Reykjavik – Where to Stay and Eat

It’s no secret that Iceland is probably one of the trendiest countries to visit right now, and it’s not hard to see why. For those looking for a trip that is like no other, Iceland fits that bill. As the site of where they film Game of Thrones and created the world from Interstellar, it’s easy to wander around the country and feel like you’re on another planet.

The capital of Reykjavik is about a 50 minute drive from the airport. When you fly in, be sure to stop in the Duty Free liquor store to stock up on some alcohol for your trip if you want to save some money (liquor is very expensive in Iceland due to the taxes). Beer and wine can be purchased in country though for reasonable prices (Einstock and Borg are both excellent beer options). Vínbúdin was our store of choice frequently (this chain has locations throughout the country).

Driving around the country is quite easy, and it seems like most of the rental cars come with GPS. Everyone speaks English and are all very friendly, so it’s not hard to get around–which is lucky because any tourist trying to pronounce Icelandic words will undoubtedly be spewing out gibberish.

As I alluded to earlier, food prices are quite high. But despite the prices, the quality of most of the food we ate was excellent. DO NOT BUY BOTTLED WATER. It’d be a total waste of your money. The tap water is probably the cleanest tasting water I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that when you run the water hot, it smells a little funky, like rotten eggs, because of the sulfur, but it’s fine when it’s running cold.

Reykjavik itself is a very unassuming city. There are no skyscrapers, and the atmosphere is very slow-paced and chill. I’d recommend giving yourself a weekend to see everything in Reykjavik, but you probably don’t need much more than that. Most of the highlights from the trip are from the sights outside the city, and I’ll be getting into each of those in upcoming blog posts.

One other thing–obviously Iceland is cold. But what I hadn’t realized is how much the cold would affect the battery on my cell phone. So my advice would be to make sure your phone stays as close to your body as possible, and on the really cold days (especially when you’re out on the glaciers), be very judicious in choosing when to take pictures. My phone died on several occasions just from being out in the elements too long. My advice is also to invest in a portable charger like I did to kick start it back to life in the car.

Where to Stay

Hótel Óðinsvé
Þórsgötu 1, 101 Reykjavík

Great location, fantastic front desk staff. Don’t bother trying to put the address in the GPS because for some reason those Icelandic letters in the street name don’t show up. Instead, put the hotel name in the “Points of Interest” category and it should show up that way. For $300 a night, three of us shared one of their 3 bed flats.

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Where to Eat

SandholtBrauð & Co., and Bergsson Mathús for breakfast
Address and hours on their respective websites.

It’s gotta be something in the water. We were convinced of it based on how good the bread in Iceland is. Any one of these locations offers delicious brunch options with their pastries, such as chocolate croissants and raisin danishes, being the highlights. Sandholt and Bergsson Mathús are good options if you want to sit and eat. Bergsson Mathús is a bit smaller, and cozier, but Sandholt has more food options, including lunch options to-go. I recommend grabbing sandwiches from Sandholt for lunch later in the day, especially if you’re going to be driving the Golden Circle. Brauð & Co. is more of a grab and go place; be sure to grab one of their cinnamon rolls.

Sandholt

Brauð & Co.

Bergsson Mathús

Grillmarkaðurinn
Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavík

This steak house was a little tough to find; we kept missing the small sign that leads to an alley which takes you to the building it’s in. This restaurant is quite pricey, but not any more pricey than going to a really nice steakhouse in the states. On the menu were various items which you probably won’t find elsewhere (such as puffin and whale). Full disclosure: We tried both the puffin and whale. Was there a bit of cognitive dissonance doing it? Absolutely yes. And although we were assured by one of our tour guides that the whale that is served isn’t the “endangered” kind, it still felt a little off. But alas, we tried it, and my advice — don’t bother. It’s nothing to write home about. You can order sashimi and it’s practically the same thing. What is worth writing home about from Grillmarkaðurinn? The black sea salt butter that came with the delicious bread (the bread again!), the 27 day aged ribeye, and the Golden Circle cocktail.

Sjávargrillið
Skólavörðustígur 14, 101 Reykjavík

You can make the argument that the single best entree may have been the 27 day aged ribeye from Grillmarkaðurinn, but I think most from my group would agree that Sjávargrillið was the best overall dining experience. The prices were a bit lower and the ambiance was a little brighter and more casual. The specialty of this restaurant is seafood, and that’s what we went with and on the whole, the entire meal was a winner. Each of our entrees was excellent: the catch of the day catfish with mashed potatoes, the salmon with cous cous, the fried cod with cous cous, and grilled tuna with bok choy. The appetizers included lobster tacos, carpaccio, and Arctic char. But the highlight was the creme brûlée with liquid nitrogen pistachio ice cream dessert which one member of our party declared “This is it!” and joked that his trip at that point may as well have been over.

