“When the economy collapsed 10 years ago, something happened. Before that, restaurants were serving imported foie gras and caviar. But, overnight, the price of everything imported doubled.”
I’m having lunch at a hotel in Reykjavík with Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, a serial Icelandic restaurateur and co-founder of the country’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the dimly-lit, industrial-style Dill. Here, bare branches hang from low, slatted ceilings, jars of pickles and preserves line the walls and dishes are devoted to the purity and simplicity of local ingredients: from coral lumpfish roe layered with pickled dulse, to inky crowberries married with cream and toasted yeast.
We’re discussing new Nordic cuisine. A food movement started in the the mid noughts devoted to expressing ingredients and techniques native to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland in a seasonal, local way, you probably associate it most closely with Copenhagen’s famed Noma. Ólafsson traces cooking this way - in his country, at least - back to the crash of 2008. No longer able to ship the sort of food you associate with old school fancy restaurants in and turn a profit, chefs turned to produce that is abundant in the nation. That’s things like herb-flecked lamb, shimmering pink trout, sour, cultured skyr, toasty rye and sharp redcurrants.
Needless to say, it took off. Now, native, fresh and often funky Icelandic food is abundant in the nation, both in the capital in more remote places. For your delectation, here’s Ólafssonr recommendations - as well as a few extras I discovered while eating my way through the island.
“This is one of my favourites - they have natural wines and Nordic sharing plates. It’s simple, homemade food with local ingredients,” says Ólafsson. On the menu at this Reykjavík hang-out are dishes like salted cod croquettes and beef tartare with an elderflower glaze.
skalrvk.com, Laugavegur 107, 101 Reykjavík
Matur Og Drykkur
Given props by the Michelin guide by being awarded a Bib Gourmand - an accolade that celebrates brilliant restaurants serving food at reasonable prices - this stripped-back, low-lit haunt is new Nordic to the bone. There’s two tasting menus, one with meat and fish, one vegetarian, as well as ‘finger food’ (bits like smoked hung lamb with birch-infused honey and goat’s feta) and main dishes to order à la carte (the cod’s heat cooked in chicken stock and blueberries is magnificent).
maturogdrykkur.is, Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík
This one is relatively new, having opened about a year ago. “It’s in the south-east, in a fishing town called Höfn. They use good ingredients and everything’s well made,” says Ólafsson. Try the lobster soup with sourdough bread and lava salt, as well as their famous cinnamon rolls.
facebook.com/Otto-Matur-Drykkur, Hafnarbraut 2, Höfn.
“This is one of my favourites,” says Ólafsson. “They fuse Italian cooking ideas with Nordic ingredients.” Think sharing plates of cauliflower with ricotta and grilled flatbread, grilled tomatoes with parmesan cream and salted lemon and lamb dumplings with semi-dried tomatoes.
matbar.is, Hverfisgata 26, 101 Reykjavík
Erpsstaðir Ice Cream Valley
Located in the west of Iceland, this family-run dairy farm is somewhere to stop off for homemade ice cream, as well as skyr made the traditional way - more cheese-like and less yoghurt-y than modern versions. “They’re also just very nice people, who run it,” says Ólafsson. If you fancy a taste of authentic Iceland, the family rent out summer cabins, for overnight stays.
erpsstadir.is, Rjómabúið Erpsstaðir, 371, Búðardalur
A (hipster) food hall in downtown Reykjavík , this is filled with interesting vendors dishing up cool plates with local ingredients. LAX Seafood and Bubbles, owned by three childhood friends, serves up super fresh Icelandic salmon platters alongside glasses of fizz and herb/fruit blend cocktails, while Ólafsson recommends the Korean fried chicken wings at street food stand, Kore.
grandimatholl.is, Grandagarður 16, 101 Reykjavík
Just a few minutes from Keflavik Airport in the beautiful Reykjanes peninsula, this seafood restaurant serves up intensely flavoured shellfish bisques, homemade bread and butter and dressed crabs.
vitinn.is, Vitatorg 7, 245 Sandgerði, Reykjanes
“This one opened last year and they’re doing something special,” says Ólafsson. “They’ve got a Danish chef in who is really good.” The focus here is on seasonal tasting menus - of which there are lots to choose from. A vegan version includes pickled cucumber with sunflower and yeast and chervil sorbet with oat milk ice cream, toasted oats and raspberries, with raw shrimp and cod tartare with sorrel and daikon on the meat and fish option.
nostrarestaurant.is, Laugavegur 59, 101 Reykjavík