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.