Reykjavik — New Nordic cuisine has attracted a wave of food-focused travelers to Scandinavia and the North Atlantic ever since Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant was catapulted into the international spotlight. Stockholm has Restaurant Frantzen and rural Jarpen, Sweden is home to Faviken. In Helsinki, there is Spis. En route to Reykjavik, airplane screens inform you that the most popular restaurant is a hot dog stand.
No pretensions here. New Nordic is alive and well in Iceland, but in this friendly, easily navigable capital city, simple pleasures reign supreme: crusty bread with creamy, golden butter, barely grilled arctic char with no more than salt, pepper, and a little lemon, and, seriously, those precious hot dogs.
First things first. The coffee culture is quite unsurprisingly robust. When deep winter means waking up in pitch darkness, Icelanders understandably need something to put a lift in their step. Situated in the shadow of the magnificent church Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik Roasters was established in 2008. Settle into one of the mismatched chairs and admire the big blue roaster, strong, expertly brewed espresso drinks, and the striking fashionable and good-looking clientele. Croissants are flaky, buttery, and fully worth investigating.
About a 15-minute walk away, near the peaceful swan-filled pond Tjornin, is the relatively new Bergsson Mathus. There are few better places in Reykjavik to get a more substantial brunch. The “Bergsson Brunch” includes one perfect soft-boiled egg with a bright orange yolk, bacon, serrano ham, hummus, tiny Icelandic potatoes, a small salad, a slice of pineapple, Greek yogurt parfait with berry jam and muesli, and ample homemade bread, for which the cafe is known.
The most modest offering is simply a few slices of the outstanding house bread, a dense sourdough loaf, with fresh Icelandic butter, jam, and a few slices of mild cheese. Excellent filter coffee, a rarity outside the United States, is bottomless, and the atmosphere is cozy. Cookbooks on display from London restaurants like Ottolenghi, Moro, and Polpo let customers in on the inspiration, which fuses these Mediterranean ideas with (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and sensibility.
Across town, by Reykjavik’s placid harbor, is the popular seafood restaurant Saegreifinn, or The Sea Baron. It is known for lobster soup. Icelandic lobster is more of a langoustine, smaller and sweeter than the New England variety. This comes in a lightly curried, tomato-y broth and is a great way to enjoy it. Saegreifinn also serves impeccably fresh local seafood simply skewered and grilled with a few pieces of bell pepper and onion. Arctic char, grilled to a perfect medium rare, is served entirely unadorned save for a squeeze of lemon; the dish is extraordinary in its simplicity. This is also one of several places where you can try minke whale, as a peppersteak or kebab. Whaling is, controversially, still practiced in Iceland, but 40 percent of the whale served is consumed by tourists.
A few doors down and across the street is the new restaurant Forrettabarinn, which means, literally, “starters bar.” The creative small plates are perfect for an early jet-lagged dinner or as a prelude to more noshing. Simple fish and meat skewers are also on offer, but it’s better to branch out. Cod is complimented by chorizo and rarely seen beef belly — every bit as addictive as its more popular porky counterpart. Icelandic horse steak, more commonly consumed and less controversial than whale, is grilled and sliced thinly, accompanied by a Bearnaise sauce and more of those tiny, sweet local potatoes.
Although the secret’s out, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which means “the best hot dog in town,” is an absolutely essential stop in Reykjavik, and on weekends open for 18½ hours. Opened in 1937, Baejarins Beztu is a tiny red shack by the harbor with a view of the stunning three-year-old Olafur Eliasson-designed Harpa concert hall. The Icelandic hot dog is a venerable institution, and made from beef, pork, and Icelandic lamb, which makes up the largest percentage and gives them a distinctly complex, savory flavor. Condiments (get all of them) include raw white onions, crispy fried onions, sweet ketchup enriched with applesauce (of all things), caramel-colored sweet brown mustard, and remoulade. A framed photo of Bill Clinton visiting the stand in 2004 is the only decoration inside. Hot dog-slinger Daniel Jonsson tells me the photo is the second one; the first was stolen.
Long lines outside Baejarins Beztu are as likely at 5 a.m. as they are at lunch, and happy customers sit on the two wooden picnic benches if it’s 50 degrees or zero. All Scandinavian countries, for some reason, excel in the hot dog arts (Sweden puts mashed potatoes on top), but Iceland might just have the world’s most beloved version. You can even have a hot dog at the airport, which is, truth be told, almost as good as Baejarins Beztu.
Good luck not getting one before your flight home.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur,
Tryggvagata (near Kolaportid), Reykjavik
Templararsund 3, Reykjavik, 011-354-571-1822
Forrettabarinn, Nylendugata 14, Reykjavik, 011-354-517-1800
Reykjavik Roasters, Karastigur 1, Reykjavik, 011-354-517-5535
Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron), Geirsgata 8, Reykjavik,
Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.