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Iceland: An Update

Back in 2012, when we took our two week vacation in Iceland doing the Ring Road, there wasn’t a whole lot of English-language food information on the web, so the various reviews I wrote in my set of Iceland Reviews still get quite a few hits. But, since 2012, the traveling world continues to discover Iceland, indeed, in 2015 almost twice as many tourists visited Iceland as in 2012, and it’s shifted from “terra incognita” into “interesting Transatlantic Stopover”. And heck, in the summer of 2016, no few than 10 of my friends and colleagues visited Iceland, including several visiting at the same time I was passing through.

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Valdis (Reykjavik, Iceland)

One of the little details I like about eating in Iceland is that the dairy products are fantastic. On our main visit to Iceland in 2012, we discovered Brynja in Akureyri, which serves up some most splendid and flavorful vanilla soft-serve that’s got a nice, earthy richness of flavor. And probably much to the chagrin of my doctor, most every breakfast had me eating Skyr or schmearing a good half-inch thick layer of Smjor (Iceland’s major brand of butter) over some rye bread. I’m told it’s from the cows eating grass grown on highly volcanic soil that gives the milk and dairy products a lot more flavor. So when we heard that over on the west side of town was a new-ish ice cream place that people were raving out, we had to just set out and find it. Thus, we found ourselves in a weird little industrial area just west of Reykjavik’s harbor, which consists of all sorts of little garage-like bays. Some of these are now art boutiques. A few are restaurants. And one held ice cream: Valdis.

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Pizza with No Name (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Our next stop for refreshment during our layover in Reykjavik was one of the nicer beer bars to show up since our last visit: Mikkeller and Friends. An offshoot of the Danish brewer, it’s quite a nice little beer bar located right next to one of our other Reykjavik favorites, Grái Kötturinn (where we had breakfast that morning: Grái Kötturinn is a godsend for the international traveler arriving before most of Reykjavik wakes up). They’ve got a rather impressive beer list (indeed, including one of the very last kegs of Jack D’Or in existence, from the closed Pretty Thinks brewery in Somerville, MA), but for food, they recommend that you go downstairs and order a pizza from the pizza place with no name.

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Kex (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Those that have been following a while know that every year I try to go someplace interesting, somewhat obscure, and rather, well, offbeat for at least one vacation, like La Reunion or Iceland. Well, after a few years’ incubation, this summer we were finally able to work out the details and have a trip to the Faroe Islands (stay tuned for some reviews). But like a good number of the obscure travel destinations I’ve done, one doesn’t simply hop on a plane from Boston to Vagar (the airport of the Faroes). Only a few places (primarily Norway, Scotland, Denmark, and Iceland) even have flights to the Faroe Islands, so it’s necessary to take an intermediate stop. In our case, this meant a return trip to Reykjavik for an extended layover. Since our visit in 2012, the formerly obscure vacation destination of Iceland continues to be more popular, and as a result, Reykjavik’s tourist, and dining, scene, continues to evolve. Back when I wrote up my reviews in 2012, I was pretty much the English-language source of reviews for Iceland (and I still get a lot of traffic), but it’s definitely shown up on the radar for adventurous tourists. With that in mind, that’s how we found ourselves having beers and dining in a converted biscuit factory on the north side of Reykjavik: KEX.

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Rub 23 (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Our last meal in Reykjavik was at the Reykjavik branch of Rub 23 (the original is in Akureyri). Rub 23 is basically an Asian Fusion place that pairs Icelandic ingredients with Asian ingredients (the name comes from several specialty rubs, their schtick is that you can pick your own combination of meat and rub). It’s a fairly trendy place, and one of the harder places to get into on a weekend in Reykjavik, but we managed to score a table, and opted for the tasting menu.

