Last Year In Food: A Grumpy Glutton’s Guide - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Last Year In Food: A Grumpy Glutton’s Guide

Last Year In Food: A Grumpy Glutton’s Guide

Published January 11, 2016

Ragnar Egilsson
Photos by
Art Bicnick

To mark the New Year, I am giving you what I give my friends every year: opinions. Opinions are like orange peels at Christmas, why toss ‘em away when you can boil ‘em in syrup, dip ‘em in chocolate and force ‘em on your friends? What are we waiting for? Let’s dissect the corpse that was the food year of 2015 (dibs on the thigh meat).

vegetables photo by Fæ
Photo by Fæ

VEGANS EAT EVERYTHING

Worldwide, 2015 was The Year Of The Vegan. Vegans both grew in numbers and were recognized as a bankable demographic by the food industry.

The portents are plentiful. Isinglass may sound like a hobbit marital aid but rest assured it’s a simple fish swim-bladder used to filter beer and in 2015, Guinness replaced it with a vegan-friendly substitute.

In major US cities, restaurants began to label their culinary approach as “vegetable-forward,” which is about the sleaziest adspeak this side of Saul Goodman. (Seriously, if I see this phrase one more time I will stab a broccoli to death with a sharpened asparagus.)

Last but not least, men’s magazine GQ picked the veggie burger at New York Superiority Burger as the best all-around burger of the year. Better than meat burgers. Men’s magazine. Veggie. No meat. 4 real.

Iceland was no exception. Vegetarians and vegans saw an increase in vegetarian offerings at mainstream restaurants and a growing selection of veggie-wares in stores—whether it be the holy grail of quorn or dairy-free cheese (we are still holding out for cruelty-free food programming, but I can’t seem to get Guy Fieri to follow me into a dark alley). Even meat-and-potatoes sandwich company Júmbó introduced a vegan variety (their fare was mostly cardboard to begin with anyway).

Yet, somehow, the only restaurant in all of Reykjavík catering exclusively to vegetarians and vegans is a single, tiny coffee house called Garðurinn. My theory is that this is the same effect that has seen a reduction in bars catering exclusive to LGBT people in the last decade. As the mainstream has become more welcoming, the need for places that cater exclusively to the niche has dwindled. So in a weird way, fewer veggie-only restaurants may be a cause for celebration among vegans and vegetarians.

From the Deaf Chef Facebook page

From the Deaf Chef Facebook page

ICELANDIC FOOD ABROAD

Iceland-ish restaurant Skál on Canal St. in New York closed its doors this year, but when life closes a door it opens a train cart because Gunnar Gíslason of Dill and Noma co-founder Claus Meyer are set to open a new Nordic restaurant in Grand Central Terminal in early 2016.

For some insane reason, an Icelandic family opened a fish store thirty minutes away from Grand Central, in Closter, New Jersey. It’s called The Fish Dock.

In Berlin, Victoria Elíasdóttir, sister of artist Ólafur Elíasson, opened the seafood restaurant Dóttir in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, to much acclaim.

In Copenhagen, Unnur Pétursdóttir won an international Deaf Chef contest which no one had known existed until an Icelander won. You hear that Christine Ha and Michael Caines!? Unnur is the new sheriff in town, you bastards.

Also in Copenhagen, Icelandic chefs from Gallery at Hótel Holt, lead by Friðgeir Ingi Eiríksson, fought bravely in the Nordlige Norden gourmet hot dog contest last May. This fun, annual event was held in the courtyard of a repurposed church in the heart of Copenhagen, and saw numerous Nordic small producers promoting stuff like kelp jams and rhubarb pralines. Iceland was represented via birch liquor from our very own Foss Distillery, licorice salt from Saltverk, and white chocolate skyr morsels from Rjómabúið Erpsstöðum. The contest saw huge lines, and featured a lot of inventive hot dogs. The Reykjavík Grapevine’s intrepid food editor happened to serve as a judge in the contest (Grapevine knows its hot dogs) and tried his best to be impartial and eat the other teams’ votes when no one was looking. Alas, like the redheaded stepchild of Scandinavia that we are, the Icelandic hot dog team turned up late and ended up in last place (despite serving up a tasty and innovative dog). The Danes took the prize because they have always been better at cheating than Icelanders.

