A Slice of Iceland in New York: Skál

Have you ever found yourself in New York City complaining about the serious lack of Icelandic, well, anything? There there, I feel your pain, which is why I’ve decided to put together a brief series highlighting various locales throughout The Big Apple sure to satisfy your craving for a little piece of Iceland. See below for the first installment.

Nestled on the corner of Canal and Ludlow Streets in New York City’s quintessentially hip Lower East Side, the budding Icelandic-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar Skál, entices passersby with an inviting openness. On a crisp autumn afternoon, the folding glass doors are pushed back revealing quaint powder blue tables dotted with tiny bunches of purple flowers that resemble lúpinas—flowering plants that cover large areas of Iceland’s mountainous terrain—a friendly reminder of Iceland and its love/hate relationship with the non-indigenous shrub.


“People love the design,” explained co-owner Christophe Oudraego on Skál’s cozy confines, further detailing how the restaurant was modeled with a baðstofa in mind—a traditional communal living space once common among viking longhouses during the twentieth century. Blue decorative plates portraying scenes of countryside life and floral designs (popular among many homes in Iceland) are peppered throughout the restaurant, in addition to a classic map of the island with two ravens perched overhead.


Specializing in “new” Scandinavian cuisine, with a focus on Iceland rather than strictly traditional Icelandic fare, Skál first opened its doors in August 2013, and remains the first and only restaurant centered around Icelandic ingredients and design in New York. The brain-child of Iceland-native Ólafur Björn Stephensen, who is no stranger to New York, having already opened a local organic wine bar The Ten Bells in 2008, Oudraego explained that it was very important for them to provide customers the opportunity to “discover something different and new.”


Their sentiment was quickly apparent upon scanning the drinks menu, as both the Icelandic aquavit, Brennivín, as well as the barley malt brew, Lava, are available to order. Brennivín only recently made its mark on the U.S. market, since the ambitious Joe Spiegel believed there would be demand for it in the states (he was right) and now the “black death” can be ordered at a handful of establishments across the country. Though Brennivín has a reputation to seriously fuck you up, hence the “black death” nickname, the “Raven” cocktail at Skál isn’t quite so threatening. The vicious bite of the Brennivín is soothed by an ounce of Diplomatico Anejo Rum and a few dashes of dry Dubonnet, that come served in a champagne flute with two sprigs of fresh thyme. Skál’s most popular cocktail, the “Ginger Boy” errs on the more refreshing side while featuring Reyka vodka with a powerful dose of ginger and a crisp hint of basil.


Keeping with the traditional Icelandic theme, “Svið” or “lamb’s head,” is a dish that can be found on the dinner menu when in stock. Head chef James Kim explained that it is served how it normally is in Iceland, with the entire head—tongue, teeth, eyes and all—however it is slightly Americanized and instead of picking the meat right off of the face the head is braised and the meat is removed for the diner. The lamb’s head is then served up with Icelandic pancakes, pickles, and buttermilk sauce to make “tiny burritos.” Kim pointed out that the entrée requires a four-day cooking process, so the lamb’s head is usually only offered during the first few days of the week.


Another classic Icelandic, and remarkably labor-intensive, dish offered at Skál is the kjötsúpa. An imaginative take on the Icelandic winter staple, the meat soup is cooked Japanese style, which calls for the lamb’s bones to be boiled for 40 hours with constant stirring. The result is a creamy rich broth flavored with emulsified lamb’s fat and comes garnished with meat from the lamb’s head, hay smoked carrots and cabbage.


There is also an assortment of other dishes that don’t scream Iceland in particular but have a hint of Northern panache, such as the “Arctic Char” served with caramelized cauliflower, the “Quinoa and Barley” grazed with a touch of Skyr and an overarching theme of berry and lava salt accents.


All in all Skál is the most distinctly Icelandic establishment to be found in New York City, from the cabin-like decor, to the eclectic mix of both traditional and current Scandinavian food and drink. For anyone ranging from slightly interested to downright fiending for Icelandic offerings, this is the place to go.

Five Things Not To Say To An Icelander

1. “Isn’t Iceland like actually green and Greenland is actually ice or something?”

This needs to stop. You might feel good about the fact that you know an amusing little thing about Iceland, but every Icelander you say this to will have heard it more times than they care to count by the age of six.

