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Reykjavik, as a buzzing, cosmopolitan and youthful European capital, has an exciting and varied restaurant scene with the cuisine of many countries on offer. I read somewhere once that because of the climate and the nature of the soil in Iceland that much of the food that’s eaten there has to be imported and that, of course, adds to the cost. These days, however, a lot of research is being done into how fruit and vegetables can be grown indoors using the natural resources that Iceland has; if you are so inclined you can even visited one of these giant greenhouses just outside the capital and see how they are growing everything from tomatoes to tropical fruit.
One thing that Iceland has in abundance, though, is fish and, boy, do they like to eat fish: they cure it, dry it, batter and fry it – you name it, they do it. There are many restaurants serving fish and seafood in the capital but if you really want to try a variety of Icelandic fish dishes, you should try one of the specialist fish restaurants. We both love fish and we knew we would want to try as much as possible so we made reservations for Restaurant Reykjavik’s evening buffet which, according to Trip Advisor, was highly recommended.
Restaurant Reykjavik is easy to find (mind you, Reykjavik being so small, most places are), situated in the centre of the downtown area in a distinctive yellow house which dates from 1870. This area used to be the main dock area when Reykjavik was much smaller but the harbour is now about fifty metres behind the restaurant. Having read that the restaurant gets busy on a Saturday evening we dropped by during the lunch session to make a reservation for that evening.
This is a large restaurant that has a large main dining room and a couple of separate private areas suitable for groups. The main space has been cleverly broken up with shelving to create a see through partition, making the space more intimate. The look is contemporary and fuss free, smart but not overly formal. The waiting staff were all in smart black and white but were able to wear what they wanted within that which also added an air of informality.
On the evening we visited the resident jazz duo (she a singer, he playing guitar) were playing; it wasn't my cup of tea but the volume wasn't intrusive and their sets were short enough not to be annoying. It was also election night in Iceland and around 9.30pm lots of people started to arrive and a television screen was set up at the other end of the restaurant. One of the parties was gathering to see the results come in, bringing with them their balloons and ribbons and cheering loudly when the results came in. I thought this was a bit intrusive for other diners but nobody batted an eyelid and besides, we were almost done anyway.
We had already decided to go for the buffet so we didn’t even look at the menu. The couples at the tables nearest to us did order from the menu, however, and we were able to see what they ate. As well as lots of fish dishes (one couple had a dish that appeared to be a langoustine version of a lobster thermidore) there are some meat specials (the other couple appeared to be having the smoked lamb special with roast potatoes and vegetables), mainly lamb as that is the most common meat in Iceland.
It’s a three course buffet and you can go back as many times as you wish. Himself tried the soup which was a light fish soup, very tasty but not so heavy that he didn’t then want to try some of the other starters. These were displayed in two areas of the buffet and there was a bit of confusion for some diners who seemed to be wondering whether certain foods were starters or mains. There were piles of prawns served in a variety of ways; they were served in wide shallow slightly curved dishes which rested on ice and this meant that when diners helped themselves some inevitably fell onto the floor and spilled on top of other food items on the buffet. We found that the things that we enjoyed most were the ones that we most simply prepared: the prawns au natural were sweet and juicy, far nicer than the ones with little cubes of pineapple. There was salmon, poached and dressed in the classical style with thinly sliced cucumber, or simply smoked or Scandinavian style cured salmon gravadlax; all of it was excellent. There were large green lipped mussels which had been simply steamed to present them at their best. There were little dishes of crab salad to take individually: these were very good and I had to restrain myself from taking a second.
Around the edge of the starters table were ceramic spoons, each one containing a tiny sample of what I think was smoked puffin – one of the more controversial food options in Iceland. Of course I tried it; puffins are beautiful birds but I think that too often we think of our own food options (and the abundance of choice we enjoy) too much when we criticise the choices of others. I’m not afraid to declare that I enjoyed it, as I did the tiny sliver of whale I was able to try too. I managed to get the last piece of whale meat and shared it with Himself who had asked a waiter if more could be brought to the buffet. He was told that more would be brought, but that never happened. This didn’t surprise me because I had read that you should get to the restaurant earlier in the evening if you wished to try the puffin or whale which invariably run out. The whale meat was very dark and extremely rich. I can see why they slice it so thinly because one small piece was really enough to get a sense of the texture and flavour which is decidedly gamey. Icelanders themselves eat very little whale meat; in fact it’s mostly tourists in Iceland that eat whale meat. There is a strict annual quota on whaling but whaling may stop completely if Iceland joins the EU. I couldn’t review Restaurant Reykjavik without mentioning that whale meat is served here and acknowledge that it’s controversial but I tried it and liked it.
There was a fairly decent choice of main courses but I was a bit disappointed that there was very little fish served very simply. There was salmon en croute, a fish pie, battered and fried fish, and a fish stew but I’d have liked something a bit lighter such as a poached, steamed or even pan fried fish that spoke more for itself. Still, the dishes there were all well prepared and made interesting with the use of spices and herbs with a distinctive Scandinavian flavour such as caraway. The side dishes were also very good and included an excellent beetroot gratin which I ate lots of. There was also salad but this looked a bit tired and wasn’t being replenished frequently enough.
The desserts were also served buffet style. There were individually presented white chocolate mousses in tiny shot glasses, mini crème brulees and little truffles. Then there were gateaux and cakes: these were mostly Scandinavian in style with apples and berries featuring heavily but there was an awesome chocolate cake covered in glossy dark chocolate frosting which was the star of the show. One of the waiters kindly went into the kitchen to check which desserts were not suitable for a nut allergy sufferer and even brought out a brand new chocolate cake so that I could be sure nobody had cut into it with a knife previously used for a dessert that had nuts in it.
We paid something in the region of £100 for two people to eat from the buffet, bottled water and a bottle of white wine - expensive yes, but this did cover three courses and it gave us the chance to sample lots of different things we wouldn't have been able to do by ordering from the menu. The standard of food available ranged from excellent - mostly the very simple things - to average - mostly the more 'fiddled about with' dishes. If you like fish and seafood I would recommend Restaurant Reykjavik as a good option to enable you to try a variety of dishes and there's the advantage of having a few non-fish meals for any members of your party that just don't like fish.
Sounds wonderful, although I'd pass the crab, lobster and mussel (and similar) by... Your comment about the "pan fried fish that spoke more for itself" reminded me of the "meet the dish of the day" scene from the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: http://youtu.be/niOm01dEzzI