The queue at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur; by Robert DiGiacomo
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur; photo by Robert DiGiacomo

I had heard the horror stories about trying to find a decent meal in Iceland, incredible tales of a land of $50 pizzas, no green vegetables and mayonnaise as a food group.

So I knew better than to go to Reykjavik just for the food. Yet I managed to eat well during a New Year’s visit –– and mostly without breaking the bank.

Among street food options, there are few sandwiches more satisfying on a chilly day than a $2.50 lamb hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a local landmark with a perpetual line situated near the Reykjavik harbor

Naturally, I asked for mine slathered in mustard, crispy, chopped fried onions and –– yes –– mayo.

Lobster soup at The Sea Baron; photo by Robert DiGiacomo
Lobster soup at The Sea Baron; photo by Robert DiGiacomo

Nearby is another local institution, Sægreifinn or The Sea Baron, a rustic restaurant specializing in lobster soup and grilled fish kebabs that wouldn’t look out of place in New England.

The soup, filled with chunks of succulent lobster meat floating in a buttery bisque, can cure anyone’s troubles, and the cod and salmon tasted like they just belly-flopped on the dock to deliver themselves to the grill.

Still, hot dogs and soup don’t add up to a complete diet, so over several dinners, I checked out the mid- and upper-range of Rekyjavik’s dining scene.

At the cozy Geysir Bistro & Bar, I sampled a trio of fishy delicacies –– traditional Icelandic shark, dried fish and pickled herring, three-ways.

Dill's pine cone centerpiece as amuse bouche; by Joseph Bernstein
Dill’s pine cone centerpiece as amuse bouche; photo courtesy of Joseph Bernstein

Once proved quite enough with the shark, so pungent that it came in a glass jar with a lid. The chewy dried fish washed down nicely with a local Gull beer. But the herring –– particularly with dill –– won me over. Simple fish and chips also satisfied, while the tab –– about $100 for two with drinks –– didn’t hurt my wallet too much, either.

Situated nearby, the splashy Fish Market came highly recommended for its pan-Asian style menu reminiscent of the Buddakan restaurants in Philadelphia, New York and Atlantic City. Fish Market has the added cachet of being run by one of Iceland’s best-known female chefs, Hrefna Rósa Sætran. I enjoyed the novelty of having such food in Iceland –– think dishes like rock shrimp tempura in a zesty melon-jalapeno dressing and satay-style blueling fish in a coconut-creamed barley –– but didn’t love the slightly pretentious service nor the jangly ambiance.

But the meal that really made me reconsider Icelandic’s food reputation turned out to be an extravagant, five-course celebration of modern Nordic cuisine at Dill, where even the centerpiece contributed to the meal.

xxx; by Joseph Bernstein
Herring with rye bread “ice cream” and rye crumble; photo courtesy of Joseph Bernstein

The locavore-style restaurant, which is tucked away in the Nordic House on the edge of the downtown, requires a little effort to reach, and a bit of an investment. The five-course tasting, with a beer and wine pairing, clocked in at $150 a person.

A meal of similar quality in the States would likely cost more, and perhaps wouldn’t be as imaginative: The proceedings started with an amuse bouche from the chef consisting of a pine cone lined with slices of dried lamb and crackers, and moved forward through creative dishes, such as bone marrow soup with carmelized onions and a poached egg, and herring with rye bread “ice cream” and rye crumble.

By the time I worked my way through expertly prepared courses featuring local cod and beef, I knew that Icelandic cuisine had gotten a bum rap. And that I would find a way to return, as long as I could request the mayo on the side.


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