If you have ever looked at an atlas or a globe in your life, you may have noticed that Greenland is a colossal block of ice, the northern tip of which is as close as you can get to the North Pole before stepping off land, onto the ice sheet. Whereas Iceland sits just south of the Arctic Circle and is usually painted a mousy brown color by cartographers.

If you still feel that you need to impress a passing Icelander with a factoid about the country, try the following alternatives:
“Hey! Iceland! Isn’t that where the first parliament was held?”
“Hey! Iceland! Isn’t that where you guys eat hella whales?”
“Hey! Iceland! Isn’t that where the volcanic eruption that caused a few years of famine in Europe and eventually led to the French Revolution occurred?”

2. “Isn’t Iceland the country where the corrupt bankers were overthrown, a new constitution was crowdsourced and everyone lived happily ever after?”

No. It may have seemed so for a while, especially with the way the internet tends to find and popularize articles that sacrifice solid research and facts for buzzword-loaded sensationalist nonsense, but Iceland is not where the age of enlightened government and financial policymaking will begin, not yet at least.

In fact, this year the results of the Icelandic parliamentary vote were quite surprising. The centre-right parties – which include the Independence Party and Progressive Party – ousted the social-democrat led coalition that is responsible for the modest but stable financial recovery Iceland has undergone since the last election.

The real kicker is that it has only been five years since this exact same parties were responsible for the loose regulations and wave of privatisation that led to the collapse. And it seems that the only change to their agenda this time around is that they are also pushing for eased regulations on foreign investment in Iceland.

Further Reading:
Example story containing misleading information concerning Iceland overthrowing the “evil bankers”: Iceland’s ongoing revolution
Step-by-step deconstruction of the previous article: A Deconstruction of Iceland’s ongoing revolution

3. “Doesn’t Iceland have the most beautiful women in the world?”

No. Well, yes, maybe, I don’t know. The problem isn’t the question. You may even think you’re paying Icelanders you say this to a complement. The problem is the person asking it.

You may have seen Quentin Tarantino expound on the “supermodels” he hung out with at the bars in Reykjavík. Or maybe it was the ill-conceived and domestically unpopular ad campaign Icelandair aimed toward young European men a decade ago with slogals like “Have a one night stand in Reykjavik” and “Fancy a dirty weekend in Iceland?” Needless to say, these are gross misrepresentations of what Iceland is actually like.

Iceland has made great progress in equal rights. The most publicized recent accomplishments include a female prime minister in a same-sex marriage, full marriage, adoption and fertilization rights for same-sex couples, and a law requiring corporations to have at least 40 percent of each gender on their boards.

So, a question that so bluntly objectifies 50 percent of the country will not go down well, no matter who you’re talking to. And we all think you should grow up a bit before you open your mouth again.

4. “Don’t all you guys believe in elves?”

No. Just don’t even go there.

5. “Isn’t that where ‘B’Jork’ is from?”

Ok firstly, B’Jork sounds like a Klingon name. You should be ashamed of yourself. The proper way to pronounce her name is  “pjœr̥k.”

To be fair, Icelandic is not easy. Many of the sounds are difficult to pronounce if you didn’t spend the greater part of your childhood in Iceland. The rolled R’s (always precisely three clicks of the tongue against the bridge of your teeth), the pre-aspirated double consonants, the letter ð and the letter þ. And then there’s “Eyjafjallajökull,” the infamous volcano.

But as difficult as it may seem, you should keep trying until someone says “very good” (this might mean either “ok, enough” or “that’s actually pretty good,” you will never know which). No Icelander will ever think you are a fool for trying to learn how to pronounce the name of the place you are in or want to go to.

The amount of effort (success is optional) you as a visitor put into remembering and pronouncing Icelandic words, especially names (I can not stress this enough) will directly result in people having more time for you. And remember, there is no worse conversation starter in the whole world than “Is that really your name? I’ll never remember that.”

Golf in Iceland: A Brief History And DIY Guide

Iceland is a country tragically suited for sports. The objectively beautiful landscapes are – when viewed up close – tailored by nature to make any sort of sport-like endeavor lead to grievous injury to all involved.

