Surrounded by the bitterly cold waters of the North Atlantic and starved for fields and warmth, Icelandic kitchens have long been isolated from the culinary trends that have otherwise swept Europe. In the 1970s, when Paul Bocuse was dramatically reshaping what French food meant with nouvelle cuisine, Icelanders were still eating hákarl (fermented shark meat) and puffin jerky, dishes that had more to do with long sea voyages and lack of refrigeration than flavor. They still eat puffin and shark to this day.
This isn’t to say Iceland is a wasteland or a backwater. It’s barren but not infertile. Recently, Nordic chefs have begun to rediscover the bounty of their old, frigid lands. Chief among them is René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, which opened in 2004 in Copenhagen, beat out El Bulli and The Fat Duck to be named the S.Pellegrino Best Restaurant in the World. But Redzepi is only one among legion Nordic chefs (though arguably the captain) mining the fjords and foraging the tundra for homegrown yet cutting-edge Nordic cuisine. Copenhagen may be the Lyon of Scandinavia, but Reykjavík isn’t too far behind.
Interestingly, much of this culinary renaissance is due to Iceland’s economic slowdown, brought on by a malevolent volcano and global dependence. “Because of the economic crisis, Icelanders are growing more themselves. We are using more from the land than we ever have,” says Hrefna R. J. Sætran, chef and owner of the Asian-inspired restaurant Fish Market (dinner, from $65; 12 Aðalstræti; 354/578-8877; fiskmarkadurinn.is).
Like most of Reykjavík’s young chefs, Sætran—who worked with renowned Icelandic chef Agnar “Aggi” Sverrisson, as well as at Asian restaurants like London’s Nobu and New York’s Megu—buys directly from local farmers and fishermen but doesn’t hesitate to incorporate exotic ingredients and preparations. For instance, a plate of thinly sliced minke whale makes for Nordic sashimi.
At the nearby and similarly named Fish Company (dinner, from $70; 2A Vesturgötu; 354/552-5300; fishcompany.is), chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson identifies his dishes by country. Under “Iceland” you’ll find seaweed with garlic-broiled langoustine and fern tree–marinated cod next to a plum-tomato curry from India. Both are delicious and, amazingly, locally sourced.
In fact, global locavorism—think globally, procure locally—is a through line in the New Nordic kitchen. “At the end of the day, it’s all about using the good things we have around us instead of importing them from far, far away,” says Gunnar Karl Gíslason, chef at Dill Restaurant (dinner, from $60; 5 Sturlugötu; 354/552-1522; dillrestaurant.is), which opened in 2009. “There are so many people here in Iceland who simply don’t know how many good things we can get from our land.” Staples include lamb fattened on an organic diet of moss, shrubs and wild herbs under Iceland’s 24-hour daylight, and skyr, the country’s famous yogurt-like cheese curd.
Dill’s small, informal dining room, with its throwback pine-and-leather chairs, looks out onto a bird preserve that provides Gíslason daily inspiration. Though the menu changes with the market, a recent entrée included wild goose breast, goose legs in beer, beetroot and apples, with a slightly tart sauce of crowberry (a subarctic berry) touched with rosemary powder.
Gíslason often forages for the day’s menu with his staff. “At the moment I love using the preserved angelica that my staff and I picked this summer,” he says. “The taste is very unique.”
Like Gíslason, chef Hafþór Sveinsson of Silfur (dinner, from $45; 11 Pósthússtræti; 354/578-2008; silfur.is) prepares Nordic proteins that might seem macabre to the foreign tongue. But smoked puffin and grilled reindeer—apologies to Blitzen—comprise some of the most exciting dishes on the menu. His reindeer, for instance, is cured and served with blueberry jam, noisette and Danish rye bread.
A few doors down in the country’s oldest cellar, dating back to the mid-19th century, head chefs Jóhannes Steinn Jóhannesson and Olafur Agústsson are crafting the native bounty into worldly cuisine at the aptly named Sjávarkjallarinn, or Seafood Cellar (dinner, from $60; 2 Aðalstræti; 354/511-1212; sjavarkjallarinn.is). A langoustine comes fried and accompanied by spruce, herb oil and sea buckthorn berries. Smoked cod is served with cod foam.
But tradition still flourishes, preserved perhaps by the frigid temperatures. When the wind blows hard and a thick mist envelops anything in its path, most head to Sægreiffin, or The Sea Baron (lunch, $25; 8 Geirsgötu; 354/553-1500; saegreifinn.is), on the harbor, a rustic shack with barrel seats. Run by retired fisherman Kjartan Halldorsson, who still tends the register, The Sea Baron specializes in humarsúpa, a kind of lobster soup that has changed little over the decades. The delicate flesh of the Icelandic lobster, actually a langoustine, is served in a heady broth of celery, red pepper and tomato and spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Sop up the broth with a piece of rúgbrauð, a local rye bread served warm. Mixed with the bouquet of salty sea air and the comforting aroma of weathered wood, it’s a time, a place and a bite you’ll never forget.
The Nordic pantry is filled with strange and wondrous ingredients. Some of them even taste good.
Crowberry: Smaller and more bitter than a blueberry, the crowberry turns easily into jams and sauces.
Norway Lobster: A large langoustine, the Norway lobster has a flavor more tender and sweet than its cousin.
Angelica: This leafy herb has a subtle bittersweet flavor and is served fresh, candied or preserved.
Skyr: Technically a very soft cheese, skyr is best thought of as a delicious Icelandic yogurt.
Seaweed: Harvested locally, dried or served fresh, Icelandic seaweed is prized for its texture and taste.
Puffin: Served smoked or grilled, puffin tastes like a richer, fishier chicken.