Published October 4, 2017
While America and most parts of the world are seeing regional Chinese cuisine grow and thrive, in Iceland the stereotypical fried meat drowning in sweet and sour sauce is still alive—I’m looking at you here, Nings and Ricki Chan. I don’t think this is a reflection of restaurateurs’ lack of ambition alone. The realities of ‘catering to the local palate’ for the sake of business is still all too real in Iceland. It’s a catch-22 situation, but Fönix Veitingahús in Höfði attempts to offer more than token Western Chinese staples.
When I first dined at Fönix, I was nursing a broken heart for some dim sum. I’d gone as far as flying to Boston to satisfy this craving, and knowing the greasy buffet fare passed off as Chinese food in Reykjavik, I was wary about the dumplings at Fönix. I shouldn’t have been worried—their steamy ‘guo tie’ have always arrived piping hot, ready to scald the roof of your mouth—a worthy punishment for impatience. Spoon in some tartly sweet black Chinese vinegar to make amends.
Salty, sour, sweet, spicy
I’ve since returned on multiple occasions, steering away from the ‘vorullur’ (spring rolls, deep fried—notice a pattern here?) and towards the Sichuanese dishes. The owner chef duo, chef Símon Xian Qing Quan and his wife Wenli Wang are from the region, and some staples make it to the menu, albeit with English/Icelandic names. Yu Xiang Qie Zi is eggplant in a sweet marinade, here called fish fragrant aubergine (2090 ISK). There’s no seafood in it, so vegans fret not. It’s a salty, sour, sweet and spicy dish with a generous lick of garlic. Fönix’s version is a tad too sweet, and missed depth of flavour of doubanjiang—a spicy, fermented broad bean-soybean paste, quintessential to the dish. Nevertheless, the aubergine is lusciously creamy, with even the thicker skin of the ubiquitous Japanese eggplant locally available here somehow tamed.
The twice cooked pork (2690 ISK) was overwhelmed by the heavy-handed abundance of white onions. The mapo tofu (2490 ISK), however, hits the spot with its silken cubes of tofu, minced pork, douchi (a fermented black bean paste so funky, your bags will smell from carrying it) and a slightly stingy sprinkling of ground Sichuan peppercorns on top. It’s nowhere near as spicy as it should be, but it’s always satisfying.
Don’t hold back
I can’t help but wonder if Iceland will be ready for a regional Chinese cuisine restaurant in the near future. A Cantonese or a Hunanese restaurant, perhaps? Maybe the existing Chinese restaurants, Fönix and Tian, will offer tofu puddings, rice cakes, funky fermented mustard greens and briny pickled vegetables, steering the local Chinese cuisine away from its cheap takeaway narrative, and towards a nuanced take on this diverse cuisine.
Meanwhile, forget the fried shrimp and lunch buffet—get the hot and sour soup (990 ISK) redolent with surimi, tofu strips and a whiff of sesame oil. Pair that with dumplings and sip on fragrant jasmine green tea (400 ISK). I’ll return later for the beef in hot chilli oil, a spicy and fragrant hot-pot dish. Be unafraid and ask to try what your Chinese co-diner might be feasting on, or to make special requests—the chef is ready to oblige. And Fönix, don’t hold back, we are ready for a full Sichuan culinary tour.