In stark contrast to the decadent jólahlaðborð extravaganza of the pre-Covid years (think 10-course menus spanning quail to langoustine, wines and spirits to match and languorous evenings stretching late into the night), this year’s pandemic-tinged festivities are a tad sober in spirit. Nonetheless, festivals stir up a passion for the pastoral even in the most Scrooge-like hearts. In a year to forget, it is hardly a surprise that we strive for a Christmas to remember.
Virtual beer and absent of kissing scandals
A steadfast tradition in Iceland, the Christmas buffet is no stranger to change, evolving from a traditional buffet, to its fine dining format in recent years. Where staff were once ferried on private boats to Viðey for their annual festive feast, Covid Christmas is a staid but not tame affair.
Conversations with friends and family quickly reveal that the jólahlaðborð has indeed adapted—think at-home dinner kits by in-house chefs or restaurants catering to a new normal with spiffy take-away menus and shorter set courses for on-site dining, custom goodie boxes and the virtual online party replete with entertainment by local celebrities in lieu of dancing the night away. While this does rob the joy of the traditional guess-who-kissed-who-they-shouldn’t-have games, virtual beer tastings and cook-alongs are something we could all get behind.
In keeping with the Grapevine tradition of handpicking a selection that reflects various sensibilities, this year, we sought out four restaurants that have been pushing the envelope in the pandemic, making quick footed changes, following ever-changing protocols and restrictions with none of the limitations dampening that Christmas spirit.
The non-traditional one
A Korean inspired all-you-can-eat brunch, this is perfect for those craving a ticket to lands afar. The menu is extensive and the kitchen handily suggests ordering 2-3 dishes at a time, allowing you to pace yourself between the tteokbokki and the japchae. The latter are sweet potato noodles stir fried with generous slivers of fresh ginger and the former are chewy rice cakes that are all bite and a textural treat. The time in-between dishes is perfect for grazing over the banchan, an essential part of any Korean meal; the mayak eggs are particularly good. Soft boiled eggs are marinated overnight in a sweet rice syrup, soy sauce, garlic and other seasonings, perfect to top over steamed rice, with a thimble of cabbage kimchi, spicy and funky, or laced with intervals of turmeric hued pickled daikon. The hotteok are made to order and arrive piping hot, with a brown sugar sauce ladled over the pan-cooked stuffed bread. Makake sneaks a bit of gochugaru into their stuffing, their surprise heat a nice foil to the miso in that sugar sauce. Service is warm and attentive, the format ideal for a pandemic treat, where fewer people, small dishes and a long afternoon all serve as a reminder that good dining experiences are still to be had.
The traditional one
Where: Grand Brasserie
At the Grand Brasserie, chef Úlfar Finnbjörnsson has crafted a smart, perfect for at-home decadence with his Christmas platter. This is old-school, Icelandic festive food done well, tugging at all the right strings. The anise-crusted salmon subtly evokes liquorice, the dung smoked version is delicate and, paired with the laufabrauð, makes for a snappy bite. The reindeer terrine is studded with pistachios and the goose liver pate is velvety smooth. These are high quality ingredients treated with respect and the elegant morsels are an ideal precursor to your Christmas feast. Orders are on a 48-hour notice, so hurry up while you can.
Traditional, yet contemporary
Chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson is known for taking the deeply Icelandic and making it oh-so-of-the-moment. And he does it yet again with this year’s takeaway menu. A small yet satisfying affair, the starters are really the stars here (a warm, cardamom-scented braised pork cheek with barley is perfectly lovely too). The laufabrauð is a traditional recipe, culled from a sous-chef’s grandmother. This one is chock full of cumin, the best kind if you ask us. Wispy layers of mandarin hued cured salmon are draped over chunky batons of horseradish dressed rutabaga, the raw on raw is a contradiction of textures and flavours. The hangikjöt is doubly smoked, ribboned with fat and is mellowed momentarily by the muscat creme. The winner-repeater, however, is the sild. The underrated herring comes into its own at Christmas, and here it is reminiscent of the Russian ‘herring in a fur blanket’ except, lighter, fresher and almost spring-like. Pink with beets, brightened with fresh horseradish and sour cream and peppered with cress, this is a dish we came away wanting to recreate.
A little kiss from Asia
While we are firm fans of the Grillmarket X-mas menu, we decided to shine light on it’s sister Fishmarket, who more than holds her own. Special mention has to be made of the staff, who weren’t just attentive but followed safety protocols to the T. With a focus on wild caught produce, this year’s menu stays true to the restaurant’s love affair with flavours of the East. Devoid of farmed salmon’s pronounced fattiness, the wild salmon is lightly cured, lightly charred. There is wild duck served two-ways and roast deer with trimmings. But the highlight of the evening remains the wine service. The festive menu can be paired with maverick South African winemaker, Pieter H. Walser’s Blankbottle Winery—none of the bottles mention the varietals or blends except for the vintage. A fitting pairing for the year this has been.
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