed with umami, with the crunch of the bread and the savory mayo all combining to make each bite a marvel.

Next up was another vegetarian dish, the “buffalo” cauliflower, a take on the ubiquitous sports bar staple chicken wings. The florets were dusted in spices then deep-fried, and Franney added a goat cheese cream in lieu of the typical bleu cheese dressing, accompanied by pickled celery. Once again, every component contributed to the dish, with the coolness of the goat cheese tempering the heat of the cauliflower and the celery providing a refreshing acidity.

I then ordered the lamb ribs with rhubarb barbecue sauce, cabbage, caraway and an unexpected smoked buttermilk sauce. Being a long-time resident of the South, I cannot resist barbecue of any sort, and because lamb is my all-time favorite meat (I was in heaven everywhere I went in this beautiful country since the quality of lamb is outstanding) this dish was a natural for me. Of course, it was a homerun, with the tangy, not too sweet sauce and the tender lamb dancing magically together.

It seemed every dish on the menu was painstakingly thought out and prepared as if each item was a world unto its own of invention and perfect execution, both letting the natural, fresh flavors shine through.

Natural wines are a huge part of the concept at Skál and the restaurant firmly believes in the green movement. There are always several available by the glass or the bottle. I tried one red, a Martin Nitthaus Zweigelt and a white by the same vintner, a Gruner Veltliner. I was intrigued since the wines were from Austria, which are not widely available in the United States. They were both delicious, and paired quite well with Fanney’s cuisine.

She told me that going forward the restaurant would like to incorporate even more traditional Icelandic cooking methods utilizing assorted smoking, curing, pickling techniques along with current preparation trends. Fanney said the menu will always be based on the natural gifts of Icelandic cuisine, which is blessed by superior dairy products, the finest lamb, foraged herbs, vegetables and of course, the magnificent bounty of the sea.

Skál has been a huge success since opening and it’s advisable to come early for a seat around the open kitchen and bar. Hours are Sunday through Wednesday from 11:30 am to 10 pm, and Thursday through Saturday from 11:30 am to 10 pm. Prices range from 700 isk to 2,000 isk for small plates, larger plates range from 2,000 isk up to 2,500 isk, with cocktails, beer and wines by the glass costing 1,300 to 1,750 isk. Skál is located at Laugavegur 107 inside the Hlemmur Mathöll food hall.

The Hlemmur Mathöll also offers a Banh Mi shop, a Taqueria, Jomfruin which features open faced sandwiches, Micro rosttee & Kafi coffee bar, and Isleifnur Heppni an Ice Cream shop where the treats are made to order using liquid nitrogen. Krost, an upscale wine bar with fine food and Rabbar Barinn, a casual eatery, round out the options.

But don’t forget to stop by Braud and Co. for one of their cinnamon rolls. It was simply the best one I’ve ever had.

Subscribe to We Are Chefs via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Author

Categories

Share