Think of Iceland and all sorts of things may spring to mind. Vikings, geysers, hot tubs, a surprisingly capable football team… but perhaps not haute cuisine.
Until now, perhaps. The country recently gained its first Michelin-starred restaurant in the shape of Dill, located on trendy Hverfisgata in central Reykjavík.
The creation of chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and sommelier Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, the restaurant casts itself as a pioneer of Nordic cuisine in Iceland, using local and seasonal ingredients to produce a modern take on some northern European classics.
Back to basics
Current head chef Ragnar Eiríksson says the restaurant has a very simple approach to its dishes.
‘We focus on flavour. It is as simple as that, we don’t worry too much about the presentation, we like it to look a little rough and that is beautiful in its own way.’
Dill’s chef also faces a challenge, shared by others of his profession in Iceland. It’s all very well concentrating on locally sourced produce, but this is a country with a short summer that takes the brunt of North Atlantic storms in a winter where days are short and sunlight rare.
That’s hardly conducive to growing a wide range of vegetables or raising exotic animals and birds, despite the presence of geothermal energy that’s been a boon to farmers over the past few decades.
Indeed, an unforgiving climate has been an issue since the first Viking adventurers stepped off their longships. While they were impressed with rivers and lakes that teemed with fish such as salmon and Arctic char they noticed that the weather was too inclement even to sustain fruit or nut trees, making the native berries all the more important as a source both of flavour and vitamins.
Eiríksson admits finding ingredients is a perennial issue. ‘We spend a lot of time talking to smallholders and other producers and we try to source as much as we can directly from them. Then, during the short summer months, we forage as many wild herbs as we can and preserve them for the winter.
‘I always look forward to spring so I can start picking herbs again. My favourite is definitely angelica. The flavour is something between fennel and celery and it grows almost everywhere in Iceland.’
Understandably Eiríksson is delighted with the latest accolade. ‘We’re very honoured and humble to have achieved this award. It is not something that we were directly aiming at since Michelin didn’t include Iceland in its guide until now. Obviously, we had heard rumours and seen tweets, but we were still pleasantly surprised.’
Leading the way
He now hopes Dill’s achievements will inspire more Icelandic chefs to intensify their focus and push harder to achieve similar status.
‘This is a total game-changer for the restaurant industry in Iceland; finally we are on Michelin’s radar and surely it will inspire others. I am looking forward to seeing more stars in Iceland, I don’t think Dill would ever come near to qualifying for a second star, but there are definitely places in Iceland that could potentially get there.’
He sees this as the next step for a restaurant scene that has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 20 years, driven paradoxically by an economic crash and the resultant surge in tourist numbers as the country became more affordable.
‘Obviously, your options are a bit limited with the native population of only around 300.000 but, since we gained about 1.5 million tourists, the restaurant clientéle has grown substantially. That gives us more restaurants and much more variety of restaurants. And not just in Reykjavik – there are exciting and cool places opening up around the country.’