For a self-confessed sushi aficionado, sushi in Reykjavik leaves me underwhelmed and, on occasion, angry. The only thing worse than cheap, bad sushi is expensive bad sushi. “Pylsu sushi” is how me and a friend now refer to the type of cold, gummy, too-big-for-my-mouth futomaki loaded with mayo and sriracha commonly seen in Iceland.
When I heard promises of a restaurant tucked away in the village of Seyðisfjörður in the east of the country forgoing the usual pylsu sushi, I immediately packed a pair of chopsticks and caught the first flight over there. To my dismay, I found that they had closed for the season a day early (the restaurant is only open for the summer season).
So, I have waited to dine at Norð Austur for a whole year now and I had come to a point where I could no longer resist the pull of the simple delight of an orthodox nigiri.
Set in a beautiful red timber house from 1919, Norð Austur is done up in shades of pale jade, complimented by dark furniture and artworks by local artists. Even the restrooms provide a delightful view of the fjords.
Three of the four sakes listed are entry level junmai-shu variants and at 3800 ISK not too attractive, so we settled for an Asahi while we pored over the menu.
Belly so fine
Fat is flavour. An adage rooted in truth but one that goes underappreciated and underexplored in Icelandic restaurants. Norð Austur’s Vík Hot Rock (2190 ISK) forgoes that with a salmon belly, marinated lightly with yuzu soy, cooked over hot stones.
It arrives in all its sizzling glory, glistening invitingly—so rich, smooth and tantalising to the eye. Just make sure you don’t make the mistake of drowning anything at Norð Austur in soy, even if it’s on the table. Chef Keith Isamu Preston knows his trade and there’s no need to mask flavours in a soy-wasabi slurry.
We also sampled the Karaage style chicken (1090 ISK), and the odd misfit ceviche (1490 ISK). The former lacked the distinctive crunch but was enjoyable still while the latter, left us longing for the punch of “leche de tigre”. A regrettable choice since I later spotted somen (cold wheat noodles) on the menu.
Rice and Fish
The sashimi (4290 ISK) is hands down the best in the land. The slivers of fatty salmon were joined by freshwater trout caught that morning, and plump mackerel from the Westfjords, a fish one rarely encounters in Iceland and one with a notoriously short shelf life. Here, the chef served it “shime sabi” style, lightly cured in Japanese vinegar and salt—the rich meat served with a grating of fresh ginger.
The same restraint is shown with the nigiri (2450 ISK). Like all good sushi, the focus is squarely on the rice and fish. At Norð Austur, all the sushi and sashimi is served a la minute, the rice is the right side of warm, and vinegared to the edge of being briny.
The rice is held delicately, almost as if only by flavour, that the pressure from the chopsticks quickly force you to abandon such an idea—pick one up lightly, and eat it fish side down and revel in the clean flavours. A dab of wasabi under the fresh shrimp; translucent, and quiveringly fresh. The salmon painted with soy and an oyster leaf, and the delightful saba (mackerel) made another appearance.
Is Norð Austur worth the trip to Seyðisfjörður? Is it the best sushi in Iceland? A resounding yes to both. What greatly appealed to me at the end of the meal, was how honest their approach to Japanese cuisine proved. The knife work is peerless; the miso soup a touch above warm; the wasabi, though rehydrated, is of a better quality than the horseradish mixed versions that abound in Reykjavik; and the selection of seafood impeccable with honest pricing.
I still think about this meal and for now, there is no better Japanese restaurant. Whetting one’s appetite for simplicity couldn’t be done in a better setting. Itadakimasu Norð Austur.