From Iceland — ‘Tis The Season To Be Greedy

‘Tis The Season To Be Greedy

‘Tis The Season To Be Greedy

Published December 10, 2022

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Countdown to Christmas with a Jólahlaðborð or two

Grillið at Hotel Saga was the first ever to introduce Icelanders to a holiday buffet in 1980. Then hotel manager Wilhelm Wessman noticed the stark difference between restaurants in Copenhagen and Reykjavík in how they planned for the weeks leading up to Christmas—where the former was bustling with activity and the latter was, well, not. It prompted him to introduce a very Danish buffet on December 21st, 1980. After two years of concerted effort selling the idea to locals, the idea took off in popularity and has remained a steadfast ritual since. 

With so many Christmas buffets laid out across the city, is this a definitive guide by any stretch? Not at all! Rather, in keeping with Grapevine tradition, this is a handpicked selection of something for everyone.. So put your party hat on and get ready to sing “Bjart er yfir Betlehem!”

Traditional Jólahlaðborð

Hotel Borg 

Putting a few rather unremarkable years behind us, Hotel Borg has reopened its doors after extensive renovations. The hlaðborð is a meticulously laid out arrangement of silvered platters heaving with house-made herring—some of the best we tried this year—thin slivers of beef tongue and a delicate hot smoked salmon, amongst other usual suspects. The main courses of roast lamb and roast pork belly with crackling (a Danish staple) are overshadowed by the loveliest rís a lámande I have had in all my years in Iceland. Creamy and served cold, it still holds the consistency of kheer, with nary a stony grain of uncooked rice to be found, which sadly cannot be said of this dish on other menus. Speckled with vanilla bean and barely sweet, it marries perfectly well with the fresh mandarin sauce. The wine selection and service match the calibre of the space. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer setting for your festivities.

“So put your party hat on and get ready to sing ‘Bjart er yfir Betlehem!’”

Vox at Hotel Hilton

Vox is one of few places that serves the whole nine yards of a buffet spread for lunch service. While their brunch buffet is legendary, their festive offering has also been a steadfast choice for families and companies alike. I recommend foregoing the starters of herring for their gravlax and smoked trout, terrazzo-like slices of salmon terrine and robustly flavoured seafood salad. Mound your plate high with the refreshing Waldorf salad by way of Iceland—whipped cream and tart apples dotted with candied pecans—as well as succulent roast lamb,an excellent uppstúf (white sauce) and traditional  hangikjöt. We couldn’t help but go back for seconds of everything. And while a crisp glass of champagne would have been ideal, this spread calls for a tall glass of Malt og Appelsín. 

The Classics

Jómfrúin

Getting a reservation at Jómfrúin’s for their sought after jólamat might be a harrowing experience, but one that rewards your success  multifold. Dinner is rightfully a holiday ritual for many but I personally favour lunch and its pleasant midweek mundaneness. While I am a sucker for their crackling pork, cooked long and slow, I want to steer you towards the reindeer meatballs, served in half and full portions. Well-seasoned and only slightly gamey, the accompanying mushroom sauce and home style buttery mashed potatoes are the perfect match, while the dish’s crowning glory of fried parsley is a playful textural delight. 

Brút

It’s not until you make a concerted effort do you realise how challenging it can be to find a traditional jóla menu. Brút rises to that challenge even as it tucks away a few contemporary surprises. Retro details abound, like the crystal coupe in which the prawn cocktail is served, but with contemporary flourishes—hand peeled North Atlantic shrimp, rosy and plump, with jade green avocado and startlingly crunchy ‘vegan’ caviar, is paired with a briny Albarino. Coral hued sinuous slivers of dung-smoked trout follows, with a very Danish flourish of pickled asier. The roast ham and pineapple is punchy, with the sharp mustardy gastrique jús embracing that retro modern vibe unabashedly. The whole deliriously delicious affair was only made better by David, our jovial waiter for the night—and the bruléed mashed potatoes that we demolished. 

Not so Classic

Monkeys

Monkeys is perfect for group outings, with several areas of the restaurant that can be sectioned off for your own private party vibes. And if one is tired of smoked lamb and Ora peas, this menu is a great way to change things up with the variety on offer. The plantain chips arrive piping hot and seasoned to salty perfection—we asked for seconds and thirds immediately. The chefs at Monkeys clearly love their whipping syphon and put it to use every chance they get, a slightly tiresome detail but one you wouldn’t mind given the excellent wines on offer—the Poderi dal Nespoli Cabernet Sauvignon that our waiter Dario suggested worked a treat with the reindeer and pork belly that followed. 

Fiskfélagið

This jólamatseðill is likely the best value for money in Reykjavík, and always cooked to perfection regardless of the rambunctious crowds that gather inside. With their many seafood dishes, the menu might recall an Italian feast, but we are still in Northern waters here, so a flaky ling with a honeyed glaze over creamy parsnips precedes their star dish: the reindeer carpaccio with foie gras and hazelnuts that is a nice little repast before an elegant cod with hollandaise. Fiskfélagið always manages to steal the show with their deft handling of protein and the freshness of their fish is palpable. For a Christmas feast that veers off the traditional, you can’t do better.

Vegan Jól

Sónó matseljur

Traditionally, Christmas buffets in Icelandic restaurants are brimming with meat and dairy based options, which often leaves plant-based diners very few food choices during these festive times. Thankfully, Sónó restaurant in the Nordic House has given plant-based patrons a reason to rejoice this year by hosting an all-vegan Christmas buffet! Forget the dry nut steak, bland veggies, and bowl of fruit that would normally be offered to vegans at these types of gatherings. Instead, Sónó has curated a delicious buffet that would please any food lover. Some standout dishes include the beet wellington with savoury mushroom sauce, perfectly cooked parsnips with pink pepper, red cabbage with apples, cloves and juniper, and cranberry apple crumble with vanilla sauce.

Hnoss

The festive set menu at Hnoss opens with their star dish, the humble rutabaga, smokey and branded with grill marks. The savoury peanut sauce is lick-your-plate good and the warm mushroom Danish that follows manages to hold its own against the competition with that sprig of sage tempura lending crunch and fragrance. The eggplant is a clever little dish where the nightshade is shmeared with a falafel batter and baked to crunchy perfection. To push each bite to the edge, there are spiced, braised kidney beans with a garlicky thwap of green chilli spiked gremolata alongside. As if that wasn’t enough drama, the Omnom chocolate praline to finish is so ridiculously good that we had a hard time believing it could be a vegan concoction. 

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