Landnámssetur Íslands (Borgarnes, Iceland)

After a rather busy day touring Southwestern Iceland, primarily in the Golden Circle (Hveragerði, Geysir, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir), we eventually ended up talking the Kaldidalur Mountain pass north to the Borgarfjörður area, ending up in Borgarnes, a quiet seaside town that’s primarily a pit stop on the Ring Road; despite the rather long route we took to get there, it’s only about 2 hours from Reykjavik. And it’s pretty small, having only two non-gas station restaurants: a Filipino place(!) and Landnámssetur Íslands, their “Settlement Center” museum on the settling of Iceland, that also contains a restaurant that primarily carries “traditional Icelandic cooking with international flavours”. We decided to give it a try.

Landnámssetur Íslands has a pretty good menu overall, covering the basics of modern Icelandic cuisine, with a good variety of lamb dishes, fish dishes, and the like. In particular, the special of the day was something you won’t see on an American menu: horse steak. I considered getting it (I haven’t had horse for, oh, 20+ years), but in actuality, I wasn’t all that hungry (while it can at times be somewhat tiring, the act of sitting on your butt and driving for 8 hours doesn’t burn a lot of calories), so I opted for the pasta dish, while Carol opted for the seafood special (spotted wolf fish).

The meal started with a simple basket of bread and some butter. I won’t bore you with it, but this is a good place to mention one of the simplest pleasures I consistent had with meals in Iceland… Icelandic butter is really, really good. A lot of things go into it, but the biggest one is probably the milk: there aren’t a lot of grain-fed cows in Iceland (it is all grass feeding, and they don’t use antibiotics or hormones), and I think they culture the butter. The result is a darker, slightly tangier butter, and it really gave me a lot more enjoyment out of simple bread and butter than I usually have. I know that the major Icelandic brand, Smjör (a cooperative of several hundred Icelandic farmers) has some availability in the US, so I’ll have to search it out.

Moving on the the meal proper, for starters Carol opted for kjötsúpa, which is one of the main dishes of Iceland. It’s basically a lamb and vegetable soup, with lamb or mutton in a rich broth with carrots, onion, potato, and something from the turnip family in it. The result is usually a nice, flavorful, but somewhat light soup, reminiscent of an Irish Stew, and the kjötsúpa from Landnámssetur Íslands didn’t disappoint.

Since Iceland is also famous for it’s lamb, I got the lamb tartare, which was excellent. While some of the color here came from some of the beet in the dish, generally Icelandic lamb meat is very, very dark, due to the high iron content in their grazing, and this tartare perfectly met my expectations: a rich lamb flavor not overwhelmed by seasoning, with a nice little bit of beetroot to round it out. I’d happily get this again, since it was the perfect way to showcase Icelandic lamb.

For the main course, Carol opted for the Spotted Wolf Fish special. It’s a testament to Icelandic cooking that we consistently got perfectly-cooked fish every time we ordered fish in Iceland, never over- or under-cooked, and always immaculately fresh. This was no exception, the fish was perfectly done, although we both noted that the sauce had a slightly weird herbal note that we couldn’t place.

For my dinner, I opted for the tagliatelle, which was tossed with vegetables and smoked salmon. I was a little hesitant to order this, since the smoked salmon is basically raw, and the combination of raw fish and pasta seemed a little unusual to me… but here it worked, both in texture and flavor. Indeed, the slight smokiness from the salmon worked nicely with the pasta, and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish.

Overall, Landnámssetur Íslands did quite well for us. The dishes were quite appropriate for a place that’s all about the history of Iceland, using quality local ingredient prepared well. Although part of me is still dying to try out the Filipino place down the street…

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