The tundra is frozen and knobbly in winter, then boggy and knobbly in summer. The lava fields are half-covered with ancient moss, waiting for you to step on the wrong patch where it will slip away to reveal a jagged rock, skewering your calf, gouging your kneecap or slitting your throat.

The glacier will open up with no notice, dropping you several hundred feet into a gradually narrowing crack where you finally come to a stop, wedged between city-sized blocks of ice flowing over the landscape, eventually ejecting you a few hundred years later in the form of silt in a glacial flow. And the weather always sucks.

But then at some point in the 20th century, golf was introduced to the island.

Golf lends itself beautifully to Iceland, a country which during summer is all green with no trees so everywhere is technically golfable. The Icelanders have taken advantage of this and the country currently has 65 golf courses (fact: Iceland has 5 times more golf courses per capita than the states – 0.0002 courses per capita in iceland, compared to 0.00004 per capita in the US).

However, the variety of courses in Iceland is very limited compared to the states where you can find cheap, run-down courses – where the clubhouse is a shack, your cart comes with a beer cooler and the fairway is littered with cigarette butts on one hand, and amazing resorts where the dress code is all-white and the balls are pearls on the other.

In Iceland it’s still strictly a yuppie affair. If your bag isn’t spotless and clean, if your clothes don’t say Ping or Nike, if your gloves have so much as a grass stain on them you will get snickered at. You will see less of this the further you get from civilization, not because the culture is different, but simply because there are fewer people.

So I would like to suggest an alternative for the golf-curious, financially disadvantaged and car-less individual.

Hljómskálagarðurinn is a park located just south of the pond in downtown Reykjavík. It is a peaceful little place, plenty of neatly cut grass, some public grills, a few rows of trees, none taller than 20 ft. and a few statues tossed in the mix. It also happens to be completely empty at night, Sundays through Thursdays.

The “Goodwill” in Reykjavik is called “Góði Hirðirinn” (the Good Shepherd) and they always have a few old golf clubs available for next to nothing. With a few stitches, an old curtain can be made into a lightweight golf bag in minutes. Finally, Laugavegur, the main shopping and drinking drag in town has a dollar store called “Tiger” that stocks golf balls.

Once all these things are in place, you need to wait for a sunny weekday, one where you don’t have any pre-noon obligations the following day. You wait until 11 p.m. (keep in mind that for most of June and July it will stay bright enough to golf 24 hours a day) when most of the park-goers will have gone home for the day. And then you strike.

The grass is what would most likely be referred to as rough, nothing resembling a putting green at least, which means most of the “holes” will not be holes inasmuch as they are objects to hit such as a grill, a trash bin, the small patch of dirt where a sapling has been transplanted, and so on.

I thought of writing up a map of my old course, but I would hate to deprive you, dear reader, of the pleasure of making you up your own. Just remember one thing, don’t fear the water hazard.

So You Have A Crush On An Icelandic Guy?

Having mostly grown up in the US of A, when it comes to dating I’m a little more used to the stereotypical ways of doing things. To boil it down simply: Girl likes boy, girl waits for boy’s attention, boy realizes girl is cute, boy asks for girl’s number, boy asks girl to hang out, they do, boy kisses girl, they live happily ever after.

Ok, I’m not quite this much of a romantic, but you get the gist. I’m used to being pursued, not the other way around. And I think most people out there can agree with me in saying making the first move is HARD. Doesn’t really matter what sex you are.

So don’t be surprised when the Icelandic guy you like doesn’t do any of the things listed above. He may slip you drinks while you’re bartending together just ‘cuz, and he may laugh lovingly at your American ignorance and out of place freak dancing, and invite you to morning after-parties that don’t even start till 8 a.m., but he definitely won’t ask you for your number. Don’t even think there is an inkling of a chance.

This is probably because the females in Iceland tend to do the picking and choosing, which basically evolved into doing all the work. It’s kind of like if the social constructs of sexuality decided to play a prank on everyone and resulted in complete role reversal (a sex fetish in the U.S. but a total reality in Iceland). Even though I’m making a ton of generalizations, after spending three summers in a row in Reykjavik I got to experience this phenomenon first-hand.

One summer went by and our relationship felt like nothing more than a summer fling. Another summer went by and things heated up to a few one-night-stands and a lot of chatting on Facebook. But it wasn’t until the third summer that my friend finally filled me in on what was going on.