Hot Dogs
Various locations

They love hot dogs in Iceland. Not totally sure where that love comes from. But it’s a lot like how Hawaiians love SPAM type thing. The street hot dogs are a good drunk food or if you just want a snack. They’re not really any different from a New York hot dog, but the bun is toasted and the gravy they put on it is pretty tasty.

Where to Drink

Mikkeller & Friends
Hverfisgata 12, 101 Reykjavík

This dark, cozy, bohemian style beer house offers 20 different styles of beer on tap. It’s definitely a great spot if you want to lay low after a long day of sightseeing, but because you’re so closely packed in with other customers, don’t be surprised if a conversation sparks with your neighbors.

Bjórgarðurinn
1, 105, Þórunnartún, Reykjavík

This beer garden could not be more opposite in atmosphere to Mikkeller & Friends. Located within the lobby of a hotel, this beer hall was brighter, had higher ceilings, live music, and the clientele was much more professional. That being said, the beer offerings were still quite excellent and Bjórgarðurinn had more more of a food menu.

Questionable Restaurants

Matur og Drykkur

We came to Matur og Drykkur in order to have a  traditional Icelandic meal. I feel a bit torn because I don’t want to give it a “bad” review; the service and atmosphere were actually quite nice. But the food was, shall we say, unique. Some of us really didn’t like it, other were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t hate it, but it is a meal that will test your palette.  A lot of the food is really salty. And the cod head I ordered was truly bizarre–again it didn’t necessarily taste badly, it was just weird. So my advice is this: If you really want to step out of your comfort zone, give this place a try. But don’t go if you’re really hungry, or are not willing to pay a high price for a meal that may not necessarily sit well in your stomach.

The bizarre cod fish head…

Slippbarinn

We stopped by here for a drink before dinner, and it wasn’t bad. But it also wasn’t as great as the reviews would make it seem. The cocktails were perfectly decent and fun, but for the price I’d prefer to spend my time and money somewhere else.

Coming Up: Things to do in Reykjavik

Blue Ginger

583 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA 02482
781.283.5790

Monday-Thursday
Lunch 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner 5:30pm-9:30pm

Friday
Lunch 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner 5:30pm-10:00pm

Saturday
Blue Ginger Lounge: 12:00pm-10:00pm
Dinner 5:00pm-10:00pm

Sunday

Dinner 5:00pm-9:00pm

For those of you foodies out there who are familiar with the Asian-European fusion chef Ming Tsai, you probably know of his first restaurant called Blue Ginger.  Located in the quiet suburb of Boston called Wellesley, when the restaurant first opened in 1998, it drew rave reviews for its exceptional and (at the time) new fusion type of food.  People would come in from all around the country to try this place and its blend of French and Asian flavored cuisine.

In 2013, Blue Ginger doesn’t have as much of the fanfare as it used to have, but the food is still held at its highest standard.   It’s very pricey, so for those of you who make a decent living, Blue Ginger is a special occasion type spot.  For those of you that make more than a decent living, you probably aren’t reading this review because you’ve been there a dozen times already.  I’d say that if you’re visiting Boston, Blue Ginger is only worth coming out to try if you’re in Boston for more than a week, otherwise there’s far more that you should see first in the city.  If you’re local however, give it a go for an anniversary celebration, graduation or milestone birthday.  Here’s a rundown of what we tried:

Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Poke with Crispy Sushi Rice Cake and Microgreen-Tosaka Salad – This was probably the favorite dish of the night (including the entrees).  It was a strange, but very tasty combination of a huge hunk of sushi style tuna on top of what could be best described as a hot, sticky-rice tater tot.  The crunchiness of the rice cake with the soft, light tuna made for a really delightful appetizer – one which I would have been happy having a couple of as the main course.

Blue Ginger Charcuterie Plate – Duck Prosciutto, Foie Gras Torchon and Country Pâté – This is where the French influence comes out.  The arrangement of the platter was well done and I thought the extremely rich foie gras was the best of the group.  The platter also came with a really good spicy mustard that went well with the prosciutto and pate.  I wouldn’t bother too much with the random Texas toast that came with the plate; instead I’d opt for spreading the pâté and foie gras on the sesame seed crackers that are on the table when you first sit.  The Texas toast was just too buttery and took away from the flavors of the expensive stuff.

