Reykjavík

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.

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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.

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?

Wrong.

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.