While the beautiful landscapes and days full of sunlight were the major factors in our decision to visit Iceland, I would be lying if I didn’t mention our curiosity for the unique Nordic cuisine of this cold and isolated land. I’m fairly certain we spent more time researching weird foods to try than, say, practical tips like how to drive through sandurs. Before our feet ever left the ground we both had a laundry list of beast and fowl to seek out.
Whale and Puffin Feast
After our long travel day and soak in the Blue Lagoon, we were famished by the time we checked into our Reykjavik AirBnB. We set out in search of 3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari, a restaurant recommended by a friend for their delicious “eh…animals”, as she described it. We ordered two appetizers, Minke whale sashimi and smoked puffin with mustard sauce, before our shared entrée of peppered whale steak. I asked the waitress whether the “shark meat” on the menu was the infamous fermented Greenland shark. Her reaction:
“That is fermented shark. It is very terrible. I do not recommend.”
Although hakarl was on my To-Eat list for the trip, I didn’t want to spoil the whale and puffin feast we had already ordered. I assumed we would see the dish on more menus, so I thought I would order it during a more low-key lunch later on the trip. I made the right decision, since we gorged on the dishes we did order. Spoiler alert: unfortunately this was the last restaurant on the trip I had the chance to order hakarl. I’ll get ’em next time.
Initially I was hesitant about ordering whale, considering the endangerment of so many species world-wide due to uncontrolled poaching. Before we ordered, we did some quick research and learned that the Minke whale is listed as a species of “least concern”, and Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 only after three years of extensive population research. Environmental concern assuaged, we dug in.
I still can’t rightly say which of our three dishes I enjoyed the most. The whale sashimi was first on the docket. The bright red meat was sliced delicately and served in the traditional Japanese style with wasabi and ginger. The flavor, however, was decidedly not typical of sashimi. It was bright and fresh, but hearty. The fleshy flavor, though reminiscent of game meat, was discernible but not overpowering. We were off to a good start.
I am a self-proclaimed mustard aficionado and lover of all smoked meats, so the puffin, or lundi, did not disappoint with its robust, smoky notes. The deep red breast meat was tender and delicate, and the house-made mustard was a perfect tangy compliment to the big flavor profile.
Finally our entrée of peppered whale steak arrived. Cooked medium rare and seasoned to perfection, the steak tasted much like that of its land-locked cousins the cow or bison, but much more tender. Each bite, dipped in pepper sauce, nearly disintegrated in our mouths.
If ethically-ambiguous whale and adorable puffin do not sound appeasing to your palette, 3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari offers an array of local Arctic fish and fowl specialties. We were much too full to attempt the skyr brulee for dessert, but on our return I might pop in just to try it. Reykjavik isn’t known as a budget-friendly town, so appetizers averaging $15 and entrees ranging from $25-$40 are not surprising here. We were lucky to have arrived early enough to snag a table without a reservation, as this restaurant is apparently popular among tourists and locals alike. Patrons piled in the bar area to escape the chilling wind while they waited, so if you plan to dine here, a reservation is suggested.
Reindeer and Langoustine
Along our drive from Jokulsarlon to Hofn we spotted a “Reindeer Crossing” sign, and in my typical hyperbolic way expressed how dearly I wished we would see one. As if all the beautiful sights we passed along the way weren’t enough for one day, not even halfway to our destination we passed an entire herd grazing happily along the roadway. I squealed, as Rufio briefly considered stopping to get a better picture. We sped off though, deciding reindeer might be likely to charge the car.
We arrived in quiet fishing village of Hofn with only 30 minutes to spare before the three restaurants in town closed their doors for the evening. We hurriedly bobbed between the three to compare their menu choices. We selected the lowest priced Kaffi Hornid to try the town-favorite langoustine.
Kaffi Hornid, situated near Hofn’s harbor, specializes in fresh caught langoustine from the harbor. Langoustine are small lobster-like crustaceans, with a slightly sweeter flavor than their larger counterparts. They thrive in the waters around Hofn, and Kaffi Hornid has centered its menu around various presentations of the bugs. Rufio ordered the langoustine feast, featuring an ample serving of langoustine sautéed in garlic and butter.
Kaffi’s menu is rounded out by fresh-caught fish from the harbor and heartier options of lamb, beef and reindeer raised on nearby farms. I took our earlier run-in as a sign to order the reindeer burger topped with cranberry-onion chutney. The ground reindeer was slightly sweeter than beef and, though it is leaner, it packs a ton of flavor. We paired our meals with the local Olvisholt Vatnajokull Frozen in Time beer, brewed with glacier water and local thyme.
The preparation of the food at Kaffi Hornid was impeccable, and the staff were very welcoming. They even allowed a party of three to dine-in after their official closing time. As noted previously, the price for langoustine was better here than either Pakkhus or Humarhofnin. This unassuming little bar/café/restaurant is a great value for authentic Hofn delicacies.
Honorable Mention: Lamb, lamb and more lamb!
I eat lamb as often as I possibly can, so the three different preparations I enjoyed in Iceland were not at all novel to me, nor were they haute cuisine by any means. But that was the point – these were simple foods that still managed to leave an indelible impression.
Every time I eat a smoked or cured meat sandwich back home, I think of how much more I enjoyed that roadside smoked lamb on crusty ciabatta from Seljaveitingar Ehf at the base of Seljalandsfoss. Of course, maybe it was the backdrop and not the food that made my lunch so memorable. The icy wind that blew off the Seljalandsá river numbed my face while I munched happily on that sandwich. My belly was warmed by the kjötsúpa, Icelandic lamb soup brimming with carrots and rutabaga, as I peered out over the majestic peaks of Skaftafell.
Then there was the hot dog. Let me be frank (pun intended), I detest hot dogs. Rufio, on the other hand, eats a one or two a week. Fearing for his health I have at least convinced him to buy the lower fat/lower sodium brands. I haven’t willingly eaten a hotdog in over 20 years; but, after 17 hours of hiking and traveling sustained on only one bowl of kjötsúpa and with no other food options available, a girl will be driven to do things she would never consider otherwise.
It was midnight when we concluded our southern Ring Road journey in Reykjavik. We searched our guidebook and Google tirelessly to find any food vendor other than Ali Baba that might still serve food at this hour. There was but one, the infamous Baejarins Betzu Pylsur.
Of course Rufio had noticed in his pre-travel research that the Icelandic hot dog, special because it contains lamb in addition to pork and beef, was a national obsession and had secretly hoped we would stumble upon a stand during our short time in Reykjavik. Fate was on his side as we sought out the original “best hotdog in town”, in operation since 1937, and ordered two “all the way”. A minute later we stood around the adjacent picnic table, enjoying our lamb hotdogs covered in ketchup, sweet brown mustard, fried onions, raw onions and remoulade. I was surprised by how much I liked that hot dog. But then again, maybe it wasn’t the hot dog…or the soup or the sandwich. Maybe it was standing on the still-bustling streets of Reykjavik at midnight, cold wind blowing off the bay, sun shining on my face, thinking back over every glacier and waterfall and snow-capped mountain and sandur and ice lagoon and reindeer and geyser and rift valley and..maybe every moment, even the mundane, seemed that much more special in Iceland. We voraciously polished off our final Icelandic treat and said goodnight to the midnight sun for the last time.
What is your favorite Icelandic dish? Leave a comment!