‘New Nordic cuisine’ balances past and present
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REYKJAVIK — Gunnar Karl Gislason, the founding chef and an owner of the restaurant Dill, goes to great lengths to evoke his Viking heritage. It starts with the space, which features a slatted wood ceiling, natural stone walls, and minimalist lighting, evoking a fisherman's cottage retrofitted in a medieval church. There is a rawness that makes you feel you're communing with nature, and an air of reverence, too. You can't help but be astonished. The same holds true for the food here.
In adherence with the philosophies of what is often called "New Nordic cuisine," a meal at Dill involves traditional processes (think: salting, smoking, and pickling) and modern flash (foams, dehydration, etc.); diverse textures and temperatures collide in each composition to intriguing effect. The cuisine showcases the island's ancient, most vital nourishments — root vegetables, dried fish, roe, caraway seeds. But the local and seasonal bounty is elevated to a heavenly realm under the care of head chef Ragnar Eiriksson and his young team, who execute the nightly changing tasting menus from a compact open kitchen. In the hyper-seasonal dishes, you'll find house-dried items you're not accustomed to eating dried (like buttermilk, which is sprinkled on equally dry strips of duck meat). Sometimes the kitchen deftly introduces smoke where you least expect it (in mayonnaise topped with teeny toasted rye bits, an accompaniment in a caviar dish). Beer is used as broth (for a course of goose breast and cauliflower), and blueberry sorbet is enhanced with barley flakes to transform it from a familiar treat into an earthy and engaging experience.
There are set seatings each night. Between the time constraints of getting each course of everyone's three-, five-, or seven-course meal to the table on time and the physical constrictions of multiple chefs working in a compact space, the crew's nightly routine is an exercise in military precision. And it's thrilling to watch.
Gislason is Iceland's most highly regarded member of the elite coterie of chefs known for New Nordic cuisine. (He has written a cookbook on the subject, "North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland.") The movement was pioneered by Rene Redzepi, who in 2003 opened the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma (which closed on New Year's Eve and will open in a new location in 2017). Redzepi helped draw up a manifesto that explained the finer points of foraging, seasonality, and simplicity.
That became a manual for chefs like Gislason, who opened Dill in 2009 in a bright, boxy room in the Nordic House, a cultural center in a far-flung part of Reykjavik. When I ate there in 2012, the space had classically Nordic minimalist and white decor, a stark feel, and a furniture arrangement that made me wonder if the designer had a vendetta against the waitstaff. In 2014, Gislason and then co-owner and sommelier Ólafur Örn Ólafsson moved the operation to its current downtown location, and everything changed for the better.
The new space is designed using wood, stone, and other natural materials. Courses are served on white ceramic dishes or slate or a scallop shell or a single rough stone, each a reminder of the ingredients' simple origins. And with room for only 30 diners, the restaurant offers an intimacy that suits the contemplative mood of the dishes.
The New Nordic practitioners are intimately involved in the sourcing of ingredients, and each dish they invent comes with a colorful narrative explaining not only what is on the plate, but also how and why it came to be there. That's immediately apparent here with the most common, basic element of any meal: the bread and butter. The server delivers rye sourdough bread on a bed of grass in a glass vessel and explains that the salt used in the locally produced butter is obtained by reducing ocean water.
Gislason's own narrative is moving in fast-forward these days. He is relocating to New York to open a restaurant in Grand Central Terminal this year. The still-unnamed eatery, which will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared with mostly New York-sourced ingredients, will complement the Nordic Food Hall, an ambitious project in the station spearheaded by Noma cofounder Claus Meyer.
Dill , Hverfisgata 12, Reykjavík, Iceland. +354-552-15-22, www.dillrestaurant.is.