Published November 18, 2014
- What we think
- We Think: Seems like a tourist trap, but it isn‘t.
- Traditional Icelandic.
- Very clean. The sound system blares '50s Icelandic pop standards.
- Very polite, enthusiastic young servers.
- Price for 2 (no drinks)
- (no drinks): 5-6,000 ISK (very fair).
Is there any Icelandic culinary tradition to speak of? This is a question I’ve often struggled with. Some of our more “traditional” dishes might be rooted in Nordic culture—as our Scandinavian neighbours seem to have similar ones—but most of what gets called “traditional Icelandic food” these days was simply created out of chance or necessity.
Smoked lamb (“hangikjöt”), for example, only became popular in the late 19th/early 20th century, after failed attempts by Icelandic farmers to breed sheep for exporting purposes. Suddenly Icelanders had an overabundance of lamb meat to contend with, and the only way to keep it edible was to cure and smoke the hell out of it, in the style that our Danish overlords liked to treat their fabled pork. What we got was “hangikjöt.”
Hangikjöt quickly became popular among the locals and is by now ubiquitous—if you want a taste, you can find it at pretty much any supermarket (or gas station for that matter). However, if you want to properly feast on the recently traditional dish, in a nice and cosy setting, Café Loki is your place, as I learned one rainy, windy Sunday afternoon.
Without ever actually visiting the place, I had always considered Café Loki to be a tourist trap. My prejudice probably stems from the fact that the restaurant is located right across the road from Reykjavík’s main tourist attraction, Hallgrímskirkja, surrounded by B&Bs, hotels and guesthouses. I am very happy to report that I was absolutely wrong on this account.
Arriving at Café Loki, my companion and I were given some of the best tables in the place, with a great view of Hallgrímskirkja and Skólavörðuholt. There is something quite comfortable about sitting in a warm and bright restaurant, gleefully observing passersby struggling with Reykjavík’s strong autumn wind.
Café Loki offers a fine sampling of what’s officially deemed “Icelandic food.” They bake fresh rye bread daily (the kind of dense, almost cake-like rye bread that is sweet and malty in flavour) along with traditional Icelandic pancakes and flatbreads (“flatkökur”).
Café Loki’s menu basically consists of rye bread or flatbread topped with various delicacies, including pickled herring, eggs or lamb paté. For a starter we chose a rye bread with smoked arctic char and cottage cheese (1,290 ISK), which I highly recommend. The contrast of the salty and smoky fish against the sweetness and density of the rye bread is really delicious, and goes wonderfully well with a crisp white wine or an ale with a sweet or malty finish.
For our main course we both had the crown jewel of Icelandic cuisine, Icelandic meat soup (“íslensk kjötsúpa”) (1,750 ISK). This very traditional soup is basically a broth of lamb, carrots, yellow turnips and onions, flavoured with parsley and made a bit heavier with a handful of rice. This version is the classic, which most Icelanders grew up eating on a regular basis. It is a very comforting dish, even though it is often bland and sometimes too greasy. While it was perfectly balanced in the grease department, we found Café Loki’s kjötsúpa to be a bit lacking in flavour—a bolder approach to the seasoning would have made a big difference. Still, the soup made for a very satisfactory meal, especially once we poured a bit of Tabasco in there (I‘m not kidding, it makes ALL the difference!).
For dessert, we decided to share a house speciality, a rye bread ice cream topped with whipped cream (750 ISK), a delightfully simple dish that serves to underline the sweetness of Icelandic rye bread. And it was a real treat, the soft homemade ice cream contrasting nicely with the almost crunchy pieces of rye.
I must admit, Café Loki took me by surprise, and I learned my previous ideas about it being a tourist trap were entirely unfair and unfounded. With very fair prices and above-average food, it’s safe to recommend Café Loki to anyone wanting to try a bit of local flavour.