There are two things you should know about food and drink in Iceland before you go:
- Its really tasty – Icelanders love their rich flavours. Lamb and smoked flavours feature heavily. (I also love rich, gamey flavours, so this was right up my street!)
- Its really expensive – don’t expect to get a glass of wine for much less than £10 (1250ISK / $12.25) – the same goes for a beer – and a casual lunch (2 Icelandic soups and 1 soda) can easily cost £25 (3,670 ISK / $36).
Our food experience in Reykjavik
As a cosmopolitan European capital, theres lots of cuisine to choose from in Reykjavik. We found everything from Italian restaurants, steak houses and various Asian specialities. During our stay though we tried to experience as much Icelandic cuisine as we could. Everything from Icelandic street food to a nine course tasting menu. This seemed to involve a lot of smoked flavours and lots of (possibly my favourite meat) Lamb! (Ok, lamb and duck are my equal favourites, but both feature!). I noticed a number of menus offered vegan and vegetarian options too, so there should be something for everyone.
I was impressed, and somewhat surprised, at the amount of Icelandic home-grown offerings too; from Icelandic beers, Icelandic chocolate and even Icelandic tomatoes. I didn’t think the climate would be appropriate to grow tomatoes, but the Icelandic people have cleverly used their natural resources, the hot springs, to create naturally heated greenhouses which are perfect for growing tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers. You can read more on our visit to Friðheimar tomato farm here.
Traditional Icelandic ‘street’ Food
Lets be honest, its far too cold to eat on the street in Iceland in February! But one casual restaurant we visited served traditional Icelandic ‘street food’. Their limited menu has only three items (aside from desserts): ‘fishermans favourite’, shellfish soup and meat soup. Both soups have the option of coming in a bread bowl too.
We happened to stumble upon this place and on opening the door was hit by the welcoming and warming smell of lamb soup. Its shabby-chic interior, paper plates, plastic cutlery and welcoming staff gave the place a cafe-like atmosphere. But, like everywhere in Iceland, the food wasn’t cafe prices! Two soups (one in a bread bowl) and one soda came to £26.31 (ISK 3,670).
However, we soon realised that it doesn’t matter what you initially order as you can have as much as you want of any dish that you want! Coffee and water are free too, as are quality street chocolates that can be found on the counter.
The soup was great; hearty and warming which is just what you need when taking refuge from the cold Icelandic weather. Turns out, this place is currently (Feb 2018) the number one restaurant in Reykjavik on trip advisor too! I’m not sure I’d go that far (see below for a really stand out meal) but its worth a visit for the authentic Icelandic cuisine and experience.
Tasting menu: Grillmarkaðurinn
Tasting menus must be at the opposite end of the eating out spectrum to street food. We were lucky enough to experience both on our visit to Reykjavik. A friend had recommend Grillmarkadurinn restaurant ahead of our trip, so I’d pre-booked for the night of our arrival.
Tucked away just off one of the main streets in Reykjavik, Grillmarkaðurinn (in English Grill Market) is a restaurant that focuses on creating a culinary treat for its guests by fusing traditional Icelandic heritage with modern twists. Its menu is pretty meat heavy, so probably not one to visit if you’re a vegetarian!
The restaurant has an upmarket but relaxed vibe, with low level lighting, particularly downstairs. It was down in the bar that we started our evening with a drink (we’d just arrived in Iceland and was a little surprised by the prices – everything in Iceland is expensive!). The bar area had a modern lodge kind of vibe – lots of wood textures on the walls, interspersed with harsh concrete and cosy checked upholstery.
The dining areas were more minimalist, with chunky varnished wooden tables and somewhat seductive lighting. Our table was tucked into a quiet corner – this suited us perfectly!
We opted for the tasting menu, which is served ‘family style’, i.e. on central platters for the table to share. First up was:
Locally baked sour dough bread with 3 butters; smoked salt butter, Skyr butter and lava salt butter.
