This was a great trip for tasting new foods, one of my favorite activities. I supped on no less than five new creatures, some more than once. Count 'em, five! I got Greenland shark, puffin, reindeer, whale, and zebra. Zebra! I'll stark with the shark, since it's the most interesting and requires explanation.
This is not your run of the mill shark, it is in fact the infamous Hákarl, which nearly got the better of both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern.
When fresh, this particular shark is poisonous due to high uric acid and trimethylamine oxide content. How does one remedy this situation you ask? Obviously you simply bury it for a few months to let it rot, then dig it up and hang it to let it dry for a few more. Easy. Apparently this stuff is supposed to be awful. The absolute worst. This was going to be great!
I took the advice of my book and came prepared with the traditional chaser, Brennivín, which is the national drink of Iceland, similar to an aquavit. (The drink itself is nicknamed "the black death", but I quite enjoy it. Brought some back in fact.)
Hákarl has a reputation of smelling worse than it tastes. This turned out to be true. In fact it doesn't taste that bad at all. Not great, but not horrific, just fishy with a very chewy texture. So for several seconds I was chewing away, proud of myself for taking it like a man, when I became acquainted with the other thing you hear about this stuff: it's the aftertaste that really gets you. This also is true. After chewing for a bit the aftertaste built up while I thought I was still regular tasting, and, while I managed not to puke in my mouth, I did experience an inadvertent gag reflex from the ammonia and other flavors that come with fermented (read rotten) fish. So I swallowed the still resilient cube and chased it with my Brennivín and came away no worse for wear. I was right, it was great! Not that I went back for more.
The most surprising new creature I got to devour was the zebra. Actual zebra.
This was at Sjávarkjallarinn (The Seafood Cellar). We saw it on the menu but all assumed it was either some type of fish or some play on words and the dish would be presented with stripes or something like that. We ordered the chef's surprise menu and it was one of the item presented. They called it "zebra horse" when they served it but with the accents we still all assumed we were misunderstanding, but we clarified several times. Apparently they had been serving antelope (sweeter meat we were told), but had recently switched to zebra imported from Africa. We were also told that earlier that week some diners did not believe them and made the chef prove it, so he brought out a frozen zebra leg to show them. (We decided against demanding the same proof.) In any case is was really good. Barely seared on the edge so almost raw, it was great alone or with a bit of the goat cheese and fruit sauce it was served with.
The puffin on the other hand is something I knew I would be seeking out. We found a steakhouse that had an advertised puffin menu, so we tried it there. We had smoked puffin as well as grilled puffin breast.
The smoked puffin was quite good. Smokey, obviously, texture similar to but a bit softer than duck, but it had a distinct flavor from it's diet of small oily sea fish. Calling it "fishy" isn't quite right because that connotes more than would be correct. Perhaps "oceany"? How about the good aspects of fishy, without the bad? Certainly very distinctive and well worth trying.
The seared breast was fine, but lost some of the more interesting tastes of the smoked preparation, as well as having a tougher texture.
At this restaurant we also got a whale steak which was sorely disappointing. It tasted like a mediocre beef steak, but with a very slightly different texture. We all would have thought it was beef if not told otherwise. I suspect part of the problem was that it came well done. They didn't ask so I assumed they would do the proper thing. The regular beef steaks that were ordered at the table were cooked to the proper temp and were perfectly nice steaks.
The next night we revisited the puffin and whale, and added Rudolph, at a tapas place that uses local ingredients. Tapas Barrin is in fact the only tapas place in the country, it's website is simply www.tapas.is.
The reindeer was grilled simply on a kabob, and everyone liked it (others even more so than me), tasted similar to venison or elk, but lighter:
The puffin was again smoked, and this one was my favorite, although the others preferred the smoked prep from the night before. I liked this one more because it had a softer more liver like texture, and a more pronounced but cleaner ocean aspect (both reasons I'm sure contributed to others preferring the previous version):
The whale at this dinner was great. Almost raw and very delicate and I'm at a loss to remember well enough to describe it. Also contributing was that I only got a bite or two because it was a small tapas portion and very popular at the table so I had to share, unlike the puffin where I got the lion's share for myself.
This dinner continued well into the night, closing the place down. We were enjoying our revelry, as were the four visitors from the south of Norway. We discovered this when they bought our table a round of Brennivín to do with them.
Naturally we returned the favor, and this may have repeated a couple times. Later the waiter appeared with the chef and a full tray of shots which we all used to join in a Skål. All in all a great end to our last night in Reykjavik.
(I did mine moments later, I promise.)