Wild Icelandic - Discovering Food In Iceland
In almost any creative endeavor there is a methodology known as the Discovery Process. It occurs in the visual arts, culinary arts, writing and many more human endeavors. One of the best outcomes from this process is when you discover love.
The Discovery Process is an operation that occurs, often unintentionally as part of the production journey. When you research; you discover. When you travel; you discover. When you design; you discover. When you simply do the work; you will discover. Love is what we discovered when we encountered VON Mathús og Bar. Love of family, love of life, love of country and a very special love of food.
VON (Icelandic for HOPE) is quite an exceptional place located at Strandgata 75, in the port town of Hafnarfjörður, Iceland, which is about a 15 min. drive west of downtown Reykjavik. The owner/operators are Managing Partner Kristjana Þura Bergþórsdóttir and Chef Einar Hjaltason. Together they have created a place of surprising quality and comfort.
At first glance VON seems very nice and quite unpretentious. However as your experience unfolds you become aware of layered elements that are exceedingly thoughtful and personal. Naturally their emphasis is on seasonal Icelandic cuisine, however they’ve stretched this to a point far beyond the norms you find in the “local” food trends.
Einar is a talented and accomplished chef having worked with some of the highest rated restaurants in Europe. (see http://vonmathus.is/about-us/?lang=en for his history)
Although more than capable he has not aimed like many of his colleagues for the highest rung on the ladder of the culinary world. Instead he and Kristjana have targeted a much nobler path; to make some of the best food in Iceland accessible to everyone and not just the affluent few. Einar himself said “We’re not aiming for fine dining at all; we’re using odd cuts, but doing them justice because they really pack a lot of punch.”
Being in a port town VON naturally leans toward fish and you certainly should experience some of these wonderful items. One in particular is the Cusk Ceviché (also know as Tusk) finished with sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes,) rucola, lemon mayo and hazelnuts. It has a freshness and flavor combination that’s remarkable. That said, what they do with Icelandic lamb is absolutely outstanding. It’s this amazing reach between the traditional recipes of an Icelandic grandmother’s and a modern cleverness combined with knowhow and talent.
A perfect example of this is the Lifrarpylsa (liver sausage.) Generally not available until the holidays this Icelandic dish dates back to the early settlers of Iceland. These people were the originators of “Nose to Tail.” Not for some culinary trend or conscientious environmental philosophy. It was simply because they didn’t want to starve, so they made it work!
Einar makes his own lifrarpylsa in-house using Icelandic lamb offals, but he adds Icelandic herbs and spices. Once finished and chilled the sausage is sliced and pan fried, but then comes the twist. Layered beneath the sausage is lamb shoulder. A whole lamb shoulder is deboned, rolled, tied and sous vide for twelve hours. Once cooled it’s also sliced and grilled. Both cuts are served together with grilled white cabbage, pickled white cabbage and wild Icelandic lovage then glazed with lamb sauce and finished with celery and horseradish cream.
If you haven’t GPS’ed this place yet, you’re either not listening or you’re dead. But wait, there’s more…
A really exceptional item is the Cured Lamb - Choosing a lean inner thigh cut the meat is cured for twelve hours then dried for three days. The standout element is that it’s served warm. As the dish is prepped the lamb is quickly torched to temperature then plated on a Jerusalem artichoke puree with house made Icelandic rye bread just the way grandma use to do it. It’s then finished with a warm frothy tarragon mayonnaise and garnished with pickled and crispy artichokes.
Ready for an entree? A must try is the Lamb Neck - Boneless Lamb Neck braised in lamb stock and red wine for twelve hours then served with crispy raw fennel crudités, capers, kohlrabi and apples on roasted pearl barley then finished with pickled dulse (local seaweed) and a rich lamb sauce.
In the mood for an appetizer and cocktail? A personal favorite is the Lamb Tartar - Again making the unusual choice of a very lean inner thigh cut, the lamb is flaked then combined with tomatoes, sour cream, rye crumble and a touch of horseradish.
Conclusion - Food can be so much more than just a business plan to make money. Food is one of the fundamental things that make a culture. What can hold the fabric of community together while defining its people. When this is coupled by places where you are treated well, where shared meals become an oasis of comfort; then you’ve discovered a real destination. That’s VON Mathús og Bar.
As the late Anthony Bourdain said, “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t.” Can this be love…?