If ever there was a time to be worried about mainstream popularity of our little island, it’s now. But travel beyond the confines of Reykjavík, the South, and the Golden Circle, and everything glorious about Iceland shines.
The drive from Reykjavik to Ísafjörður is, even in October, breathtakingly beautiful. The late autumn skies are grey and heavy, creating a feeling of dark beauty. The slow crawl through fjord after stunning fjord is a testament to the resilience of the Icelandic people who call this region home.
Iceland’s history as a fishing nation is nowhere as palpable as it is in the Westfjords. And nowhere is that heritage celebrated with as much humble pride and gusto as it is at Tjöruhúsið.
Perched in a bucolic little harbour, Tjöruhúsið is housed in what once used to be a tar factory for ropes and other nautical needs. The restaurant hasn’t shed any of its 1781 charm—the interiors are reminiscent of a medieval tavern, with low timber beams and tables flanking the walls, and warm lighting reinforcing the ‘long house’-like appearance.
The animated yells of “Gellur! Gellur er komin!” (“Cod tongues! Cod tongues here!”), as the staff plonk down hulking pans of sizzling fish furthers the medieval vibe. If one can ignore the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, I swear you could still smell the tar, and be transported back in time to when long and loud feasting was the norm.
Fish in a pan
Dinner is an eat-till-you-drop style buffet for the princely sum of 6000 ISK per person. However, this isn’t your average buffet, where food sweats under heat lamps, bubbling away sluggishly in a line of past-their-best Bearnaise clones.
Instead, Tjöruhúsið is famed for its ‘fish in a pan’ offerings of whatever is freshest from the sea on that day. Standouts were the pluckish Plokkfiskur, peppered with fresh cracked black pepper so boldly that it was transformed into something more than the sum of its parts. The aforementioned gellur were simply flour-dusted and pan-fried in butter; at once creamy and crunchy, it’s beguiling that such a humble ingredient can be such a decadent treat.
I recommend restraint—these little devils are too easy to wash down with a glass of beer. I also suggest that squeamishness be set aside where gellur are concerned. They aren’t tongues at all, but succulent morsels of meat from around the fish throat.
The kitchen pushes out pan after pan of various fish: karfi (perch) in Hoisin sauce, steinbitur (wolffish) in a cream cheese sauce with grapes, salted cod with olives and tomatoes, and a sublime þorskur (haddock) simply cooked in butter, with whole baby potatoes and a chiffonade of fresh spring onions.
The staff exhort you to try everything, offering seconds and thirds, and remind you about all the meðlæti—that is, side dishes ranging from spiced wheat grain salad, to butter cooked cabbage, and a tureen of seafood soup. Thankfully, the restaurant has the good sense to skip dessert in favour of squares of chocolate—a fittingly simple end to a memorable meal in an unforgettable setting.
It is easy to see why restaurants like Messin emulate Tjöruhúsið. This little outpost was dishing out local, seasonal, affordable, nose-to-tail seafood dining long before they became a buzzword in Iceland’s dining scene. I’d get cracking and make reservations for next season—the restaurant is seasonal and is typically closed from early November through to late March. On any trip to the Westfjords, Tjöruhúsið is the icing on the cake.