The Icelandic Christmas buffet is all about tradition.
December is a time where you head out with your family or—more often—your colleagues or a group of friends, to attack holiday-themed all-you-can-eat buffets. The season just isn’t complete without it. It’s about preserving history in mounds of gloopy salads, smoked meats, pickled herring, cured salmon and all the rest. It’s basically about preserving the history of preserved food.
We like that tradition, and we like where it seems to be going at certain establishments, as our tastes and palates evolve with the times. So, we sent our team of intrepid food writers to tell you about four of them. This time around, we tried to focus on restaurants that have recently started offering a buffet, or are doing things a little differently from the rest.
Every year, the buffet changes just a little bit; occasionally we may be looking at the birth of new traditions with serious staying power, although I suspect that in most cases, we’re simply feeding the Icelandic hunger for novelty. But even attempting to enjoy an insipid novelty dish that will be gone come Xmas 2016—it sure beats life as a foodie back in the days when the “classic” Icelandic dishes were being invented. A time of unsalted pickled organ meat and slow death.
Michael Pollan, peddler of paternalistic platitudes, tells us to not “eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
I’m Icelandic and so was my great-grandmother. So let’s look at what that means for me:
- No fruit, except canned tangerines for Christmas
- No spices other than the occasional pinch of salt
- No tacos
- No eating fish that looks like it is of the Devil
Globalization and modernity has been kind to Iceland. Non-seasonal, industrialized Frankenfarming brought to our doorstep from fields in distant tropical countries enabled 20th century Icelanders to allow themselves luxuries like “tomatoes” and “not suffering from scurvy so much.” The move to modernization has been so persistent that we are even seeing some exotic additions to the Christmas buffet—the holiest of holies!
In this year’s restaurant roster you’ll find stone-cold classics like smoked lamb, but you might also come across less traditional fare, like gravlax maki, mandarin sorbet, apple pies, and bacalao with polenta.
Not that any of this really matters. The purpose of office Christmas parties is to have drunken conversations with your boss that start with “Do you want to know how I really feel about you and your fat family?” Who has time to eat when you just barely crammed yourself into that mistletoe print dress and there’s a hot intern to seduce? The bartender just went to get more glasses for that disgusting cinnamon-Baileys shot—quick, see if you can’t grab that bottle of brandy!
The point is, it’s not for me (or Michael Pollan) to say how you should celebrate the holidays. That’s for Satan to decide. All hail our Dark Lord.
The herring is luscious, the mustard jolts you awake, and the carpaccio-style hangikjöt welcomes you with all those smoky notes. Even the accompanying sauces are full of character and nuance. Not a single grey-green Ora pea is present—you’ll have to sample that staple stalwart of Icelandic festivities later. Just bold flavours, straddling the past and the present.
Facebook: SKY Restaurant & Bar
Tel: +354 595 8545
Buffet runs Fri-Sun, through December
Price for Christmas Menu: 6,850 ISK (drinks not included)
This was the opener at Ský Restaurant and Bar, where my husband and I had come to sample the festive holiday menu. Ský sits on the 8th floor of Center Hotel in downtown Reykjavík, offering stunning views of the city, sea and Harpa—surely a great firework-watching spot come New Year’s Eve. On a Saturday night, the place was full of families, young couples and companies on their annual night of merry-making.
For Christmas, the chefs at Ský eschew their usually modern approach for a more traditional one.
We started with that memorable house-made pickled herring, smoked salmon and smoked lamb before moving onto the main course of textbook-perfect lamb tenderloin with a velvety red wine sauce. Dessert was another ode to the season, a warm cinnamon apple pie.
As we walked out, we were struck by how decadent our meal had been, how casual the space and how attentive the service. We woke up the next day still talking about that herring (shout out to Eduardo the chef and Anita our waitress!). Ský’s holiday menu offers straightforward, unpretentious classics, at a great value—it also grants an excellent opportunity to enjoy the city from a novel viewpoint, in a warm but modern setting by the harbour. And, seriously, don’t forget to try that herring.
The Christmas buffet at Fjörukráin, or the Viking Restaurant, features all the era-specific touches that one might expect—servers bedecked in linen tunics and fur pelts; wooden trays in lieu of plates; a trio of minstrels weaving amongst the guests—as well as some rather more unanticipated delights: namely, a buffet table shaped like a longship that’s helmed by none other than Santa, sporting a pirate hat.
