Oh, Iceland, we love you so.
Our oft-delayed trip to the Land of Ice to attend the 25th anniversary shows for our fave band, gusgus, finally happened after two years of delays due to covid. This was our fifth visit since 2005, the third to specifically see gusgus (and the fourth to see them).
The weather was, at times, frightful, but also often delightful, frequently within ten minutes of each other. I almost suffered a Jack-London style ice-death walking from the bus stop to the hotel in a blizzard and inappropriate attire, abandoned on the street by the love of my life.
The Bride bid on an upgrade to business class and landed it! ooo boy: sometimes it is better to not know how the other 1% live because it was sure nice! Dinner was amazing with good champagne, a gin and tonic with an aromatic local (to Iceland) gin, fish and salad, salted butter, risotto, four desserts. Wow. Just like the old days that I have been told about.
Alda (by Brass Kitchen + Bar)
We didn’t sign up for the breakfast part of our hotel stay, but we should have since it was (1) good and (2) we ate there most mornings. A mixture of Icelandic staples and more standard fare, it was a nice way to start the day. Skyr in Iceland is different but better than that we get stateside (as it should be). Creamier, thicker, heartier.
For dinner our first night, we crashed Dill but failed to secure a seat. Considered by many to be the best restaurant in Iceland (they have a Michelin star), you eat what they serve you from their prix fixe menu, which runs about $125 a head (not bad for this level of food) plus another $100 a head for paired wines. We were able to to see the place and the chefs at work. We had hoped to grab a spot at the bar, but there is no bar. The food takes so much preparation that they have to know you are coming to start making your dinner before you get there. Next time…
SNAPS bistro bar
As a consolation prize, we strolled over to our favorite restaurant in Reykjavik, SNAPS. Friendly, Frenchy (with an Icelandic slant), and reliably excellent, we enjoyed drinks, fish, and just desserts.
Hnoss is housed in Harpa, the gorgeous performance hall in Reykjavik. We didn’t eat a proper meal here–mostly coffee and drinks–but we should have. Fantastic space and, given the clientele and what we saw plated, great food. The images below are from several visits since Harpa was the home of the gusgus concerts, the meeting place for the food tour, and covid testing.
As you might imagine, the coffee culture in Iceland is ferocious. If you seek eye-watering insight into how seriously Icelanders take their coffee consumption, read Halldór Laxness’ Independent People. Reykjavik is liberally sprinkled with coffee shops. Reykjavik Roasters is a fave because we went there every morning with friends over a long New Year’s Eve weekend a couple years ago.
We were looking for a quick snack, and this place popped up as recommended. Simple, but good. Despite four previous trips to Iceland, this was the first time I had tried lamb soup. Wasn’t trying to avoid it; it just wasn’t being served.
We really wanted to visit the geothermal exhibit at Reykjavik’s power plant, so we day-rented a car from Blue (recommend) and navigated 30 kilometers of slush and low visibility to get there. We planned to hit the first coffee shop on the way there, and Littla Kaffistofan was it. Cute little place with several Icelandic staples (kleinur [the Icelandic donut], smoked lamb on buttered flatbread [something we developed a love for on our previous trip], and chocolate rice krispie blobs [not an Icelandic delicacy but something Kaffistofan is known for]). Espresso drinks are robot-based, so get the coffee (which is excellent) instead. A pleasant breakfast with the snow-plow drivers and a peek into the more traditional rural cuisine.
After spending a few hours at the powerplant (and peeking at the atmospheric CO2 harvester), we rolled into Hveragerði hoping to hike up to Reykjadalur Valley and soaking in the hot springs. Hope turned to nope once it became clear the weather was too awful (folks were coming back soaking wet) and the springs too far. Plan B was to eat at the visitor center, Reykjadalur Skáli. It was fast casual, but also fantastic. Super cozy. This is where I had my second bowl of lamb soup.
Brass Kitchen & Bar
After a successful day out in the weather with no accidents and a bonus tour of a lava tube, we settled down at the hotel restaurant, Brass Kitchen and Bar. The bride went with greens while I tried my hand at a lamb burger. Both really, really good. Icelanders like to put a lot of stuff on their stuff, so be ready for that.
