Dill, located in Downtown Reykjavik the capital of Iceland is the first and only restaurant in the small country to receive a Michelin star. I visited before further travels into nearby Scandinavia when the realization hit me that the Michelin system is far too generous in the Nordic countries.
To critique Dill the context must be considered, as much of what it embodies is dualistically the mimicry of movements in Scandinavia and the embodiment of Icelandic culture. Iceland is a liberal nation about the size of Ohio, one step removed from Viking Age. Icelandic is easily the most difficult language I have encountered (extremely inflected north Germanic in origin, sporting a wide assortment of irregular declensions that has undergone very little change). Thankfully, everyone speaks English and the country is one of the most literate in the world – after all, what else is there to do but read (sagas from the 9th century are completely intelligible to native speakers) and play chess when it’s frozen, dark and cold.
Dill reflects the culture of Iceland; when we entered the main door 20 minutes early we were told the table wasn’t ready rather coldly, and there wasn’t any place to wait. Not the welcome you’d expect from a Michelin star dining establishment, yet in a country where nearly everywhere you look the landscape reflects inhospitality to human settlement it’s easy to understand why (1150 years ago, birch forest and woodland covered 25-40% of Iceland’s land area, Viking axes reduced that to .5% -1% by the mid 20th century).
We went upstairs to check out Mikkeller Bar, an outfit I’m familiar with for their recent aggressive global expansion. We were greeted with blank looks rather than smiles and extremely expensive yet delicious beer. Extremely expensive is a recurring theme in Iceland, as the exchange rate and importation of nearly everything but seafood provides a crushing blow to the wallet.
When we ventured back downstairs to the basement-like restaurant we were ushered through a dark passage to a small room where other diners were seated. I emphasize dark, as though I adored the ubiquitous candlelight, we almost couldn’t see our way nor much of what came to the table. As this was one of the first destinations in our trip, I wasn’t keen to the technique of offering Champagne immediately before receiving any menus or wine lists indicating price. Highly effective in adding $100 or more to the final bill.
The New Nordic manifesto is something Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason advocates is the adherence to locally sourced and foraged ingredients of which Iceland surprisingly is full of. Components like arctic thyme, lamb, pine needles, hay, and the mildly putrid Harðfiskur (dried wolffish). When the first dish arrived, a rock with small bites, we were given a heavily accented description by the server that we couldn’t comprehend over the loud conversation of the other diners in the small room where we dined. Apparently, everyone else in the room was also from Los Angeles.
When the next dish arrived, I started to feel a bit of apprehension that the $150 or so deep we were into this meal might not have been the best investment. Again an inaudible description in heavily accented English had us scrambling for the menu. I really wanted to love this place after reading such posts as The Chef Who Rescued Iceland discussing his planting of 1 million trees, sheep herding, and reinvigorating support of domestic barley.
One thing that cannot be questioned is the quality of dairy products in all of Scandinavia, but here Iceland might have the crown. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted butter so uniformly delicious in every dining outlet, and Dill was no exception. The bread to accompany felt like leftover pizza crust, though warm and slightly sour it was a disappointment served in a bird’s nest.
The Arctic Char was next and I found it beautiful. I loved the wooden plate ware and the flavors were delicate and rich. I believe it was poached which I certainly appreciate though some of my companions didn’t enjoy the texture.
Codfish could be the national mascot of Iceland. The portion here, mirroring the previous course was on the small side even for haute cuisine. Judging from the plate selection I thought this was deliberate to announce bold flavors yet this dish was largely one-sided, with the leafy green serving as more of distraction and the base sauce suffering from a lack of flavor.
The best dish of the evening was the roasted cabbage with breadcrumbs. The creamy sauce was delightful and the cabbage was cooked through but not mushy at all. Though I understand this courses position in regards to escalating weight on the palate, I thought this course should have preceded the fish.
The next three courses, beginning with the celeriac in noodle form all featured breadcrumbs. I was neutral on this dish, not really loving it yet not finding much at fault either. Flavors were muted and the texture seemed to be in focus. The breadcrumbs felt a little tired by the time the 4th dish arrived covered in them.
The final course was venison on the rare side of medium rare which wasn’t well received by the female portion of our table. I would’ve included a picture but the candle on our table had burned far too low for a picture. The sequencing of this meal was one of the biggest challenges for my companions and I, by the time the final course arrived we weren’t particularly interested in eating anymore as the flavors from the precluding dishes we found frankly boring. The timing as well felt very extended.
The bill for this meal for 4 diners with drinks came out to be over $500 dollars. I was left wondering what we paid for and not quite satiated or impressed.