REYKJAVIK — Families here, back in the day, almost always had fish for dinner. Fried, boiled, baked. Leftovers? They were saved for the weekend and mixed with potatoes and onions into a seafood hash flavored with salt, pepper, and maybe an herb. The dish, considered a delicacy, was plokkfiskur, or “mashed fish.” Though simple, plokkfiskur remains an Icelandic signature dish: a must-try when visiting.
“In the old days, it was the cheap specialty, and each housewife had her secret recipe,” says chef Stefan Ulfarsson, whose family owns Prir Frakkar, the venerable Reykjavik seafood restaurant on the hill above the capital’s harbor.
I ordered plokkfiskur at Ulfarsson’s restaurant recently out of curiosity, not high expectation. I was bowled over. Served with steamed carrots, traditional rye brown bread, and greens, his boiled-cod creation was exquisite. “It’s a most popular dish,” reports Ulfarsson. “Fish freshness is key.”
Ulfarsson’s concoction is scooped onto plates in the restaurant’s busy kitchen, topped with a Bearnaise sauce, sprinkled with mozzarella, and lightly browned in a salamander before delivery to a table. “We dress this household recipe up in a tuxedo,” says Ulfarsson with a laugh.
My wife, delighted with her own order of fried cod cheeks, began attacking the flanks of my plokkfiskur the moment it arrived. “Just tasting,” she said, thrusting her fork artfully and shamelessly.
Iceland has volcanoes, geysers, waterfalls, bubbling warm lagoons, rugged seacoasts, sheep in pastoral settings, and, now, increasingly, seafood restaurants doing excellent things with its most famous product: fish.
The nation is clawing back from its 2008 economic meltdown thanks to seafood exports but now also to tourism. Some 1.7 million visitors, roughly five times the country’s population, are expected this year. And they crowd Reykjavik’s restaurants, which both savor and tweak tradition.
Many restaurants are in and around the Old Harbour section of town, home to fishing trawlers, whale-watching vessels, boats in dry dock, gift shops, bike-rental establishments, and the Vikin Maritime Museum, located in a former fish factory, where visitors, between meals, can learn much about the nation’s commercial-fishing history, including Iceland’s 1958-76 “Cod Wars” with England.
Iceland won those “wars” and has made good use of the spoils.
The restaurants of Old Harbour are informal, family-friendly, formal, pub-like, you-name-it, and they offer anything from raw oysters to mussels farmed in fjords, from ling and redfish to fish and chips served British-style with mushy peas.
Several restaurants, among them Saegreifinn, are in low-slung sheds once used by fishermen to store equipment.
Saegreifinn is a cheerful eatery with long communal tables inviting strangers to become friendly over mugs of lobster soup or grilled fish kebabs. The restaurant looks like an art gallery with ship’s lanterns, paintings of seascapes, a wooden carving of a mermaid. It has a children’s playroom.
“Go ahead. Please try it,” coaxes a bearded young man from Indiana, who is in Iceland with his father to celebrate college graduation. From his plate he forks over a piece of broiled minke whale, which demands two swallows, one involving conscience. Whale is controversial in Iceland as it is elsewhere. But dining on it is a custom. It is on many restaurant menus. It tasted like steak.
Within four city blocks along Old Harbour I counted five opportunities for fish and chips. At Icelandic Fish and Chips, diners are lured by the “catch of the day,” served with any of 11 tartar-like sauces. My choice for a lunch: a tasty deep-fried, spelt-encrusted tusk with potatoes roasted in olive oil and topped with parsley and a flaky salt processed from the sea in Iceland’s remote Westfjords region.
Icelandic Fish and Chips, bright and airy, proudly offers organic vegetables and Icelandic beers.
Across the street sits a fish and chips wagon where line-caught cod is served with fries in a paper cone; down the street, near the museum, is another cart, this with picnic tables and harbor views.
“We rely on very fresh seafood,” says Atalsteinn Berediktsson, manager of Snaps, a bistro that opened after the economic crash in a residential and small-business neighborhood near Prir Frakkar. A lively restaurant with an open kitchen and a bar with a sign promoting seven styles of gin and tonic, the place has political history that doesn’t exactly mesh with the current scene. A plaque out front says the building once housed a Communist Party coffee house.
The Four Tops are on the sound system, and Berediktsson is on a stool, describing how fish heads and bones make broth for the bouillabaisse. He mentions that Snaps salts its own cod in a back room, and he plugs the catch of the day, which at dinner proves to be wolffish, deliciously pan-fried in butter, served on a potato-celeriac puree, and topped with cucumber, red bell pepper, and parsley.
“The food has gotten much better in Iceland,” says Berediktsson. He credits international travel and the Internet. “People now know if something is not good.”
“After the financial collapse, foreign things became expensive, so we began focusing more on the domestic, and that, after all, meant seafood, and we have many more seafood restaurants now,” says Ulfarsson at Prir Frakkar.
“Visitors want fish, fish, fish, and when you have the best ingredient in the world, well, you use it.”
Icelandic Fish and Chips, Tryggvagata 11, 101 Reykjavík, 354-511-1118, www.fish
andchips.is. Prir Frakkar, Baldursgata 14, Baldursgata, 101 Reykjavík, 354-552-3939, www.3frakkar.com. Saegreifinn, Geirsgata 8, 101, Reykjavik, 354-553-1500, www.sae
greifinn.is. Snaps, Pórsgata 1, 101 Reykjavík, 354-511-6677, www.snaps.is.
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@