The newly opened North provides the perfect excuse to head north
When Gunnar Karl Gíslason, a proud Akureyringar, shared his plans for a restaurant in Akureyri, excitement was considerable. For many, like me, who plan their travels around food, North Iceland has always felt like a bit of a food desert. With the region claiming 35% of all tourism to Iceland, it’s been baffling that its culinary capital hasn’t been explored more thoroughly — dining options have remained limited or, put bluntly, uneventful.
But change has been afoot in Akureyri. In less than a year, the town has seen the opening of ambitious wine bar and bistro Eyja; new restaurants Eyr and Austur; and the takeover of Kaffi Lyst by enterprising young chef Reynir Gretarsson. On top of that, numerous pop-ups coordinated by the likes of Gísli Matthias from Slippurinn, Kjartan Gíslason from Omnom and Kári Þorsteinsson from Nielsen have taken place.
And then there is North. Like with most things Gunnar undertakes, this too was tinged with the sedate calmness I’ve come to associate with the man. No fanfare around the launch, and in a social media strategy driven restaurant industry, even their Instagram account has remained largely mysterious. Open just under a year now, North was my perfect excuse to head north.
North, by Dill
If you have been to Akureyri, chances are you appreciate the sense of arrival the town offers, with its terraced winding streets dotted with dollhouse-like colourful timber houses that are straight out of a children’s storybook. On this occasion, I was lucky enough to plan my visit with a whole weekend of +15 degree temperatures, making the skies seem bluer and the dandelion studded grass even greener.
Housed in Hotel Akureyri, a micro-hotel stretched over four different buildings, its collection of the old vernacular makes for a perfect setting for Gunnar’s latest project. Walking through the doors, you are guided by warm smells reminiscent of cosy fireplaces. That signature tones of baked terracotta in the narrow hallway is the only giveaway that you are not in a private home, but in Dill. The colour scheme, and dried sweet summer herbs and flowers are all reminiscent of the celebrated Reykjavík restaurant.
With the relaunch of Dill in its new location a few years ago, he admitted to wanting a ‘you’re dining at a friend’s home’ vibe. With North, that vision crystallises.
Gunnar has previously revealed his vision for a renewed fine-dining experience that isn’t steeped in the manicured, orchestrated affair it otherwise tends to be. With the relaunch of Dill in its new location a few years ago, he admitted to wanting a “you’re dining at a friend’s home” vibe. With North, that vision crystallises.
The hallway leads to an intimate living room, with a dining room set-up perfect for large groups at one end and a very minimal kitchen with bar seating at the other. In between are comfortable armchairs, couches and benches, furthering that homestead atmosphere.
Despite a fairly full seating, the space exudes the same calm as the quiet kitchen — an energy I now associate with a grown up kitchen culture — you’d be hard pressed to find an Icelandic restaurant kitchen that subscribes to brashness. Almost immediately, we are swooped up by the genial hospitality of executive chef Rafn Svansson. On this occasion, his sous chef Tryggvi Þór Traustason helms the kitchen, while Rafn plays the able sommelier. My friend and I had consciously stayed away from social media posts and refrained from looking up the restaurant website, all in an effort to retain surprise. Both of us are familiar with Dill and its ethos, and we didn’t want our senses clouded with presumptions and expectations.
How does the effort pay off? In spades.
North vs Dill
The menu echoes Dill’s in its format — snacks, followed by larger dishes — offered at a jaw-droppingly affordable price. Incidentally, the tasting menu priced at 11,900 ISK (10,900 ISK for the wine flight) is what the Dill menu was also priced at not too long ago. Comparisons with Dill are inevitable, but what sets North apart is its razor-sharp focus on local purveyors.
We are focused on showcasing the ingredients we can get here in the north of Iceland and showcasing the farm or fishermen we get the produce from is important to us.
The menu acknowledges producers by name and barring some lumpfish roe from the West of the country (by the able Nora), most else is from in and around Akureyri. Rafn is especially proud of that point. “We are focused on showcasing the ingredients we can get here in the north of Iceland and showcasing the farm or fishermen we get the produce from is important to us,” he says. “Like Dill, we use our surroundings and treat the ingredients and season with utmost respect.” It’s at this point that he leans in to ask if we could add that “if someone is growing something nice in their gardens or farms, they should reach out to him.”
The trio of snacks we start with are small bites of big flavour that echo this sentiment of local and seasonal. Each bite is composed of a hero ingredient of dried monkfish, lamb tartare and smoked trout, partnered with a pickled or fermented foraged green — aniseed-y angelica and chervil, earthy beets and mushrooms and, in case of the trout, a superb fried bread chock full of caraway.
An interlude before the big dishes arrives in the form of a warm, halved brioche with a “much too generous,” as my friend quipped, schmear of whipped noisette butter. But just one bite in we were asking sous chef Tryggvi Þór for seconds. He obliges. A strategy, I am aware, many might want to deploy.
One of the season’s last hurrah lumpfish roe is served with a tangy Greek yoghurt, a wonderfully light alternative to the traditional creme fraiche. The strawberry has us divided, but the ale from Danish brewery To Øl brewed with Saltverk’s arctic thyme salt unites us in the strength of its pairing. There are other memorable plates, like the summer-is-here vibe of the plaice crudo where the well seasoned tomatoes steal the show, an unctuous braised beef cheek with nubby mustard, and a curiously simple potato dish that had us stumped with its decidedly misplaced hefty wedges of roasted spuds.
I once said that North is my hidden agenda to get my wife to move to Akureyri.
In many ways, North is a homecoming of sorts for chef Gunnar Karl. A native of Akureyri, opening a restaurant in his hometown has been a long held dream. “I once said that North is my hidden agenda to get my wife to move to Akureyri,” he chuckles mischievously. “That is still the case.”
But he runs the show at Dill in Reykjavik, which means a venture like this is only possible with a reliable team. “I was lucky enough to have a sweet friend, Rafn, who comes from the north and was able to join me in this adventure.”
Rafn honed his cooking style and foraging know-how as a sous chef at Dill. When asked how the reception has been, Rafn is clearly pleased. “We have been blown away by how the locals have received us,” he smiles. “We could never have imagined how some people from here have been to eat multiple times already” His passion for his customers is evident. “I want them to come five to eight times a year and never have the same full menu. They can always expect something new when they come back.”
After Systir, Dill’s once upon a time sister restaurant that nosedived, I was cautious about North being either a replica of the same, or worse, a replica of Dill. But my experience proved otherwise — these are distinct restaurants, even if bound by the same values. Rafn sums it up best: “We feel like the restaurant scene here in Akureyri has been slowly on the rise and we want to be a part of that. We want to showcase what North Iceland has to offer. That we don’t need to import everything and charge a lot of money to have a nice dinner.“ It is a simple sentiment, but hard to achieve, yet North seems like it is more than making it a reality.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!