The summer sun doesn’t set until midnight in Iceland, but that doesn’t mean it’s hot. While wandering around Heimaey Island—the only (and then, barely) inhabited rock of the Westman archipelago off the country’s southern coast—darts of chilly rain shred the thin windbreaker purchased expressly, misguidedly for my July visit. “You should have been here last week,” a local says. “It was so warm—15 degrees!” (Or 60 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The upshot of Iceland’s temps: It’s always soup weather, and the version of lobster soup, a dish found all around the country, that I slip into at Slippurinn, a Slow Food–style restaurant overlooking the shipyards, is reason enough to pray for a wet and rainy vacation. Poured tableside, the shellfish broth flows in a khaki cascade from the spout of an orange kettle, landing in a shallow bowl with a mannerly splish. It fills in the crevices between the bowl’s treasures: a firm, textured, delicate-tasting tartare of wolffish (a deep-sea dweller whose face will give you nightmares) and buttery lobes of langoustine (the creature typically referred to as lobster in Iceland) swabbed with crème fraîche. The first few spoonfuls taste profoundly of caramelized crustacean shells, but the soup changes as you eat it. Neon parsley oil wells up from the bottom to bead the surface, while the melting cream sends forth emissaries of acid and fat, making the broth simultaneously brighter and richer.
It’s outstanding, and it’s not even the best soup Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, Slippurinn’s 30-year-old chef and co-owner, makes.
That would be the halibut soup, “a really traditional Icelandic soup that’s almost been forgotten about,” says the chef, who goes by Gísli Matt. “It hasn’t been on any menu for 20 to 30 years.” The recipe is based on his grandmother’s: an ancestral ivory brew of halibut stock, skyr whey, cream, butter, and vinegar steeped with charred bay leaves. As in the lobster soup the balance of acid and fat is a thrilling high-wire walk. It’s a hallmark of the cooking at Slippurinn, and of Icelandic food in general. This nation knows its way around dairy’s multiple personalities.
Wearing a chunky knit sweater and architectural eyebrows, my server pours the halibut soup into a bowl of diced fresh apples, torn prunes, and pearly tiles of halibut cured with Arctic thyme and pink peppercorn. Parsley oil, augmented with bay, lurks at the bottom of this soup, creating a green-and-cream terrazzo effect on the surface. The textures—crunchy! chewy! firm!—and synaptic snaps of tart, sweet, herbal, floral, and oceanic converge into one of the most flavorful dishes I’ve eaten anywhere. I mop up the dredges with a slab of Slippurinn’s impeccable sourdough as the rain raps the windows. I’ve been here all of 25 minutes, and I’m never leaving.
A Dream of Summer
Like the goddess Persephone, Slippurinn comes alive each spring and goes dark in the fall. Icelanders who live in or come to Heimaey—it’s a popular summer destination—and savvy tourists have about four months each year to taste the ephemeral compositions Matt creates with purebred lamb from the hilltop pastures, pristine seafood from the frosty North Atlantic, and whatever seaweeds, barks, and berries he can forage for in between.
Not a lot grows on this volcanic island—by comparison, Denmark, the seat of the Nordic movement, might as well be Provence—but the plants that do manage to root and thrive in the anemic soil and brackish tide pools are of outsize deliciousness. Matt’s goal is for “our diners to experience the sense of time and place of the islands,” he says.
When he decided he wanted to be a chef, Matt says, he found “there weren’t opportunities for young cooks on the island.” So after graduating from culinary school in Reykjavík and moving back home, Matt created his own restaurant in 2012 with the help of his parents and sister. Slippurinn is a family affair: “We all focus on different things,” he says. “But in a small business like this you need to be able to do a lot of things. My mom, Kata, is the headwaiter and gardener. My dad, Auðunn, is a fisherman and does everything necessary to keep the place alive with his carpenter skills. And my sister, Indíana, designed the place.”
Indíana kept the building’s industrial bones, warming them up with wood tables, secondhand sofas, groovy lamps, and potted plants. A shelving unit constructed from old ladders anchors one wall of the dining room, displaying dog-eared cookbooks, matte ceramics, and vintage tools. Huge windows line another wall and overlook the concrete docks where be-wooled passengers disembark from boutique cruise ships and fishermen shuttle their catches between blue-and-white warehouses.
Cod powers the local trade and doesn’t have to travel far up to the Slippurinn kitchen, where Matt dehydrates and fries its skin into chicharróns. A Pharaonic gold dusting of nutritional yeast and seaweed exponentially ups the fries’ marine umami. The accompanying tangy, herbal dip of strained buttermilk, lovage, lemon zest, and lumpfish roe calls to mind Greek taramosalata on a Nordic holiday. The cod’s flesh, meanwhile, makes for fish cakes as fluffy as French quenelles. The golden, racquetball-sized cakes are plated in a ring with lacy caramelized onions, buttery mashed potatoes, and magenta dabs of rhubarb jam that electrify the whole dish like lights on a Christmas wreath.
Rhubarb loves the endless sunlight of Icelandic summers, and given the season, its magenta fingerprints are all over Matt’s menu. The vegetable adds fruity acidity to a wild-tasting mountain lamb entrée consisting of a flat steak, cut from the leg, sliced and fanned around celery root crushed with hazelnuts. Rhubarb flavors the rum fizz from the cocktail menu styled like a botanical field guide, and at dinner, is baked with spent grains into a cake topped with angelica ice cream. There’s a gorgeous rhubarb cider on the wine list, too, made by Sveinn Steinsson, one of Matt’s former sous-chefs from Matur og Drykkur, the acclaimed Reykjavík restaurant he opened in 2015 and sold to his partners the following year.
In addition to Slippurinn, Matt also owns Skál!, a Michelin Bib Gourmand award–winning bar in the capital’s first food hall, but his heart remains in the islands: “Slippurinn has, and always will be, my main focus.”
A Finishing Touch
The single imperfect dish at Slippurinn is probably the prettiest: thick, flaky steaks of tusk, an Atlantic white fish that looks like a squatty eel, served in skillet of whiskey-whey sauce and festooned like a ceremonial offering with flowering blue beach herbs. It just needs salt.
I find plenty of salinity in a component of one of two desserts, shards of meringue that taste like black licorice aged in the sea air. The brittle meringue forms a teepee around layers of smooth, milk chocolate mousse, grassy chervil granita, and tart buttermilk foam. The combination of flavors has an alien, otherworldly quality, not unlike the Icelandic landscape, and I love it. The second dessert stars another plant slushy that’s made from lemony sorrel and strikingly emerald. It sits on a cloud of whipped skyr, and lest the whole setup get too sour, toasted oats suspended in caramel ground it with a deep stroke of cooked sugar.
Matt says these ingredients reference “the nostalgic palate of Icelanders,” and there is no better way to indulge your inner kid, Icelandic or otherwise, than with Slippurinn’s secret third dessert, the off-menu hot chocolate. Icelanders take cocoa seriously, and Slippurinn’s is no dump-and-stir situation. The barista crafts it like the most elaborate coffee beverage, layering shaved bittersweet chocolate, scalded milk, frothed milk, a pool of cool cream, grated chocolate, and a few flakes of sea salt into a speckled ceramic mug. The mug has no handle, so I cradle it in my hands and inhale the warm chocolate elixir, a moment of such hygge-ness it could have been contrived by an Instagram influencer. The rain’s not letting up outside, and that’s fine by me.
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