The first time I visited Iceland was back in the early 1970s, flying Icelandic Airlines from New York to Luxembourg. Often referred to as the “hippie airline,” it’s how we North American twenty-year-olds got to the continent on the cheap. The flight departed from JFK with a stop in Reykjavik, Iceland. Most of us on board, including my Dutch seatmate Jos who sported long tresses, John Lennon glasses and no deodorant, were headed to the continent and not spending any time in Iceland. The country had yet to be discovered or promoted as a tourist destination.
Fast forward four decades and — outside of an Icelandair flight that stopped in Reykjavik when I was en route to London in 2004 — I still have yet to truly experience the “Land of Fire and Ice.” That is not until this week at Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy. The Ballard restaurant is a venue for the four-day A Taste of Iceland celebration in Seattle, Oct. 10-13.
With the third largest Icelandic community in the U.S, Seattle has had numerous cultural and educational exchanges with Reykjavik over the years. And in 1986 — Reykjavik’s bicentennial — the two officially became Sister Cities. When Icelandair started non-stop service between Seattle and Reykjavik in 2009, the bond between the two cities grew even bolder. No wonder the Icelandic tourism folks are spending time and money in the Emerald City.
On Wednesday evening, I attended a media event for a small group of journalists and food bloggers at Staple & Fancy. It was the first of four nights of authentic Icelandic food being served on the restaurant’s nightly ‘Fancy Menu.' Chef Hakon Mar Orvarsson of Reykjavik teamed up with Stowell to present a four-course dinner ($45), featuring fresh ingredients sourced from Iceland.
I sat next to Hlynur Guojonsson, Consul and Trade Commissioner of the Consulate General of Iceland in New York. Working in conjunction with Iceland Naturally, a consortium of Icelandic-based businesses and agencies, he has visited Seattle numerous times. I was most surprised to learn the population of Iceland is only 320,000 — about half the number of Seattle residents. And in addition to such high profile TV shows as The Bachelorette and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations being set there, it’s become a popular destination for the film industry. Five major films are currently in production: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; Noah, with Russell Crowe; Ben Stiller and Sean Penn in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Thor: The Dark World; and the TV series Games of Thrones. Guojonsson says the country offers a 20 percent incentive to the film industry.
Music is also big biz, with this year’s festival Iceland Airwaves returning to Reykjavik Oct. 21-Nov. 4. Starting out in an airport hangar in 1999, it’s become a popular showcase for new music. And while Bjork, Sigur Ros and Of Monsters & Men have put Iceland on the musical map, lesser known Icelandic artists here in the U.S. such as Asgeir Trausti are making moves. Trausti and his friend Julius will be performing Oct. 12 at 8 PM at Neumos on Capitol Hill in a free concert — yet another element of A Taste of Iceland. They’ll be joined by other Icelandic and Seattle musicians, along with authors from both countries. The soft-spoken duo played a few tunes for us before dinner, then quaffed a couple of Rainiers at the table next to us.
But we were here for the food, and following a Smoking Bay Cocktail (“smoking bay “is the literal translation of Reykjavik, made with Reyka Vodka, lemon and caraway), small plates and wooden boards of appetizers began to arrive. They included pickled herring, smoked salmon, cod and potato fritters, grilled Icelandic langoustine, “Harofiskur” or Icelandic hard-fish, cold smoked and poached Iceland Arctic char and Atlantic shrimp and pickled vegetables with lumpfish caviar. I’d never had the Harofiskur, which had the texture of beef jerky, but with an ultra fishy taste. And, although I belong to the Ester Moe Lodge of the Daughters of Norway on Whidbey Island, I’ve always turned up my Norske nose when it comes to pickled herring. Uffda! But this herring was delish, and my dearly departed dad would be oh, so proud.
The second of the four courses was Icelandic cod — baked and served with a parsnip puree, leeks, fingerling potatoes, micro greens and organic barley. Next up was the main course, free range Icelandic lamb, which Chef Hakon Mar Orvarsson described as the “king of meats” in his home country. The seared and slowly cooked filet was served with glazed root vegetables, a juniper berry reduction sauce and a dusting of dried wild Icelandic herbs and blueberries.
And yes, there was dessert, called Skyr of The Vikings. Skyr is a cultured dairy product unique to Iceland, and has been a food staple since the days of the Vikings. Thicker than yogurt and made from skim milk, it’s fat free and was served with crispy oats, hazelnut crumble, cinnamon rhubarb and red currants. Sadly, our two-hour Icelandic dining adventure was coming to a close, but in the words of Anthony Bourdain, “I’m hungry for more.”
If you go:
A Taste of Iceland at Staple & Fancy, Oct 10 - 13th, $45. Call 206.789.1200 for reservations.
Rejkjavik Calling featuring Asgeir Trausti at Neumos, Oct 12th, 8 p.m, 21+, free.
Fabulous Iceland: From Sagas to Novels, Nordic Heritage Museum, Oct 12 - Nov 11, Adults $6, Students and Seniors $5.