The next morning we hit Kaktus to start our morning, right around the corner and run by the friend of a store owner we chatted with a bit with about birds. Another competent and cute coffee bar, this one with a parrot!
After the light breakfast and strolling around the docks in search of street art, we met the food tour at Harpa. Our compatriots were a large group from New Mexico, a couple from New York, a couple from Germany, and a couple from Spain. We had a real live Icelander named Eyglo lead the tour, which was fun since she offered local insights to the food scene. We started the eating at Fjallkonan, which is right off the original (and tiny!) town square. Fjallkonan offers chef interpretations of Icelandic classics, including a different take on lamb on buttered flatbread and artic char on pancake. The restaurant is located in a former falconry.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – Tryggvagata
From there, we wandered to THE place to try the famous Icelandic hotdog: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Hotdogs are something of an affordable, local, after-hours snack, something to eat at 4:30 am after the clubs close and before you head home. I’ve had one of these on every trip, and they are really good Icelandic style with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. First dog I’ve had with real pop to the skin. Bill Clinton ate a dog here once but ordered it only with mustard (dude: weak…), something they now call a “Bill Clinton.”
We did our big eatin’ over at Messinn, which is the word for calling sailors to chow. Food here was family style (at least for our group) and really good. We had plokkfiskur (traditional Icelandic fish stew) and sizzled arctic char. We also had Icelandic-style rye bread, which has a slight sweetness to it.
Off to Íslenski barinn for an Einstök White Ale with mandarin and (yet another bowl of) Icelandic lamb meat soup!
The tour ended at Café Loki where we had an amazing view of the church, a mini-kleinur, and a stunning rye bread ice cream topped with whipped cream and caramelized rhubarb syrup.
Eyglo shared some interesting tidbits during the tour: (1) Icelanders don’t get the foreign fascination with their hotdogs, (2) Domino’s Pizza is “serious business” in Iceland and considered by many to be gourmet pizza [before you barf in your pillow, she explained that it is nothing like stateside Domino’s and costs $36 a pie!], (3) Brennivin is still a thing in Iceland [me: “When’s the last time you drank some?” she: “Last night…”], (4) McDonalds and other American fast-food restaurants closed up shop after the mad cow disease scare and Iceland’s requirement to use local meat thereafter, (5) geothermally-powered greenhouses grow many of their veggies and even bananas, (6) the locals look down their noses at the newcomer chocolate-maker Omnom and instead prefer the goods made by Traditional (since 1933), and (7) modern-day Icelanders don’t really partake of the rotten shark and skate, but she has fond memories of her grandfather eating rotten shark and chasing it with a shot of Brennivin.
We returned to Loki later for a nightcap, another hit of that rye bread Ice cream and, finally, a taste of hákarl, that fermented shark. Hákarl is made from Greenland shark, which is poisonous due to high levels of urea. The traditional preparation method involves placing shark meat in a shallow grave, letting it ferment in place for 6 to 12 weeks, and then hanging it to dry for several months. It’s an acquired taste and, just like Eyglo’s grand-dad, the tradition is to follow it up with a shot of Brennivin.
It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, but it was long way off from good (and probably the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth). It has a chemical odor like cleaning fluids (or urine), and the taste is foul with a rubbery texture, like chewing on urine-soaked rubber bands. I didn’t gag, but I felt like I easily could if I let my concentration slip. I gladly chased it with some Brennivin. I ate two of the three cubes of that shark meat.
cafe at sky lagoon
The Blue Lagoon has gotten to be too much or us (too. many. people.). We are also saddled with memories of being there with 30 people in all instead of 300 (we first visited in 2005 when Iceland entertained ~200,000 tourists a year; now they entertain ~1.2 million a year). Instead, we tried Sky Lagoon, across the bay from the Reykjavik airport, which just opened last year. We got there right at opening and splurged on the full moo, including private dressing rooms. The water could have been warmer (it’s warmer at Blue Lagoon, at least in places), but this experience is highly recommended. There’s a bar in the water, and we hit the cafe on the way out for a snack.
One of the goals of going on the food tour was to identify a place to eat our last meal at, and we chose Fjallkonan. We ordered the same stuff we sampled and a bowl of cauliflower. Just as good, if not better, than during the tour.
Here are some of my better shots of the country from this trip. Enjoy!