Delicious Iceland: From the Gourmet to the Gas Station in the Land of Ice and Fire
The great thing about exerting oneself climbing glaciers, swimming through freezing-cold waters and driving ATVs up mountains on an action-packed Iceland vacation is a guilt-free feast at the end of every day.
Kate and I embarked on a week in chilly Iceland and took full advantage of their delicious food, from a ten-course meal overlooking the glimmering blue lagoon to unforgettable liquorice-filled snacks eaten in the back seat of a super jeep, our faces glued to the windows and our teeth glued to our tongues!
Here is the lowdown on what to eat in the Land of Ice and Fire, according to two people who LOVE food…
Reykjavik: city of wonder
Although our well-travelled colleagues had warned us to arrive with empty stomachs and big appetites, still this city took us by surprise with the array of high-end eateries to choose from. ‘Icelanders’ (how lovely locals refer to themselves) are rightfully proud of their cuisine; it was organic, fresh, and locally-sourced before other cities even recognised these as selling points. As concierge, I had the pleasure of site visits, and ran (quite literally) from restaurant to restaurant, snapping photos of copper lampshades, classy place-settings, unique murals and mouthwatering menus while Kate explored the local hotels.
City favourites: how to choose?!
If you are staying in Reykjavik even for just one night, you are spoiled for choice. Starting with local fare, there is no foodie write-up of this city complete without a mention of the famous hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, an unassuming red-and-white shack. Our guide Thor told us that despite the varied and hearty cuisine of Iceland, what he craves on his international travels when he’s feeling homesick is a hot dog from this very stand. It is the taste of home. And that is not to say an Icelander’s palette is not refined; McDonalds didn’t take off here, with the last branch closing in 2009.
If a hot dog eaten standing up and quite possibly in the snow doesn’t appeal to you, fear not; this is an anomaly in Reykjavik’s otherwise classy (and indoor) restaurant scene. If you wanted to sum up this city’s food in one meal, look no further than a three-course set menu at the deservingly popular Fishmarket. Snuggled in the centre of town, you will be welcomed by an atmospherically lit bar, a wall of post-it’s claiming accolades such as ‘best meal EVER’ and some of the friendliest staff in Iceland. My favourite thing about this restaurant is how each object in the room has a story behind it; every deliberate decoration has a naughty narrative or a connection to a local artist, so make sure you quiz your waiter about something that catches your eye.
Having run myself in circles discussing self-marinating lamb and the benefits of cod liver oil for Nordic babies (more to come later on those topics), the next night Kate and I found ourselves looking for something high-end but less focused on Icelandic cuisine. We discovered Sumac. With a Moroccan-inspired food menu and a large wine list, we gorged ourselves on heavenly hummus and fiery flatbread and made a toast to our good fortune. It was strange how after a long day’s adventuring and many days of chatting, we both had a similar moment of grateful reflection simultaneously, making a toast to our good fortune with a cocktail-stick skewered olive dripping in one hand and a glass of red shining in the other. I can’t promise a similarly happy and grateful moment if you eat here but I can promise a meal worthy of such feelings. Choose a table with views of the sparkling city streets, or face the chefs for a mouth-watering show.
Now as you may know, at the time of writing in late 2019, there are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Iceland. Speaking of our luck and good fortune, I would love to share some industry secrets, since you’ve read so far into our culinary journey. Hidden at the back of Sumac, if you walk through the bar, there is a secret dining experience for 11 lucky travellers per night at the humbly decorated ÒX. If you are lucky enough to get a much-coveted seat, you’ll have the unique experience of being able to discuss your meal with your chef as he prepares your plates and awakens your senses. Eating here is an Icelandic adventure of an intimate sort, with incredible ingredients, textures and flavour combinations making their way onto the plate. It’s not cheap, but for something totally unique, ÒX is hard to beat and tipped for a Michelin star in the future. Reserve in advance to be ahead of the curve – you didn’t hear it from me!
Eating meat: the insider’s guide
As a vegetarian, I feel a little weird sharing this nugget of information with you, but for curious meat-eaters, here is a pretty amazing fact. Lamb in Iceland graze freely, and they live a good (if regularly sub-zero) life grazing the Nordic fields. They dine on arctic thyme, berries, heather, and other herbs which grow freely in this farmyard paradise – yep, they self-season their meat. This, combined with a nationwide farm-to-table mentality and a thriving agricultural sector, means Icelandic lamb is especially delicious. Culturally, farming is a good example of honest and community-focused Icelandic behaviour; when sheep roam too far and get lost in a faraway flock, they are herded into star-shaped pens where each point belongs to a different farmer. Then once in a while, a farmer with a few absent sheep will pass by and pick us his more adventurous fluffy pals. No woolly theft here! Cool, right?
I know from my experience as a concierge here at Jacada that often, our most adventurous travellers can be disheartened by the suggestion of eating at the hotel, as they want to taste the best food around and can’t believe that it’s being baked, whipped and seasoned in the same building as their bedroom. However, outside Reykjavik, the best food is always found in high-end hotel restaurants. One that we were lucky enough to visit was the completely unique Torfhús Retreat. The word ‘hotel’ really does not suffice when describing this remote, purpose-built, grassy-roofed, Viking-inspired, meticulously thought out Icelandic paradise. Aside from Deplar Farm (mentioned later) – if you are ever going to visit Iceland – you must stay here, and I know Kate would agree. I only managed photos of the canapes – after that, we were too busy stuffing ourselves to pause to reach for the camera…
Northern Iceland: eating at the edge of the world
OK, I can’t delay my love of Deplar any longer; it is my favourite hotel in the world, and Kate’s too. If you combine our lifetimes’ total room nights, that is really saying something. Deplar is many things, but I would describe it as something of a full-scale advent calendar; when we were led around the grounds upon arrival, each room had a secret minibar. It really is hilarious. ‘Oh and here is the games room, with every games console possible. Under here’ – secret minibar revealed – ‘under here, an extensive snack bar including our homemade hummus, drinks, sweets, and anything else you might possibly want to eat. Of course, you can always ask us if you want anything else!’. We only stayed one night at the stunning Deplar (managing to squeeze in a little stargazing, a three-course meal, a few personalised cocktails, a spot of karaoke, a dip in the geothermal pool, some champagne from the swim-up bar, a spot of relaxation in a Sensorial Deprivation Chamber, yoga, a sound bath, skeet shooting, a property tour, AND the northern lights, not necessarily in that order) and I could not find the space inside me to eat everything available.
Dinner was delicious and the simple soup the next day was maybe the best soup I have ever eaten. The contents of the minibar in my room was enticingly homemade so that I stayed up late just to be able to eat what was inside it. Picture little old me in one of Deplar’s giant beds, eating chocolates, hummus and flatbread and just sort of looking around, drinking in the atmosphere of my room. In this industry it is sometimes hard to put luxury into words; for me, this was it. Despite all available activities and views, just my room was a sight to behold, and a simple minibar enough for a midnight feast. Amazing.
I am not sure how to bring this food story to an end, but I have made myself terribly hungry so I must leave you. I hope I have led you on a journey around Iceland similar to what Kate and I experienced in this unique and magical country. We are lucky enough to work in a team of food-lovers, and if you reach out to anyone in the Europe team, you will be met with equal passion about the cuisine, people, and magic of Iceland and your concierge will have lots to recommend! Let us know if you find any gems… I will definitely be back one day for second helpings.