Egill Skallagrímsson, one of Iceland’s most beloved folk heroes, wrote his first poem aged three, was an alcoholic by six and a murderer at seven. He’s famed for his acerbic wit, vicious temper and handiness with an axe, which he was more than willing to drive through the skull of friend or foe alike. His tales of conquest, revenge and merriment play out against a backdrop of epic banquets and drinking, both of which he excelled at.
Throughout its history, food and booze have been an integral part of Iceland’s culture. And little wonder: it can be a singularly unforgiving place during the winter, when its miles of razor-sharp volcanic rocks are blanketed in snow and the only green visible is the flashing of the northern lights overhead. There are countless stories mythologising the scarcity of food, such as the elven “hid-woman”, a magical creature whose cave you can spot on the road to the breathtaking Snaefellsnes peninsula, far from the tourist trail on the west side of the island. She led a happy existence catching fish in the lake outside her cave until some settlers arrived. The unusually accommodating elf – a tall, gaunt thing with elongated features – grudgingly shared its fishing spot with the settlers, until they decided she was catching too many and murdered her. From that day until this, no fish have been able to survive in the lake.
Stories like this are myriad; every precariously placed stone and oddly-shapen hill represents a troll who stayed out after dawn, or some other unfortunate creature. Snaefellsnes itself is a Tolkien-esque wonderland of naturally carved archways and terrifying sink-holes, with strange hexagonal rocks rising from the sea that seem to hint at intelligent design rather than natural formation (they’re made when basalt lava is cooled very quickly by cold water). These rocks provide inspiration for Reykjavik’s expressionist Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, an austere, grey masterpiece that rises phallically in the centre of Reykjavik.
Iceland feels more connected to its folklore than anywhere I’ve visited; its geothermal landscape, pocked with naturally heated pools and gigantic, spraying geysers, still seems like the stuff of legend even when you understand the science behind them; early settlers must have felt like Prospero washing ashore on his magical island.
After a day hiking across this rugged, haunting landscape, nothing is more welcome than a banquet fit Skallagrímsson himself. And Reykjavik is more than able to deliver. For an island with a population of just 323,000, it has an incredibly well-developed restaurant scene, filled with interesting twists on classic Scandinavian cooking. What better way to explore this hearty, unusual cuisine than through a series of epic tasting menus? I embarked on three gigantic meals in three nights.
Matur og Drykkur
You may be aware, in a theoretical sense, of how big a cod can grow. But you’ll never really grasp this until you’ve been served a head the size of a roast turkey, it’s skin crisp and bronzed, jaws slightly open, hollow eyes regarding you as you tuck into the copious white flesh.
When you arrive at Matur og Drykkur, a relatively new restaurant located near the harbour, you may question whether you’re at the right place. You have to enter through the neighbouring Saga Museum, but don’t be deterred: this is a boundlessly interesting restaurant. The food is unapologetically, in-your-face Nordic, with fermented shark and sheep’s head common fixtures on the constantly changing menu.
The dining room has the woody, spartan quality that you associate with Scandinavian restaurants, combined with the hipper elements from a gentrified Hackney boozer. Decorative touches, such as the paintings of landscapes adorning the walls that have been chopped into slices and mismatched, stay on the right side of quirky.
The six-course tasting menu starts with charred flatbread with arctic char (similar to salmon) and horseradish, presented as four minimalist islands on a vast plate: clean, crisp, unfussy. Paper-thin slices of dried fish with whey butter and dulse was a nice twist on bread and butter (and my god, that butter), while cod’s liver on crackers was demolished so quickly I can only assume I enjoyed them. Langoustine tail followed, presented in an abstract swirl of dill oil and dulse, a little heap of dried fish shavings grated on top.
But the highlight was the cod’s head cooked in chicken stock and served with with potato salad and lovage; a meal you won’t forget in a while. Dessert of skyr, blueberries and oats was mercifully light.
Grillmarkadurinn – translated as Grill Market – is one of Iceland’s undisputed heavyweight restaurants. While the exterior is relatively modest, inside is a richly textured grotto, every surface made up of elements representing Iceland’s natural heritage. Banquettes are divided by walls of loosely hewn rock, entire walls are covered in mossy greenery and tables are made from thick cross-sections of logs. It’s not hyperbolic to say it’s one of the most fabulous dining rooms I’ve ever seen.
The tasting menu, which seems to consist of approximately 10,000 courses, is eclectic, darting from pungent deep-fried dried fish to mini lobster burgers with Sichuan mayonnaise. Monkfish skewers with cottage cheese and a tangy, barbecue-style sauce was a highlight, while a bowl of mussels in vegetable broth was a nice change of pace, giving you time to recoup before the hearty chicory-smoked monkfish, salmon with apple and broccoli teriyaki, and cod with chorizo and cauliflower puree.
Everything is magnificently well prepared. As you may have gathered, the food draws on disparate, far-flung influences, but manages to maintain its core Nordic identity. Prices in Iceland are rarely cheap, and you’ll pay handsomely for the pleasure of dining at Grillmarkadurinn, but with food this good it’s hard to argue.
Of the three restaurants reviewed here, Apotek is the most self-consciously international. Perhaps it’s because it doubles as a hotel, but neither the decor – involving lots of medicine bottles – nor the menu give you many clues that you’re in Iceland. It is, however, popular with locals, with a bouncy, after-work atmosphere. It’s the kind of place I can imagine a survivor of the Icelandic banking crash bringing a date.
The six-course fish tasting menu started off with small plates of seared tuna drizzled in spicy aji amarillo (a cheese-based sauce that hails from Peru), perch served amid a vivid explosion of beetroot and dill oil and – the pick of the bunch – curls of cured trout with samphire, quinoa and just a hint of truffle oil. Next up was a decent fillet of cod served with kale and cabbage, which was followed up with another fillet, this time salmon in a sticky barbecue sauce, which seemed like overkill.
Given my time again, I’d use Apotek as a place to knock back a few cocktails before returning to Matur og Drykkur to tackle another of those cod heads. It’s not bad, but neither is it somewhere you’ll be recommending to the folks back home. To put a positive spin on it: it’s a testament to the quality of the food in Reykjavik that somewhere this competent can be so comprehensively overshadowed.
First published in City A.M.