Photo by by Magnús Elvar Jónsson

Photo by by Magnús Elvar Jónsson

FOODTRUCKAGEDDON

In Reykjavík, food trucks continued to multiply. Noteworthy additions in 2015 were the two fish & chips carts, where before there had been none. One was pretty traditional, but the other went a little leftfield, offering south-of-the-border condiments. The traditional one is usually parked by the Víkin maritime museum. There were also reports of a third fish & chips truck spawning in the town of Stykkishólmur, although I cannot confirm that at present.

Speaking of fish, we also got the surprisingly decent Shirokuma Sushi truck, which you’ll usually find at Mæðragarðurinn in downtown Reykjavík.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Photo by Art Bicnick

SPREADING OUT OF 101

The Reykjavík food scene started, finally, to diffuse into other corners of Reykjavík after decades of being crammed in the 101 postal code.

104
Hole-in-a-wall restaurant “Pad Thai Noodles Iceland” in Álfheimar have been diligently serving up their steaming eggy noodles since 2014 but 2015 was the year the Grapevine called them out as one of Reykjavík’s best-kept secrets.

105
Reykjavík got its first beer garden with Bjórgarðurinn at the gargantuan new Foss Hotel (which also houses the restaurant Haust). The beergarden-ish restaurant Pylsa/Pulsa sprang up at at Hlemmur Square around the same time for some strange reason. Plans were also announced for an indoor gourmet food market styled after Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne at the soon-to-be discontinued Hlemmur bus station. And the coffee-perverts of Reykjavík Roasters branched out into a larger spot in Brautarholt, serving up an expanded selection of food offerings.

Grandi
While technically part of the 101 Reykjavík area, the Grandi section on the other side of the marina feels more like it belongs to Reykjavík’s West Side (107). The area has been ballooning as a restaurant hub for the past three years, and 2015 was no exception. Food-history-savvy fine dining spot Matur & Drykkur opened in Sögusafnið. Brunch favorites Bergsson opened up an offshoot called Bergsson RE in the area. Fish joint Verbúð 11 opened up in one of the last remaining slots in the row of old green fishing huts by the marina. And Magnolia-esque cupcake shop and bakery 17 Sortir opened shortly after.

108
Reykjavík got two ambitious taquerias in 2015 (a 200% increase!). It started with Tacobarinn in a lovely house at Hverfisgata, and ended with Taquería No mames at Ármúli 21. The Ármúli location is not far from Reykjavík’s only place to get real pho—at the aptly named Pho Vietnamese Restaurant on Suðurlandsbraut.

Illustration by Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Illustration by Lóa Hjáltýmsdóttir

GASTROPUBS

Reykjavík got its first self-styled gastropub with Public House only two decades after the trend first took off in America. However, Frederiksen Ale House and Bunk Bar had basically been mining the same vein. Another “official” gastropub is set to open where bizarro faux-Mexican restaurant Tabasco’s has lain for about a decade, cunningly ambushing its tourist prey. It will have a pig in the logo. Like Public House. It will be designed by Leifur Welding. Like every restaurant in Iceland. That is the way of things. The way of the Welding.

MANDI VS. ALI BABA

Who could forget The Great Kebab War of 2015? The owners of Iceland’s two most popular shawarma places literally traded blows this summer. The owners of shawarma joint Ali Baba pressed charges against the owners of next-door kebab-slingers Mandí. The owners had been in business together before going into direct competition, with nothing but a wall separating them.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Photo by Art Bicnick

7 RESTAURANTS WE REALLY LIKED IN 2015

Hverfisgata 12
A nameless pizza place that’s not afraid to play with pork, pickles, and pears.