Sake-Miso Marinated Sablefish (a.k.a. Butterfish) with Wasabi Oil, Soy-Lime Syrup and Vegetarian Soba Noodle Sushi – This butterfish is considered Ming Tsai’s signature dish, and I could see why.  Of the three entrees we had, it was easily the best.  There wasn’t anything too fancy done with the fish and you’d probably be able to find a similar dish at a number of restaurants, but they do get points for perfect execution.  It was cooked exactly the way it should have been – a nice, light char on the outside and light buttery meat on the inside.  They did try and get cute with the Soba Noodle Sushi side, but I didn’t actually care for that all that much.

Garlic-Black Pepper Lobster with Lemongrass Fried Rice and Pea Tendril Salad with Tamari-Ginger Vinaigrette – The waitress said this is also a favorite of customers coming to Blue Ginger.  Lobster is never bad, so I’ll say that while it wasn’t disappointing, there was just a little too much garlic for my taste getting in the way of the lobster.  I’m sort of a lobster traditionalist where I want just the meat and a little butter, or a plain ol’ lobster roll.  Again, that being said, just because it wasn’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean it wasn’t very delicious.

Seared Duck Breast with Sweet Wasabi Sauce and Applewood Smoked Duck Leg Wild Fried Rice with Shiso-Bartlett Pear Purée – This third entree was probably the most “eh” of the three.  The flavor of the duck was very pronounced which saved the dish, but the meat was a little too tough/chewy and the skin wasn’t crispy enough for our taste.  If they had slow cooked the duck a little more like Peking duck style, it could have easily been the best of the three.

Overall though the food was excellent.  That being said, these days there are so many new restaurants, television shows, and food celebrities that Blue Ginger almost feels like an aging veteran.  This is both a good and bad thing.  It’s bad because despite its success, the menu and atmosphere feel “standard” with nothing nuanced and that nothing has really evolved since it first broke down the barrier between French and Asian cuisine.  The good thing though is that it’s still a sure thing.  What they do well, they’ve done well for years, and it’s the kind of place that I’m sure very rarely disappoints.  Grade: B+

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five fifty-five

555 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101
tel: 207.761.0555

Dinner served from 5-close, seven days a week
Brunch every Sunday from 9:30-2:00

Portland, Maine is one of those cities in America that still holds the hidden gem status.  Most people don’t make it out to Portland due to its location and size, but for those who do make it up to Maine are usually pleasantly surprised at how much Portland does have to offer for a smaller city.

The downtown area has the vibrant energy of a seaport.  With seafood restaurants left and right offering some of the best lobster in America to local bars bustling with locals and Southern Maine University students offering many of the local brews, Portland combines that quaint hometown feel with an urban setting.  One restaurant in Portland that I tried recently skews on the higher end scale (higher end for Portland that is – there are no Tao Restaurant style places in Portland).

five fifty-five (yes, they spell the entire thing in lowercase) is considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in Portland.  I’ll say this up front: for Portland, the restaurant is one of the nicer places to have a fancy night out.  But don’t expect it to be anything ridiculously fancy.  The venue itself is very intimate with low lighting and a lot of wood making up the furniture and walls.  The wine list is quite extensive, almost surprisingly so. But if you’re a beer person looking for some local Maine brews you’ll want to head to another place since that list is far shorter.

The menu is pricey and although I’d like to say that the food is worth the price – I’m afraid I can’t.  That isn’t to say that the food isn’t excellent; it’s just a tad overpriced in my opinion.  I started out my meal with the “how do you like them apples” salad which was quite a nice starter of fresh greens, crisp apples, and perfectly toasted/salted walnuts. But for $11, I kind of expected a little more.

For the entree, I tried the lobster mac & cheese which was very tasty.  Again, it just wasn’t $31 tasty.  I will say that I was surprisingly filled by the portion.  It came out in a very small bowl and my first reaction was “This is it?”  But you know how Indian food comes out in a small bowl and you think you’re getting ripped off until you finish 2/3 of it and realize how full you actually are?  Same scenario.

Another item on the menu that I tasted is a nice Maine salmon wrapped in a leaf of some sort.  Its accompanied by several toppings (radishes, cashews, peppers) in small dishes for you to mix and match as you see fit and a portion of sauteed kale n the side.  The fish was a little dry, which I found surprising, but overall with the kale and toppings sides the dish wasn’t half bad.

So while I enjoyed what I ate, I’ll probably stick to Maine does best, the lobster shacks, for my meals.  five fifty-five doesn’t live up to the hype and is just little too overpriced in my opinion.  But that being said, its still a nice place to go if you want to have a classy night out in Portland.  The wine list is very good and the food is done well enough that you’ll be able to overlook the fact that you’re spending a few dollars extra than you should.  Grade: B-

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