I have had some pretty fantastic meals in Iceland. There are many excellent restaurants here, and of course some of the ingredients you get in Iceland are remarkable for their quality and freshness - in particular the fish and the lamb. Yet the restaurant at Hótel Varmahlíð had not been on my radar as one of the best restaurants in Iceland until we dined there on the last night of our ring road trip ... and were completely awed by the experience.
We had spent the day on a boat cruise on Skagafjörður fjord, so by the time we got to the hotel we were pretty hungry. Consequently, on inspecting the menu, we both opted for the five-course surprise menu (“surprise” because the dishes are selected by the chef) of locally-sourced food.
Here’s me waiting patiently for Aldís to take this picture before ravenously attacking the bread:
We were told that the chef had been doing a bit of experimenting with the butter, and that they were two different flavours: one with a hint of apple, and the other smoked. Interesting. Both were great, incidentally, but the smoked flavour was our favourite - so yummy.
Little did we know that this experimentation was only the beginning of what was to come. It soon became evident that whoever was cooking for us was completely enthusiastic about what he was doing. In fact it was this boundless creativity and evident joy with which it was executed that elevated the meal to a higher level.
It was clear that whoever was in the kitchen was unhampered by staid ideas or rigid training - and I love that kind of rebellion.
The first course was presented to us as “cauliflower foam”. What we got was this:
I guess you might call it a kind of soup, but if soup is a Volkswagen, this was a Lamborghini. It floated in some kind of delicious forest-green oil and was decorated with kale leaves. I’m not a particular fan of kale, but its earthy, slightly bitter flavour worked unbelievably well with the creamy cauliflower.
On to course two. It was made up of filet of horse, with mushroom foam, asparagus, mushrooms and cured beetroot. Each piece of vegetable in the entire meal had been marinated or cured in something different to enhance its flavour - such wonderful attention to detail.
Incidentally, in case you balk at eating horse ... it's understood. It’s a cultural thing. Here in Iceland the nation was steeped in abject poverty for centuries and consequently every part of an animal was eaten and/or used. Culturally, therefore, we have no such reservations. And if you haven’t tried it, I’m here to tell you that it’s delicious. I would choose it over beef any day. (UPDATE! I have just been informed that Icelanders in the past would rather have died of hunger than eaten their horses. So obviously my theory falls flat and I am completely puzzled as to why this is not the case today.)
The third course that arrived at our table was made up of Arctic char, caught locally, deliciously sauteed and served with a skyr mousse and a sprinkling of couscous, plus marinated bits of broccoli. Completely wonderful. Tip: if you have this, make sure you eat the skin as well. It’s yummy.
By this time we were pretty stuffed - high in culinary heaven. In fact I’d lost count of the number of courses and thought this was it, so I was a little surprised when our delightful French waitress asked if we’d like to take a little break before continuing. We thought that was very considerate, especially since it was getting late and we were the last people there.
After a suitable length of time the final entrée arrived: lamb filet and lamb shanks, served with a mashed potato mousse, baby carrots and some kind of carrot spread that I don’t have the adjectives to describe. The lamb was cooked to perfection: the filet medium rare and exquisite, the shank slow-cooked to amplify its flavour, and so tender that I could shred it with a fork.
At this point the chef himself appeared to personally serve us a glaze on the lamb. Finally, the person behind this magnificence! And let me tell you: we were more than a little surprised to observe how young he was. (When he left we couldn’t help but speculate ... Aldís guessed at 25, which I thought impossible - such a seasoned chef must be a little older, though I could see that he was probably no older than 30).
After telling him how much we had enjoyed his food, we asked where he had worked before, figuring he must have trained at one of the top restaurants in Reykjavík. He informed us that he’d worked at Grillið in Reykjavík (indeed, one of the best), and also a two-star Michelin place in France.
It was time for dessert.
Thankfully the portion was suitably trim, as by this time we were virtually comatose from eating so much. It was made up of a sweet stick of rhubarb (cured in something, naturally), a white chocolate ganache, Italian meringue, mysing cream (an Icelandic cheese-like “delicacy” that under normal circumstances I abhor - but prepared like this found delicious), a biscuit-like something that I cannot name, and a sweet milky foam that the chef, again, personally came out and served us.
By this time (being well into our bottle of Argentinian white) we were ready to dispense with formalities, so we went ahead and asked him how old he was. And had the biggest shock of the evening.
This master of culinary greatness informed us that he was 18 years old.
That’s right. EIGHTEEN.
Picking up my jaw up from the floor I managed to stutter: what where how?
OK. His name is Hinrik Örn Lárusson (you heard it here first) and he grew up in a hotel (Hótel Hekla) where his mother was the manager. He is passionate about food preparation and from the age of nine has been watching and experimenting with it. He has no formal training, but has worked in restaurants, including the aforementioned Michelin place. Our lovely French waitress is his girlfriend, and they are both working at Hótel Varmahlíð for the summer. He likes to go out and source his own ingredients, and when he was off his shift was planning to go out and pick mushrooms. He’ll be there until November at least, and possibly (according to the hotel manager) he’ll be there next summer as well.
People: if you pass by Hótel Varmahlíð this summer, do yourself a favour and have dinner there. Even better: stay the night, so you can enjoy some wine with your meal. The hotel itself is perfectly delightful, with lovely touches like Icelandic designs (tableware, tablecloths) and fresh flowers on each table. Our room was very comfortable and clean, with a kettle, flat-screen TV, and free wi-fi.
You won’t be sorry.
Even though this took place the last evening of our trip I still have several posts to come about other wonderful experiences we had on the ring road. Also, feel free to follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for regular updates on life in Iceland.