Fish Company
Despite the name, their tasting menus are far removed from the assembly-line New Nordic approach, featuring tasting menus full of far-flung ingredients.

Snaps
Our dependable French neighborhood bistro where the downtown cool cats gather to lick their wounds.

Dill
New Nordic powerhouse. Possibly the best restaurant in Iceland. ‘Nuff said.

Matur og Drykkur
A playful approach to Icelandic ingredients and culinary history. What I mean is: they serve cod heads. A big honking cod head staring right at you with its cold, dead eyes. Delicious.

Kopar
A dependable place to start the night with a little horse meat and seafood.

Restó
Restó didn’t close this year, which is a bit of a shame as I really want to use my pun (“Restó in peace”). However, it would be far more of a shame were Restó to close down, all puns be damned, as it is one of the best and most affordable places in Reykjavík to grab Mediterranean-inspired seafood.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Photo by Art Bicnick

FAD INGREDIENTS

Craft beer enjoyed a great year in Iceland, and may have reached a pinnacle with the opening of an outpost of ale god dispensary Mikkeller & Friends on Hverfisgata, with the sours and lambic beers getting quite popular among the locals. The artisan coffee movement grew as well, with Reykjavík Roasters opening up a new, and larger, branch. However, looking back at 2015 I am struck by how fad-less it seemed. Sure, there was a continuation of trends from 2014, like pomegranates in salads, avocados in smoothies, roasted beets, home cooks using sous-vide, etc. But the macro trend among the hardcore food nerds was that there didn’t seem to be a trend.

A few years ago, I started a small food community in Iceland for ambitious home cooks and expats called SUMAR. The community serves mostly as a resource for people trying to track down hard-to-find ingredients on this strange, isolated island by working together. In 2013 and 2014, picking out common threads in the group discussions was fairly easy, but in 2015, the members’ interests were all over the place. People would inquire about furikake, okra, clotted cream, affordable paco jets, natto, squid ink and tigernut flour. They would share recipes for pine soups, seaweed mussels, polish stews, and carne seca. Of course, the people who haunt that forum are outliers, but is it nonetheless more than possible that your average Icelander became more food-adventurous in 2015?

vegetables photo by Fæ
Photo by Fæ

REALLY DUMB FAST FOOD

Surprisingly, the Kebab War wasn’t the weirdest thing that happened in the Icelandic fast food scene last year. In 2015, we got a fast food place serving nothing but french fries, courtesy of pop singer Friðrik Dór and modern composer Ólafur Arnalds. Then we got yet another burger place in 101 Reykjavík with Block Burger on Skólavörðustígur. In an attempt to properly brand the place, the people behind Block Burger basically came up with a carbon copy of the Shake Shack logo, in what was surely the most audacious attempt at logo design since Cardiff restaurant Dirty Bird made the news. Too bad they failed to properly copy Shake Shack’s burgers, though. Speaking of foolhardy marketing, Ugly Pizza opened for business at the tail end of 2015, not to be confused with pizza place The Ugly Pie Co. Meanwhile, sandwich and smoothie place Lemon continues to spread around Iceland, as if Joe and the Juice wasn’t already a thing. Because Icelanders are nothing if not original.
Oh, and lest we forget, Icelanders lost their tiny frozen minds over Dunkin’ Donuts, queueing around the block for a chance to patronize a franchise that miserably fails to contend in the one arena Dunkin’ Donuts always excelled in globally—keeping the prices down.

And the cherry on top of the Bavarian cream donut would have to be the announcement that the USA’s eighth-biggest fast food chain, Denny’s, is set to open an Icelandic location 2016, no doubt lured by the prospect of not having to turn away too many black customers.

Vín: Umhverfis jörðina á 110 flöskum

FOOD BOOKS FOR ALL SEASONS

Of the Iceland-connected food books released in 2015, ‘Vín: Umhverfis jörðina á 110 flöskum’ made for a particularly pretty entry.

