Thursday, 14 June 2012

Icelandic Vittles

At the end of our first full day in Iceland, we came up against the dilemma that all travelers must face eventually: where to eat dinner. I am certain that this causes the breakdown of many a traveling partnership. Someone wants Italian and the other reckons they can eat pizza anywhere - why not embrace the local culture and tradition? Why not, indeed.

The answer from the oh, so very helpful woman at the front desk of our hotel? You know Icelandic food is traditionally disgusting, right? Putrefied shark and things?

The Pearl


Us (shuddering): Oh...

Woman: Most Icelanders eat a lot of fish and lamb.

Us (with palpable relief): Ooh, we love those.

Fortunately, she pointed us to a little, local, family-run restaurant which did not have putrefied shark on the menu, though it did have both whale and puffin (yep, the penguin) on offer. Þrir Frakkar is at Baldursgata 14 and is well worth a visit, should you find yourself in Reykjavik. I had skate in a lemon dill sauce that was to die for. The other half indulged his passion for salmon and we were both wildly impressed, both with our main courses and the salty fresh bread that started the meal.

Salty bread? You ask. Yes, pretty much everything we had in Iceland was liberally salted. Delicious, but it was a good thing that the service there is excellent so our water glasses were always filled. That was another lovely thing about Iceland, we didn't have to ask for water at the table, the way we do in London. They just give it to you. As much cool, clean, mountain water as you want, which is excellent after long days touring or floating in hot pools. It's a tough life.

For our other dinner we sprung for the glamorous experience of eating at The Pearl, Reykjavik's rotating restaurant - what city doesn't have one these days? So, if every major tourist destination city has one, what makes The Pearl different? Well, in terms of rotating restaurants, we've been to a couple and it's not that special. It's a restaurant and it moves in a circle. The views are really what sells it, though, it's not just a simple city view. It took us an hour to have our three course meal and during that time we saw snow capped mountains, lava fields, sweeping sea vistas, a cloudless sky and the colourful city of Reykjavik. With the almost constant position of the sun, it was like being suspended in time.

Of course, The Pearl (Perlan in Icelandic) is even more special, because it is the storage facility for all the hot water used in Reykjavik. Now, "water storage facility" might not be a major selling point for some fine diners, but, as regular readers will know, it sure is for me when the hot water is produced by green energy! I was shocked to read on The Pearl's website that the use of geothermal heat to produce energy and hot water "has only been technologically practical for the past 60 years." Only? It sounds like they feel they really should have got around to it sooner. They've been doing it for over half a century and the rest of the world? Well, we all know where the rest of the world is at. Let's ship some more oil across an ocean. (Did you know that the technology exists to heat buildings by geothermal means even in areas without the extreme geological activity of Iceland? That means your house, your office building.)

But I digress into ecological rant, once again.

Instead, let's talk Reykjavik nightlife!

In the true spirit of travelers everywhere we went to the Irish pub (Celtic Cross). I know, sounds terribly cliched and all that, but it turned out to be brilliant. We were the only customers at first and the bartender was really friendly, so we chatted to him about everything from Icelandic wages and the cost of living to the culture of drinking and the fact that Iceland is so small, he can always recognize the tourists - and it's not just because they go for drinks on Sunday nights. The only question he couldn't answer, was what time bars have to close on the weekends. He knew that he had closed up sometime between 5 and 7am that morning, but it all seemed a bit hazy.

In our defence, we had been trying to go to a place recommended by hotel reception as a local haunt and good live music venue. It was closed on Sunday, but we gave it another shot on Monday and ended up hearing some amazing stuff. It started a little rough when the first singer introduced the evening with, "I hope we don't drown you with our sorrowful songs." Awesome. Sounds like a rousing night to come. While he did tend toward the slightly depressing ethereal, he was joined by an amazing harmonica player and then followed by a singer who sang with all the interest of Leonard Cohen, except he could sing. Think of Leonard Cohen if he was a brilliant singer on top of being a brilliant poet and musician, this guy was that good! We didn't understand a word they sang, but the music transcended and we had a great time. For good music check out Cafe Rosenberg!

Colourful Reykjavik from the Cathedral
So, you ask me, what should I eat when in Iceland? You promised info on food and drink, not just gushing about your holiday. I did promise and I intend to follow through. Now, I can't give you the low down on whale, because we have environmental objections to whaling and didn't feel we knew enough about Icelandic whaling practices to make an informed decision. And we didn't try the puffin, well, because it was a starter and we weren't hungry enough for two courses at Þrir Frakkar. However, we can highly recommend the fish and the lamb, which were both fresh everywhere we went. In fact, everything we ate tasted fresh and was very flavourful, even the burger from the food court at the geysers was pretty tasty with nice veggies and killer onion rings. The real don't miss item for me, though, was skir. I had it at breakfast and it was to die for. I loved it and would eat it every day if I lived in Iceland. It was like desert for breakfast, but not too sweet. Just perfect creamy goodness.

Apparently, the best hot dogs in the world are served from a little place down by the water. Bill Clinton loved it, it's the most popular restaurant in Iceland, even the drunk US naval cadet with the breathalyzer in his pocket raved about it, but we couldn't find it. Seasoned travelers strike again. Or, perhaps "strike out again" is more appropriate. We had lunch at an Italian place instead.

As far as drinks, Iceland produces some nice local beers. I preferred Viking, which produces a range from an unremarkable lager to a bitter stout, which I loved, but the other half hated. He was much more a fan of Gull, who produce a slightly hoppier and sweeter lager. It was certainly more flavourful than the Viking option, but a little to sweet for me. Of course, when it comes to Iceland, the big talk is always about "black death" or brennevin. The bartender at Rosenberg's warned us that it was horrible and that when she traveled in India she and her friend used to mix it with some other liquor to make a concoction they called "Shark's Piss". Yum, can't wait. After all that build up, we bought one shot as a taste ("You have drink it really cold." she warned.) and... it wasn't that bad. In fact, it just tastes like the caraway seeds they use to flavour it, so it's definitely tastier than cheap vodka. If people are waking up a little rough after brennevin, I suspect it has more to do with quantity than the black death itself.

So there you have it, folks, the low down and the dirty on two and a half days in Iceland. You can't see it all, but you can get a pretty good feel for it, even in Italian restaurants and Irish pubs.

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