“You shmear the butter all over the dosa,” my Dad demonstrates. “Like this,” he says, as he tenderly traces the masala dosa with a blob of white butter. I watch, mesmerised, as the fat glistens and disappears, leaving a milky streak behind, glossing the already lacquered dosa with a fresh sheen of fat. I’m about six or eight years old and we are at one of many popular ‘darshinis’ in Bangalore—fast food joints that are ironically named as most of the menu is a tribute to dishes that are laborious and notorious to make. My normally impatient father slows down here. How to eat a dosa is a secret shared; a little bridge between us. I understood even then that going out to eat is special. There is an air of generosity in restaurants, a magical slowing of time and it touches everyone in it. And I felt lucky to be able to be in on the secret.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve continued to enjoy dining out just as I did so long ago as a child. So much so that I have made a career out of it. Restaurants still hold all the magic of Neverland for me. Where your only responsibility is enjoyment while the hubbub of regular life thrums away ceaselessly outside it’s doors. It is its own spectacular bubble. Everything’s better when dining out. Be it at starred restaurants taking you on a culinary adventure spanning textures, flavours and ingredients or bustling street side joints where smoke singed plates of sizzling deliciousness make mundane evenings memorable.
The nonchalant choreography of plates on the pass, with everything arranged just so, making their way to you from kitchen to the table feels like a private performance put on just for you. Knowing that this intimate dialogue between the chef and you will be but a memory even as the last crumb is swept away heightens its ephemerality. Can you tell that I hopelessly love restaurants?
But the pandemic changed everything. Almost overnight, restaurants had to turn their entire operating principle on its head. For an industry that was just starting to come to terms with the latest union negotiations, gathering restrictions seemed to be another nail in the coffin. Tourist footfalls form a large bulk of business for the F&B industry and subsequent relief measures seemed to consistently gloss over the hospitality industry in its efforts to contain the impact on the tourism industry. There simply is no tourism industry without the hospitality industry.
And Iceland, for all its reputation of being expensive has successfully catered to various budgets, the 1500ISK sad sandwich notwithstanding. Travellers have made exclusive plans just to dine at Dill, Iceland’s only Michelin starred restaurant, and waiting lists are the norm at Óx, an exclusive intimate chef’s table experience. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that a taste of local produce and pristine Nordic cooking has been its own draw.
Pandemic food trends
If people cannot come to the food, then the food will come to the people, seemed to be the mantra in those early days of the pandemic. Recreating the restaurant experience at home seems straightforward but it is not without its own challenges. Chefs had to be quick footed and adapt dishes that would travel well, reheat well and in many instances, make their food accessible and bridge generations. While this served well in the early days of the pandemic, it quickly proved to be a stop-gap solution. Dine-in menus too reflected a shift; there has never been an influx of ‘safe menus’ as in 2020. But as infection rates go down and restrictions lift, I am fervently hoping that chef’s are ready to flex those creative muscles and reward us with an unbridled explosion of palate-singeing fireworks.
Guessing the alcohol tax would make for a great drinking game if only it weren’t so steep. Cooped up at home with people you may or may not like are conditions ripe to drown one’s miseries and no amount of tax was deemed too steep to tide over the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, alcohol consumption was through the roof in 2020. While monopoly is our mantra second only to ‘þetta reddast’, the relationship with alcohol here is a curious thing indeed. You can only buy alcohol from state-owned stores. You cannot buy alcohol online locally. It is illegal. One can shop for spirits from international stores. That is legal. We’ve been through enough, just lower the taxes, allow restaurants and wine bars to sell alcohol online and usher in modern reform already.
At the peak of the pandemic, while the rest of the world seemed to be baking, we were busy pickling. Granted one couldn’t turn a corner in their kitchen without a sourdough starter staring them in the face, but kimchi kitchens seemed to mushroom everywhere and social media pages were hotbeds of booming activity (Veterans like the Filipino kitchen, Pinoy Taste were well poised for pandemic conditions with their authentic fare). Unsurprising given that the barrier to entry for home chef’s and food enthusiasts is so steep in Iceland. If the authorities would simplify regulations and invested in prep kitchen facilities like Eldstæðið, we’d see diverse additions to the culinary landscape.
Digital and delivery innovation
For a small country, Iceland can be painfully slow to adapt to change. Globally, third-party platforms surged ahead leaving restaurants overwhelmed with deliveries.The absence of a robust delivery infrastructure here is telling. Both restaurant self-delivery and digital platforms need an overhaul (early adopter Fönix has done notably well in this aspect). Customers have moved their lives indoors and online and this would be a positive for the industry. Meanwhile, we can continue to enjoy the discounts offered on take-aways to take away the sting of navigating cumbersome websites.
It is easy to forget that Reykjavík isn’t Iceland. The loss of tourism has hit places outside the capital deeply. Reliant on both foreign labour and footfalls, many like Fisherman’s in Suðureyri completely shut shop for the foreseeable future. While the success of ‘ferðum innanlands’ brightened the summer, it was quickly overshadowed by rising infections that followed. What this summer will bring remains to be seen. Veterans like Slippurinn and Norðaustur are tangible cultural treasures that need to be protected.
Pop-ups and locals
In Reykjavík, restaurants outside the capital area proved successful with their local clientele. They also became mobile. Deig travelled around Iceland with their baked goods. Fine opened a take-away only window in Hafnarfjörður and, quelling rumours of a closure, have opened their doors again on Rauðarárstígur.
Slippurinn regularly extended its reach, birthing an off-shoot burger joint that turned into a gourmet delicatessen. Folks from Mat Bar and Makake joined hands and brought us Dragon Dimsum, a six-week pop-up that proved so successful that it is now a steady fixture. The 160-seater Skelfiskmarkaðurinn has successfully been turned into street food hall, Götumarkaðurinn. Gandhi is now an Indian-ish lounge bar at a new location and Chickpea at Hallveigarstígur is keeping the vegetarian high-street food flag high.
Natural wine bar Mikki Refur, which has been quietly plying us with bubbles and soup from none other than chef Gunnar Karl, will offer wine-paired pop-ups in 2021. The bad boys of Vínstúkan Tíu Sopar are working on a hush-hush restaurant-bar-café at the renovated Radisson Blu 1919.
History is proof that periods of hardship, war and prohibitions are almost always followed by exuberant freewheeling, cue the roaring 20’s and swinging 60’s. The pandemic is changing life in tangible ways. While travel may be a distant reality, adventures are to be had right here, right now, to far away distant lands, to the corners of one’s own land and to see and taste a future yet to be imagined. And it’s yours for the taking at your favourite restaurants.
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