Iceland isn’t the most popular of countries among the British cabinet office, who wants them to reimburse the £3.6 billion it cost UK taxpayers when Landsbankii collapsed in 2008; as opposed to the £1.3 trillion the UK government itself has cost us through its blind-eye to the looming banking crisis. But Iceland is still an admired destination for the more adventurous traveler. Emma Marvin visited the country and discovered that despite the climate and their cultural oddities, its people are anything but cold.
It had been my mission to find a good traditional lobster soup in Reykjavik. Not so difficult you may think, for Iceland’s capital city has a population of 120,000 and is home to 90 restaurants. But after three days of searching high and low in temperatures of minus 10 without any luck, I was beginning to lose hope.
My search finally ended when a tour guide who I’d just spent the day with ice climbing across a glacier (as you do), told me about a hidden little gem known by locals to serve the best lobster soup in Reykjavik and possibly Iceland.
The Sea Baron or the Saegreifinn, as the locals call it, sits on the harbour among Reykjavik’s fishing trawlers, set against a picture postcard backdrop of snow-tipped mountains.
Inside, fishing nets are draped haphazardly across the ceiling along with other bits of fishing paraphernalia. A stuffed baby seal and an eel mounted on the wall stare wearily over the rickety wooden benches and stools recycled from old fish packing containers. The rest of the walls are adorned with black and white photographs of its owner, a retired fisherman, in a whaling industry of yesteryear.
If you want posh nosh, this isn’t the place to come. It’s bog standard without airs and graces, but it’s hard to resist the quirkiness and atmosphere of it all. When you step into the Sea Baron, you get the impression it’s been running for years and I found myself feeling disappointed when its owner, Kjartan Halldorsson, told me he’d only opened it six years ago, just after he retired. Since then, people from all over the world have visited and discovered Kjartan’s lobster soup. The restaurant has had several rave reviews including one in the travel section of the New York Times.
As well as the lobster soup, there are several types of fish kebabs to choose from, including rotted shark, monkfish and the minke whale, which is not endangered and is legally fished in Iceland. ‘When in Rome’, I always say, so I ordered the lobster soup and chose a polystyrene dish containing my whale kebab (thought I’d give the rotting shark a miss), and handed it over to Kjartan to grill.
I squashed up next to an English couple on one of the benches (not a good place to be shy either) and noticed that they had also chosen the whale kebab. I asked them what it was like: “If you cover it with loads of sauce it’s not so bad,” the man replied, while the woman screwed up her face and gave me a disapproving shake of the head. Hmm, not so good then. My heart sank a little, but then a basket of crusty French bread and Icelandic butter arrived with my long awaited bowl of steaming hot lobster soup; a rich, creamy and spicy broth with more than enough chunks of lobster sitting at the bottom of the bowl. Delicious. My only criticism was that it was a bit on the salty side, but I was learning to discover that this is an Icelandic notion of tasty cuisine.
Don’t expect a wide choice of beers and wines. There are only two types of local beer on the menu including a non-alcoholic malt, but you can bring your own alcohol and given that most restaurants in Iceland have an average 700 per cent markup on wines, this is a real bonus. Don’t rely on the waitress to open your beer either – there’s a bottle opener attached to the fridge with string.
The whale kebab arrived within minutes. Its aroma resembled that of kidney or liver. The great big chunks of dark gamey, lean meat could have been chopped into smaller cubes. This was a challenge to eat, especially with plastic cutlery – my knife snapped in two as I attempted to hack through it. Its tough consistency and texture was hard work, to say the least. I got the impression that this whale was close to its ‘best before’ date. I would have liked to see some other vegetables on the skewer too, just to keep it company. All that meat was a bit too much. I had to agree with the couple sitting next to me; minke whale certainly isn’t my cup of tea.
In comparison to many restaurants in Reykjavik, the prices aren’t as high. But considering everything is self service and served up on polystyrene plates with plastic cutlery, it’s still on the pricy side. My bowl of lobster soup, whale kebab and one beer set me back £12.50.
All in all though, the experience of the Sea Baron is one I shall remember fondly. Far from being a place for members of Greenpeace or the politically correct, its warm atmosphere coupled with its quirky surroundings is something unique among Icelandic restaurants and shouldn’t be missed.
Saegreifinn, Geirsgata 8, 101 Reykjavik. Tel: +354 553 1500. Website: www.saegreifinn.is