Tasty Tasty Iceland

What do you know about Iceland? If your first thoughts are snow, fermented shark meat and Björk, then you’re probably about on par with the typical North American. But Iceland is, in fact, a gorgeous country full of waterfalls and hot springs, unique artists and musicians, a cool underground music scene and a fair number of hip shops and restaurants, especially given that the population of the entire nation is about 300,000, less than that of metropolitan Halifax.

And while Iceland should be on everyone’s travel wish list, in the meantime, it might just be easier to head down to the Drake Hotel later this week, where they’re throwing a big ol’ festival called A Taste of Iceland. Along with music by Icelandic musician Mugison and his band, film screenings and an art installation, there will be food. Of course.

Innovative Chef Thorarinn Eggertsson of Orange in Reykjavik will be in the house from March 17th to 20th, teaming up with the Drake’s Chef Anthony Rose to offer a 4-course taste of Iceland.

Chef Thor is known for his work with molecular gastronomy, and before anyone starts rolling their eyes and throwing around the foodie attitude, know that this is some truly beautiful food featuring some of the primary flavours of Iceland. No, there is no fermented shark, singed sheep’s heads or cured ram’s scrotum (hey… that’s what Anthony Bourdain and Wikipedia tell me are the traditional dishes there!). But there is plenty of beautiful fish and an entrée featuring reindeer.

At a recent media event we start off with a couple of specially-prepared cocktails featuring Reyka vodka. The blueberry geyser is vodka, lime juice and mint with blueberry essence (blueberry being a prominent fruit in Iceland) and the secret ingredient – a dollop of blueberry pie filling (no, really) – all mixed up with a piece of dry ice to imitate the hot spring geysers Iceland is so famous for. It’s bubbly and sweet and goes down almost too quickly.

While we’re watching the cocktail demo, the chefs arrive at the Drake’s Sky Yard with huge orange helium balloons, trailing a take-away box of tender pieces of fried cod. It’s this little wink of humour and creativity that Chef Thor adds to every dish.

Because we’re upstairs in a private room and not in the main dining room, every course is brought upstairs and composed in front of us, so we get to see every element that goes into each dish. This won’t happen for regular customers, unfortunately, but it’s a pretty cool presentation as we watch the layers of flavours build before the dishes are set in front of us.

To start – breakfast of champions, an Icelandic langoustine with Jerusalem artichokes and pumpkin, garnished with lacy flat-bread. We’re told not to start eating right away, and Chef Thor comes around, dousing the whole dish in milk, making for a porridge-like concoction with so many flavour and textural elements, from the sweet plump langoustine to the earthy artichokes, and the crispy flat-breads, softened by the creamy sauce formed by the milk.

Next up, something Chef Thor calls Decode in which he has cooked fresh cod in a hot water bath and then flakes it onto the plate. The menu says it comes with “estragon egg” which turns out to be Bearnaise sauce (estragon being French for tarragon), and pumpernickel, which turns out to be a sprinkling of dried pumpernickel crumbs, and then topped with a potato chip for a very elegant and sophisticated version of fish and chips.

The reindeer entrée (oh… uh, yeah… sorry, kids, Santa will be travelling by snowmobile this year) was my favourite dish of the night but disappointed in one way that was no fault of either Chef Thor or anyone at the Drake. Because of Ontario’s regulations about serving wild game, the reindeer we ate was farmed meat from Ontario. To my palate, which was brought up on real wild game, it tasted kind of bland. The accompaniments of a potato galette, cauliflower, and root vegetables were a symphony of flavours, and the reindeer, again cooked sous vide and gorgeously rare in the centre, was sweet and tender. Just not terribly “wild” tasting. (I know, I need to make friends with some hunters…)

For dessert, Chef Thor again revealed a fun sense of humour with his duck in a tub. First, cut open a whole bunch of rubber duckies, then fill with chocolate mousse and freeze. Add pineapple, vanilla sauce mixed with liquid nitrogen to make it look and feel like popcorn (or soap bubbles), and then make the rounds with pineapple sauce squirted onto each plate from a soap dispenser for the full bathtub theme.

Okay, so now we know why Conde Naste Traveller referred to Chef Thor as a “mad genius” and said his restaurant Orange was “packed with playful surprises”. This is a far better way to experience the cuisine of Iceland than fermented shark.

A Taste of Iceland runs from March 17th to March 20th. This 4-course menu can be had for $42 per person plus tax and tip (Icelandic inspired cocktails are around $10/$11 each). Reservations are encouraged.