Why Icelandic Food Rocks My World

Hotel Budir, on Iceland's Snaefellsnes Peninsula (photo by Georgia Fisher)

Georgia Fisher is a reporter for D’s sister publications Park Cities People, Preston Hollow People, and Oak Cliff People. In May, she tagged along on a group trip through Iceland’s capital and countryside. She rocked my world when she enlightened me about Quiznos’ Choose 2 menu.

I figured a vacationing American couldn’t gain weight in Iceland, what with constant hikes and even glacier climbing on our menu. And from what I’d read of the food — which includes sheep’s head, dried fish, rot-cured shark, dead whale, and so on — I didn’t anticipate much comfort eating.

Yeah, I was wrong. Really, really wrong.

Icelandic fish is fantastic, and the country has some of the top restaurants I’ve ever visited. Ever. Imagine the best rib eye you’ve had in Dallas, for instance. Think about its richness, preparation, looks — everything. Then multiply that by two or three, and you’ve got cod (or lamb fillet, another specialty) from Hotel Budir, on Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Jump for ICELAND.

photo cred: Viktor Alex Ragnarsson

Nestled mostly in solitude, Budir overlooks waterfall-strewn mountains that are lorded over by an actual glacier. It also abuts the Atlantic, where the hotel manager waited at a pier for the fish I ate that night (juicy cod from chef Björgvin Mýrdal with roasted cauliflower, mashed potatoes, and myriad tangy sauces. And this after a rich, delicate mushroom soup). Dessert was “chocolate dream,” a mousse concoction so perfect we just muttered and stared.

Later, after many drinks with loveable Budir employee Viktor Alex Ragnarsson, we tried hákarl, Iceland’s infamous rot-cured shark — which Anthony Bourdain calls “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing” he’s ever tried.

Hakarl (photo from HuffPo)

Yeah. The texture is creamy, because you’re talking about a putrefied animal corpse. And the taste? Think paint thinner, vomit, and general terror. Icelanders traditionally chase hákarl with a shot of Brennevín schnapps, which is also, you know … eh.

Sorry, Viktor.

As my lamb-eating boyfriend put it, “I had the best food of my entire life at Hotel Budir,” minus the shark, which he called “the worst food of my entire life.” I’d say we also had the time of our lives, thanks to Ragnarsson and the knockout landscape, which seems to seep into the restaurant itself.

Back in Reykjavik, the capital, we loved the Fish Company — a creative, dim little haunt full of art and knickknacks, with a good house beer. Chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson whips up fusion plates that use Icelandic fish in meals inspired by other countries’ cuisines, so my main course, “Sweden,” was fresh-caught salmon with goat cheese, a yogurt-dill foam, and celery jam, among other things. Starters included ceviche with oatmeal (it worked) and fresh bread with herbal, apple, and chili butters. Plus the whole getup arrived on custom Norwegian china.

Fish Company in Reykjavik (photo from IcelandAir)

You’ll find minke whale at the Fish Company and other local restaurants, and I did try a bite from a friend’s plate. It tasted OK; really dark and smooth and spicy, but not worth the heartache of it all. According to emcee of a nearby whale-watching tour, minke-as-food is just a tourist draw, and a relatively new one. A popular tapas bar serves puffin, too.

So. Those were the spendy things. But all our breakfasts were based around simple sliced meats, blue cheese, and cucumbers in addition to ye olde eggs and bacon; a dish we’ve started making at home for just a few bucks.

Reykjavik’s lamb hotdogs are also well known, and the fish and chips come in big, tasty portions. The Kolaportið weekend flea market has a whole mysterious food section worth exploring, and if you’re at a loss (or traveling with agitated little kids), just pop into a convenience store for cold cuts and skyr. It’s a soft cheese that tastes like sweet, whipped yogurt, and it’ll seem familiar enough.

I never left a gas station without a haul of self-serve gummy candy, either. Even when my pants stopped fitting.