Our nine course tasting menu allowed us to enjoy some traditional Icelandic flavours we wouldn’t ordinarily try (whale anyone?). Not only that, but the food was served in quick succession, was plentiful and full of flavour. The only hiccup of the evening was the wine – the first few courses were served so fast, that we missed some wine pairings. Staff went above and beyond to make this up to us though and all in all we had a fantastic night.
The smoked salt butter was certainly our favourite of the three on offer.
Whale with soy dipping sauce and wasabi (served with beer, rather than wine)
I had mixed feelings tucking into this (albeit very small piece) of whale. I’d read in advance that whilst whale eating is considered traditional to many visitors, in fact most locals never eat whale meat. Its estimated that 40-60% of whale meat is eaten by tourists and only 3% of Icelanders eat it regularly (thanks to my lonely planet guide book!).
Therefore there is some debate whether the hunting of minke whale is sustainable because the staggering growth of tourism in Iceland since 2010 has lead to much more of it being eaten. The long term effects on the whale food chain may not yet be realised, but the Icelandic Ministry of Industries and Innovation maintain that whale consumption is sustainable and sets whaling limits to actively mange the whale population.
With the soy dipping sauce and side of wasabi this felt like more of an Asian fusion dish, demonstrating the restaurant ethos of merging Icelandic heritage with modern and alternative cuisine.
Duck with spinach salad mozz, pomegranate and orange segments.
Now i’m not a big salad lover. But if I were to write down my favourite salad ingredients they’ include spinach and pomegranate seeds. Throw in some mozzarella (who doesn’t love mozzarella), citrus bursts from some orange segments and my favourite meat – duck …. I was in salad heaven.
I’ve made a mental note to *try* and recreate this in summer as its basically everything I look for in a salad.
Arctic char with trout roe
This odd looking dish was packed full of flavour. The arctic char was beetroot cured, giving it the bright colour. Served with trout roe and pickled mini vegetables it was a light and refreshing course.
Ribs with special restaurant glaze, caramelised onion and potato chips.
This course was totally up Lee’s street! The special restaurant glaze was packed full of smoky flavour – more akin to a Texan restaurant than what you’d expect in Iceland. The soft meat was contrasted with potato chips.
My only grumble was that I’d have preferred my rib (the one on the top) served a little hotter. I think perhaps it had been left to cool slightly before being served. Tasty nonetheless!
Cod with apple noodles and shellfish foam
Back to fish and this was a light dish in contrast to the smoky ribs that had gone before it. The freshness of the apple noodles really cut through the fish and I loved the strong fish flavour from the shellfish foam.
Smoked horse with oyster mushrooms
More smoked flavours were next only this time it was horse. Remember the UK horse meat scandal in 2013? Well in Iceland, they regularly eat horse. It was served under a smoked filled glass cloche and as the food was unveiled by the waiter, the woody-smoky smell filled our noses. The horse was served with oyster mushrooms and celeriac (I think) puree. I love these wintery woodland flavours which complimented each other really well.
Rack of lamb topped with nuts and seeds, Krispy kale, mushroom glaze and garlic potatoes.
The final course before dessert was another of my favourites (I think Icelandic cuisine agrees with me!), rack of lamb. It was crusted with nuts and seeds, which gave a wintery edge to the dish and was served with garlic potatoes. A match made in heaven in my book! Cooked to perfection too – just look at that pink-ness.
With full stomachs we were at the end of our culinary journey – time to enjoy dessert. The platter had not one, not two but three desserts to share:
- A melting chocolate ball, onto which warm caramel was poured to reveal a coffee ice cream.
- Chocolate tart filled with toffee and gingerbread, served with a mango sorbet
- Strawberry pavlova with vanilla cream, glacé strawberries and skyr sorbet
and all of this was interspersed with fresh fruit.
Grillmarkadurinn served one of the slickest, meat-heavy tasting menu’s I think I’ve ever had. To pack so many meat and fish dishes into one menu is a carnivore’s dream and we really enjoyed it. It was a great way to kick off our stay in Reykjavik and if you’re a foodie visiting Iceland you must add it to your list!
Other notable spots