Me: “I just don’t get why he doesn’t even ask me for my number or ask me to hangout. He only messages me to talk about music” (sadface).

Friend: “Girl you just gotta ask him for his number and make it happen!”

Was this really happening? I had to be the one to “make it happen”?


The reality finally hit me. To land my dreamboat Viking of a man, I had to grow a backbone, step out of my comfort zone and get what I wanted. And guess what? It worked out great.

By squacco

What To Eat After A Night Of Partying

So you’ve found yourself in Reykjavík, checked into a tiny hostel on Hverfisgata or some other downtown-ish area. It’s Friday night, all the flawless young people are dressed like they were invited to a secret basement house party with a fancy password. Maybe you are with a friend. You both look slightly disheveled from the travel and probably feel out of place because you were told Iceland is freezing cold and only packed your North Face and Under Armour. Feeling insecure about how you look you walk a little bit closer than you normally would behind a group of twenty-somethings hoping that you might look like an accepted tourist, one that the locals feel good about taking out.

You get into the bar, it’s past 11 p.m. because that’s a normal time to go to a bar, but it’s still sparsely populated and you wonder what the hell is going on.

You order a beer, chat with your friend, people watch, another beer, a cigarette, then another, you can feel your insecurity slowly slipping away. Now it’s 12 a.m., more people are starting to squeeze into the bar, it’s feeling full, the DJ has switched from playing funk music to playing party jams, your feet start stepping to the rhythm, your blood is pumping, you order a stronger drink, your North Face comes off.

Now everyone is dancing and dancing and your friend convinces you to “get up in there” and you find a pretty man or lady and you subconsciously glide closer to them until you’re right there, giving them a look and they are giving you a look and you ask them if they want a drink, and they say “yes,” and then you’re sitting with their friends, and you’re asking yourself “How the hell do they all speak perfect English?” as you’re getting into a debate about the best Neutral Milk Hotel song and forgetting that you’re a tourist.

It’s 4 a.m. now, you stumble out of the bar with your new friends.“God, I have the drunchies,” you say and the Icelanders look at you and laugh because that’s some silly slang to use. You start walking down Laugavegur together and think “Fuck where the hell do I get some diner food?” But alas, Iceland still has yet to discover the beauty of the diner, so you ask your friends “What’s up with the food sitch?” Before they answer you see a sandwich place called ”Nonnabiti” and you think to yourself “I could really go for a reuben right now” right?


That place is basically seasoned mayonnaise inserted into crappier-than-Subway bread for 13 dollars. Well then how about Hlöllabiti, Nonni’s late night sandwich rival you ask? Still a resounding “No.” A “Hlölli” sandwich is basically fried onion seasoned with MSG and mayo sandwiched between two soggy slices of nameless white bread. Unlike America where bread is called things like rye, hoagie, sourdough etc., in Icelandic midnight cuisine it’s all just “bread.”

This is an important moment in every tourist’s life as your hangover and ultimate happiness can massively depend on making the right choice.

It really is always the best idea just to go to the supermarket called 10/11. It’s right downtown, open 24/7 and offers up the essentials: straight-forward sandwiches – the pepperoni taco one sounds rank, but is actually adventurously delicious especially if microwaved for 40 seconds before consumption – normal snacks, microwaveable hamburgers (stay away from those) and hot dogs. An Icelandic hot dog is another staple for both sober and drunk moments.

However, do beware that the Icelandic hot dog, despite its staggering deliciousness when served with all the classic toppings, is sure to give you “hot dog breath.” A deadly combination of raw onions, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, ketchup and Icelandic remúlaði. This is a sure sign of that fact that the person in question has decided to punch it in for the night, have a hot dog and then go home. One might call it “quitters breath.”

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “Jesus, sounds like I should stay away from anything edible in this land,” which in reality, is a thought that may cross your mind from time to time if you dwell in Iceland for an extended period, but that’s another issue entirely. When it comes to late night snackage, trust me on this one, stick to the good old supermarket pitstop and don’t let those drunk little eyeballs wander toward the overcrowded nonna/hlölla buffoonery because you will be sorely disappointed and your guts will hurt.