Tel: +354 565-1213
Buffet runs until 20 December, 2015.
Open from 6pm til late.
Price for Christmas buffet: 8,600ISK / person (drinks not included)
Ye Olde Kitschy Norse backdrop notwithstanding, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more classic (contemporary) Icelandic Christmas dinner. The menu is a proper Greatest Hits of Icelandic Holiday Fare: four kinds of potatoes (caramelized potatoes, potato salad, potatoes au gratin, and—of course—potatoes with bechamel sauce or “uppstúfur” as it’s known locally); hangikjöt (smoked lamb) and laufabrauð (traditional fried cakes with geometric shapes); Christmas ham; red cabbage; canned Ora green peas; reindeer meatballs for flair; and several varieties of pickled herring—one in a festive pink brine.
Crowding the long tables are coworkers out for their year-end fetes, getting cheerfully hammered and joining in rambunctious singalongs; families wearing their holiday finest; and the odd foreigner to round it out. Playing underneath it all—when the minstrels are on break, that is—is a soundtrack of everyone’s favorite Icelandic Christmas songs from the 80s, ranging from pretty direct translations of American holiday tunes (“Ég sá mömmu kyssa jólasvein”/“I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus”) to the more idiosyncratic “Ef ég nenni” (“If I feel like it”). Close your eyes, and you’ll think you’re back at amma’s house.
When envisioning a classic Icelandic Christmas buffet, one invariably imagines the tables sagging under the weight of roast legs of lamb, crackling skin pork and all the traditional fixins, the alcohol flowing freely as your boisterous family takes turns embarrassing you.
Tel: +354 568 6600
Price for Christmas buffet: 7,900 ISK (drinks not included)
While that classic, fatty, savoury, meaty Icelandic Christmas buffet has a lot going for it, local choices have thankfully expanded greatly in recent years. For instance, you can celebrate the Advent by gorging on a Japanese-Brazilian-themed Holiday menu. Look no further than Sushi Samba if that’s where your mind is at.
While sushi purists may be less than thrilled with Sushi Samba’s interpretation of sushi, the restaurant’s Christmas menu is nonetheless a perfect introduction to the broad, emerging cuisine which flowed from the Brazilo-Japanese cultural melding that followed a period of extensive immigration from Japan. Something that should suit grandmothers and millennial nephews alike. Don’t miss the maki rolls with graflax—Scandinavian sushi, if you will. You’ll enjoy both the langoustine with a fruity salsa and the lamb with a savoury red cabbage gelée—glowing tributes to traditional Icelandic festive food.
Sushi Samba know how to whip up a festive fervour. SushiSamba also have an extensive cocktail and sake collection for those who are of the inclination. The place is cosy and works very well for large groups, as well as couples. Why not shake things up a bit at Sushi Samba this Christmas.
This summer, a new restaurant called Kitchen & Wine opened up in the high-end 101 Hotel.
Tel: +354 580 0101
Open Sun-Thu until 12am
Open Fri-Sat until 1am
Where there had been an upscale hotel bar, the proprietors aimed to create a more inviting space, offering a unique yet affordable dining experience. Judging from the menus, the very talented head chef, Hákon Örvarsson, has succeeded. Despite this, many apparently continue to consider the place a “posh” establishment. As the team behind Kitchen & Wine’s continues its efforts to spread the message, I advise foodies to listen.
For the holiday season, Kitchen & Wine are offering Christmas-themed set menus. Patrons can choose between a three (6,900 ISK) and five course (8,900 ISK) spread, both offering a choice between veal or salted cod for an entrée. Wine pairing is available, and we highly recommend it (this will add 5,000 ISK/7,000ISK to your bill), as the selection is very impressive, and the staff proved very knowledgeable, letting the wine tell a story. Wonderful!
The courses we enjoyed were traditional festive dishes, presented with a twist; the pickled herring, for example, was lovely—smoky, yet with a fresh taste of apple to lighten it up. A similar approach, although not as successful, was taken with the ris à l’amande, a very typical Christmas dessert in Icelandic households. While the addition of a lime/mandarin sorbet stoked our curiosity, it ultimately left the ensemble a little lacking in warmth. Nevertheless, it was an interesting attempt at reinterpreting a classic.
Kitchen & Wine are treading a fine line with their inventive menu, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.