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Noodle Station (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Our last full day in Iceland was mostly spent tooling around Reykjavik. In the morning, we spent most of our time in Reykjavik’s heated pool, Laugardalslaug, which was nice (but wasn’t conducive to cameras…) Afterward, we wandered around downtown again. One place we really wanted to check out was Noodle Station. Noodle Station is one of those places I didn’t find from reviews, or from people waiting in long lines, or from signage. Noodle Station is one of those places that we found purely from the smell. Located on Skolavordustigur just down from Hallgrimskirkja, we couldn’t miss Noodle Station on our first day in Reykjavik; they were prepping for the day, and the entire place smelled of star anise and wonderful soup broth. But that first day, we were never in that part of town when they were open. But now that we were back in Reykjavik, and it was lunchtime, we decided that this time we’d check out Noodle Station.

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Sjávargrillið (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Well, our “Great Circle” tour of Iceland had finished, but we weren’t quite done with Iceland, having another two days in Reykjavik to explore. With our various diversions on our last day of driving (including a return trip to Hveragerði to take a long hike to check out the Varma (“Warm River”), fed by hot springs), we got back into Reykjavik rather late and several places were booked solid for dinner (it was a Friday night), but we didn’t have too much trouble getting Sjávargrillið (“Seafood Grill”) for dinner. Sjávargrillið is one of the up-and-coming trendy restaurants in Reykjavik (the head chef was Iceland’s 2010 chef of the year), but it’s menu is still pretty approachable: the primary theme of Sjávargrillið is “Icelandic Seafood”, with a nice variety of fresh and smoked seafood dishes, but they also offer several “Feasts”, including their “Grill Party” (basically a chef’s choice multi-course special), a lobster feast, and a “Taste of Iceland” feast (puffin, shag, and minke whale). While all of these were very tempting, we ended up settling on the daily special, the perch.

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N1 (Various Iceland Locations)

N1 is probably Iceland’s largest retailer, running a rather large (by Icelandic standards) chain of over 100 gas stations, ranging from self-service kiosks (which proved to be relatively good at defending themselves from any attempt of mine to exchange a US-based credit card for diesel, even my Chip-and-PIN card) to full service stations. But one thing is almost a given if you are doing like I and travel around Iceland, you will eventually find yourself hungry and in need of food, and through location, time, or other factors, N1 is going to be your best option. Indeed, I’d say that in a substantial fraction of Iceland, the nearest prepared food of any sort is actually an N1 station…

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Skógafoss Country Wagon (Skógafoss, Iceland)

One of our first stops heading west from Klaustur was Skógafoss. Skógafoss is one of South Iceland’s most impressive waterfalls, about 75 feet wide and 200 feet tall, with a large enough water volume that it generates a fair amount of wind and mist. Like most of the major waterfalls, it also has it’s own legend. No, not trolls this time, but Vikings, apparently one early Viking settler, Prasi Þórólfsson, hid a chest of gold under the falls that was never found except for a large ring from the side of the chest. If it’s not those troublesome trolls, it’s the Vikings, I guess. Oh, and Skógafoss also sports a hot dog truck. The Skógafoss Country Wagon can generally be found in the main parking lot of Skógafoss, near the campsites and the laundry area for hikers.

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Systrakaffi (Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Iceland)

Our eighth day exploring the Ring Road of Iceland was a rather impressive day, including stops at the famous Jökulsárlón(the “Glacier Lagoon”) and Svartifoss (the “Black Waterfall”, an impressive waterfall in front of a backdrop of basalt columns), along with plentiful hiking and a stop for Jöklaís (“Glacier Ice”) ice cream. It was yet another busy day of sightseeing, hiking, and driving, and we ended up pulling into our destination, Kirkjubæjarklaustur (whose name is ponderous even by local standards, we noticed that most folks call it simply “Klaustur”), at a fairly late hour looking for dinner. Well, Kirkjubæjarklaustur doesn’t have a heck of a lot to offer. While having some nice features in itself, like a waterfall, and some really interesting basalt columns), Klaustur’s main attraction is location: it’s pretty much the only settlement on the southern coast between Vík and Höfn which offers services, including the ever-present N1 station, a few modest hotels, and the like. Heck, there’s basically three places to eat (the hotel, the gas station, and the cafe). After perusing the menus of each, we ended up choosing the cafe: Systrakaffi (if you were hoping for the N1 gas station, don’t worry, I’ll get to them in a few reviews).

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