There are four basic types of Icelandic cuisine: 1) The mythical historical revisionist food that is only really eaten once a year by the vast majority of Icelanders (pickled testicles, shark, head cheese) but was presented as a millennia old cultural institution about a hundred years ago; 2) the soul food of the older generation (greasy lamb sausages, fish balls, blood pudding), well represented by Mamma Steina a little further down from Café Loki; 3) the stuff that the younger generation eats (sushi, pasta, some of the old mainstays, the generic western hodgepodge diet); and 4) the style of New Nordic cuisine particular to Iceland, which uses local ingredients but few of the traditional techniques and is only really found in high end restaurants.
Café Loki takes a little from the first category and a little from the second one. This is a wise move, as Café Loki is ingeniously located right at the base of the tourist beacon, Hallgrímskirkja. Arts and crafts on the first floor and a café/restaurant serving traditional food on the second floor, how could they fail?
They don’t. It’s a simple place with a small selection consisting of a daily special, which is usually fish in some form or another or one of three other warm staples, the traditional Icelandic lamb stew (“kjötsúpa”), a fish stew (“plokkfiskur”) and a vegetarian plate (there’s no specific term for it as Icelanders didn’t start eating their vegetables until a couple of decades ago). Other than that, it’s mostly open-face sandwiches served on flatbread or rye.
I ordered the vegetarian plate (1690 ISK), which consisted of lightly baked rutabaga and other root vegetables, served with quinoa, greens, feta and pumpkin seeds. It was too bland for my tastes, but seemed at least to be genuinely healthy. As a side, I picked some dung-smoked trout from Mývatnssveit, served on flatbread.
My partner in crime chose the Icelandic platter #1 (1990 ISK) with smoked trout on rye bread, fish stew on rye bread, head cheese, and an Icelandic style bean salad (peas in a white mystery sauce).
I repeat: This is very simple food, so don’t expect any wild ideas or culinary epiphanies. Having said that, they do justice to the traditional dishes at Café Loki. The fish stew is the usual, creamy mess made with shredded fish, potatoes and onions. This wasn’t quite the best plokkfiskur I’ve had in Iceland but definitely above par.
The trout was excellent. It was unusually subtle for a dung-smoked trout and much fresher than I’d dared to hope. Top marks for that.
But the real surprise was the flatbread and rye. It was quite simply the best I’ve had in Reykjavík, outside of a domestic kitchen. The rye bread was not as dense as I’m used to and more like a loaf of spice bread than the banana bread texture I’m used to, and it was light and not too sweet. The flatbread was even better. The slightly bitter flavour and overpowering taste of rye flour usually puts me off, but this one was not the usual dry, pockmarked, dark-brown slab and actually tasted of something other than sod roof frugality.
Due to the quality of the rye bread, I got my partner to brave the rye bread ice cream (640 ISK), which is a Café Loki’s specialty heavily featured on their website. Most Icelanders will only be familiar with rye bread desserts in the form of “brauðsúpa,” a traditional rye bread pudding made with sultanas, sugar and water, served with whipped cream. Brauðsúpa is an acquired taste and one that I never managed to acquire, but this ice cream has made a believer out of me. It’s served in a small cup with a dollop of whipped cream. It’s obviously pretty chewy, but the texture is fun in small doses and the flavour is nothing like rye bread; it’s closer to coconut and chocolate. Heartily recommended, although I must says that I would have liked to see them serve me a fresh scoop instead of something that had obviously been standing in the freezer for a day.
While it may not make the top ten of the best restaurants in Reykjavík, Café Loki does serve exactly the kind of food I recommend to tourists when they ask me about traditional Icelandic cuisine. Yes, they have that disgusting fermented shark and all the usual bells and whistles, but they also know how to please this little Icelander.
Lokastígur 28, 101 Reykjavík
What we think: Solid grub, low in pretention and surprisingly high in quality. A little bland, but true to form
Flavour: Icelandic farmer munch
Ambiance: Plain and dull, but a good place to grab lunch
Service: Basic café service, no complaints
Price for 2 (with drinks): 10-12.000 ISK