The big fuck-you doorstopper of a book for the serious foodie would have to be Magnus Nilsson’s ‘The Nordic Cookbook’, which featured a few Icelandic restaurateurs.

In more global terms, the hip young food lover’s must-owns for 2015 were J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s ‘The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science’ and Danny Bowien’s ‘The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook’.

FOOD TRENDS IN COUNTRIES THAT AREN’T ICELAND

Cold brew coffee and ramen went more mainstream (mainstreamer?). Everyone American ate a lot of avocado on toast and pretended it was cooking. Foodies remained in thrall to the same pre-industrial preservation methods they have been for stuck on for the past five years or so, and thus everything was mostly slow-cooked, smoked, salted, pickled, or fermented—just as long as it wasn’t refrigerated or frozen. For some reason, we continue to embrace smartphones and post-17th-century medicine, the cowards that we are.

In countries that are not Iceland there was that self-fulfilling prophecy of making Hawaiian food the new Japanese food. Some seemed to think it was good enough for a poke. This was of no interest to anyone except the food writers who talked it up and down.

UberEats launched and may shut down the takeaway market faster than Skepta at the Marquee.

The six part Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’ had everyone talking, and for good reason. It’s the best bloody TV series in ages.

Photo by York Underwood

Photo by York Underwood

2016 IN FOOD

The year ahead? How would I know? Who am I, Foodstradamus?

Well, I guess I might as well have a go. Ahem.

The year 2016 will see more tourists taking OMG wedding photos in front of melting glaciers and restaurants will benefit from this and sell these starry-eyed tourists many charred arctic chars on chard. Those restaurants will then continue their slide into the matrix of New Nordic Cuisine and the name will change to: Lemme-Tell-You-Young-Bloods-About-Real-Nordic-Cuisine.

Considering the popularity of beef jerky at the moment I wouldn’t be surprised if harðfiskur (wind-dried cod) caught on abroad. Someone with a wooden mallet and a fancy beard should get started on artisanal harðfiskur and export it. You could have a good run until we run out of cod and wolffish. Speaking of which…

Chefs worldwide will pitch low-grade bycatch fish, insects and bitter greens, and attempt to dress it up like they’re making this change by choice and not because we’ve sucked our overworked dairy cow of a planet dry. They’ll give them a snazzy name to reflect our relentless consumption (Tribble Nibbles?).

In 2016, amateur chefs and regular Jóns will start worshiping at the altar of some magical vegetables or superpowered berry which they’ve been told will shrink their waistlines using carbo-telepathy. Because the solution to overconsumption is to consume more, as long as you’re really anxious about it.

It looks like we might get more pop-up restaurants and one-off food events. Those kinds of events are a great way to try out new ideas, and therefore you guys should attend as many as you can. They are also fun.

Internationally, I think 2016 will be the year of bitter and sour. We will see more hot and sour soups, hot and sour sambals, more Indonesian food overall, and more bitter veggies and fruit as an extension of our tolerance for IPAs, dark chocolate, and black coffee.

Huh, that wasn’t that hard. Fuckit, here’s my prediction for 2036. By then, self-sailing solar energy vessels will be harvesting jellyfish from the toxic and boiling-hot North Atlantic. These jellyfish will be served with a steaming bowl of James Hansen’s I-told-you-so’s. At night, we will keep ourselves warm with memories of a world caught in a constant state of civil war, before we had to ride to work on explosive-detecting robot mules. By 2036 the Bacon Festival will be labeled a crime against nature and will be held in an underground bunker where only the ultra-rich and ultra-depraved may attend. The curiously ageless Sigmundur Davíð will be master of ceremonies at these events. And, in a dramatic turn at the height of the 2036 Extreme BaconFest, it will be revealed that he is actually three cannibalistic pigs wearing a flesh suit. This will dominate the headlines until October, when Iceland gets sucked into the polar vortex.

Foodstradamus has spoken! Now I must rest… and feed.

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