An employee at a food hall in Iceland told me that to eat well in Reykjavik, follow this advice: “Avoid anything with ‘Iceland,’ ‘Icelandic,’ ‘Reykjavik’ or ‘kitchen’ in the name.”
Iceland is rising on many tourists’ radars, and consequently so have the tourist traps. But lost on many visitors is how the country’s unique geography — it’s literally located on a hot spot — has given birth to a one-of-a-kind food scene that’s worth the visit on its own.
Thanks to a low-cost airline providing nonstop flights from BWI, I took a three-night trip to Iceland to gather intel and help fellow Baltimoreans make the most of their own time there — and, of course, dining was top of mind. Here’s what you should eat — and one “delicacy” you should definitely skip.
Winter tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse
I started the day with a shot of yellow cod liver oil at the hotel buffet, followed by several double espressos to ward off jet lag during a tour of the Golden Circle.
My first stop: The snow-covered Friðheimar greenhouse, a veritable Garden of Eden in the Icelandic tundra. The geothermal-powered greenhouse provides 40% of the nation’s tomatoes, which are raised using not only heat from the earth, but also solar-powered lamps that provide enough light to compensate for the short winter days.
At a restaurant inside the greenhouse, tourists can sample the fruits in everything from spicy tomato soup to tomato cocktails to ice cream. Surrounded by plants and the occasional buzzing bee, photographer Birta Sveinbjörnsdóttir and I ladled our bowls full of the soup, garnishing with basil we snipped ourselves from a plant at the table.
I hired Birta, a native Icelander, to drive me to see the country’s most famous geyser, not far from the greenhouse. As we trudged up a moss-covered hill, pockets of steam rose from the ground.
To me, it stunk like rotten eggs. But Birta inhaled deeply. “I love this smell,” she said, noting that the geothermal energy “is the reason why we have heated houses.”
Iceland’s most expensive ticket
As I shivered my way up Reykjavik’s blustery main street, I found an unmarked door covered in graffiti — and inside of it was a portal to Iceland in the 1950s. Old TV shows played on an antique set in a living room lined with family photos and a peach negligee hung in the bathroom. I took a seat in a low couch and began to get to know my fellow diners, all from the United States.
Before too long, owner Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson appeared, dressed in a chef’s jacket. With a smile, he pushed a wooden bookcase to reveal a candle-lit dining room that seats just over a dozen people around a small and inviting kitchen. “Welcome to Óx,” he said.
The succession of courses made everyone swoon. That’s the best thing I’ve ever had. No, this is. No, this. Among the highlights of a dinner that lasted nearly four hours was an appetizer of Icelandic fried bread filled with lamb tartare, accompanied by a teacup of buttery lamb broth. Lamb is to Iceland what crab is to Maryland: a source of immense local pride. Restaurants that use authentic local lamb even get a fancy seal of approval to display outside their front door.
Fish and other seafood featured prominently in the meal, too. House-smoked salmon with sour berry. Grilled monkfish, served with sauce and a side of self-deprecation. (“In Iceland, we love our sauces,” chef Runar Pierre Heriveaux told the diners.) Raw Icelandic scallops with local wasabi grown in a thermal-powered greenhouse.
Since food tastes better with a story, the enjoyment was enriched by explanations from the various chefs, sincere and brimming with personality. During dinner, Heriveaux explained how one enterprising local baker uses a “broken geyser” to make rye bread, baking it in the steam and delivering it to the Óx chefs at unpredictable hours. We ate wedges of the moist, dark brown bread with generous heaps of butter. For dessert, we partook in an Icelandic pancake with beetroot toffee, caramels and a cookie made from chicken skin. (Imagine a piece of fried chicken skin cut into circles and dipped in the best chocolate. Like everything I ate that night, it was amazing.)
My 12-course, $375 meal, perhaps the most expensive in the entire country, included tax, gratuity and a choice of wine or nonalcoholic beverage pairings. As a non-drinker, I stuck to water since many of the nonalcoholic choices actually have small amounts of booze. But in Iceland, water isn’t a bad choice; I came to think of it as the secret ingredient to the cuisine. “The water here is the best I’ve ever had,” said the man to my right, a foodie from Portland. “I’m a big water snob.”
After dinner, I caught up with Heriveaux, who is Haitian and Icelandic and spent several years in U.S. kitchens. He shared a few of the joys and challenges of working in Iceland, where some of the world’s best ingredients can be hemmed in by stubborn tradition. “It’s hard to change the culture here,” he said. Óx aims to challenge that, representing Icelandic foods in preparations inspired by around the world.
And he offered a recommendation for my next meal: Skál, or “Cheers” in Icelandic.
Arctic char at Skál
Skál was founded by three chefs, including the founders of Saltverk, an artisanal salt manufacturer located in Iceland’s Westfjords. But the location is atypical for a fine dining joint: it’s inside the country’s first food hall, a converted bus stop in the center of Reykjavik.
Seated at the counter, I watched chefs prepare my beet salad and Arctic char entree and chatted with manager Hrafnkell Ingi Gissurarson, who told me how the city’s food scene has gone only uphill in the past 10 years. Skál, he said, is even busier than it was before the pandemic.
Like many of Iceland’s trendier eateries, Skál presents local ingredients with a Scandinavian flavor. Reykjavik’s top chefs seem more likely to draw inspiration from the New Nordic cuisine movement started in nearby Sweden and Denmark than from their own grandmothers’ cooking.
Food halls are gaining steam in Iceland, and I regret not having time to check out Grandi Mathöll, another one along the harbor. Instead, I stopped in for a light snack at Forrétta, a cozy bar with a menu geared toward small bites. I took it as a positive sign that the hostess spoke to me in Icelandic, the first and only time that happened during my trip. I passed on the entree of horse filet.
Food tour of Reykjavik
To round out my trip to Iceland, I decided to go on a Reykjavik food tour.
The drizzly weather didn’t stop us from meandering from restaurant to restaurant in the city center, including a pit stop for lamb hot dogs at a longtime stall that former president Bill Clinton apparently came to every day during his trip here in 2004. It tastes like a hot dog.
Our second-to-last stop included some hearty lamb soup, the kind Icelandic parents make for their kids when they’re sick. But the guide presented something less welcome, too: a tiny jar of fermented shark meat, also known as hákarl. Why fermented? Because the Greenland shark it comes from is poisonous, and it’s only edible when fermented. Great.
Though I’d been hoping to avoid a shark encounter during my stay in Iceland, I found it hard to turn it down when it was right in front of me. So I took a wooden toothpick and pierced it into a tiny sliver of shark meat. It smelled strongly of ammonia — the kind you’d expect from a particularly stinky cheese. I bit down on the chewy flesh, then chugged a glass of orange soda to wash away the fishy flavor. Skál!
The restaurant’s name, by the way: The Icelandic Bar.