Friday, March 16, 2012
If there is anything approaching a perfect restaurant in my universe, I think it is getting awfully near to it at Dill. First of all, anything I could possibly do - eat or otherwise - in a building designed by Alvar Aalto is going to be heavenly in my book. Throw in an extremely talented, cute and super nice chef, and you can see where I’m going.
Dill was the only restaurant I knew about before I landed in Iceland. I had actually met the chef, Gunnar Karl Gislason, at the last Salone del Gusto last year, but his fame goes well beyond that. And when my friend Anya von Bremzen insisted I make my way there, as soon as I landed in Reykjavik, I knew I was in for greatness.
Actually, I have to admit that I did not know the Alvar Aalto part of the equation. Aalto, the great Finnish architect, built the Nordic House, where Dill is located, in 1968. Almost everything, from light fixtures to chairs to all of the interiors are his design.
Dill is actually the collaborative brainchild of chef Gunnar and his partner Sommelier Olafur Orn Olafsson. They wanted to open a small restaurant where they would feature Nordic ingredients in new ways in a unique setting. Nordic House, located in the middle of a bird reserve just outside of downtown Reykjavik is a dreamlike building where all this happens.
We actually managed two meals here, during our short stay, and they were not only the highlights of the trip, but two of the best meals I've ever had, anywhere. (more on the second next week)
After hanging up our coats in the Aalto coat rack, we sat in the Aalto chairs and read our menu by the light of the Aalto lamps. Sorry to keep harping on this, but the harmony and peaceful atmosphere instilled by this extraordinary setting is an essential part of the entire experience.
I was in town as the guest of the Food & Fun festival, and so was at lunch with a few other food journalists. We placed ourselves in Gunnar’s capable hands, and he decided that lamb - that would be free-range Icelandic lamb of course - was to be the theme.
Whipped buttermilk and caramelized leeks came out as pure white dollops atop lava stone, to be spread on home made bread. Another slab of black stone was the base for two pine cones. Paper thin slices of smoked and dried lamb peeked out between the petals. The lamb had been smoked - the Icelandic way, over aged sheep dung - to produce a strong, decisive taste. Kind of like Icelandic lamb chips. A bite of crispy lamb, a bite of sweet buttermilk on bread, and back and forth.
Sea scallops - freshly caught that morning, were plump and dripping with sea water. Evidently they are very difficult (illegal even?) to get. Each one was served simply, on it's own, nestled in a bed of iced sea weed.
One of my favorite things was the Alvar Aalto designed glass dish that was filled with steaming, rich lamb stock. Not as a separate course, but to dip our bread in. Isn’t that a fabulous idea?
Looking at my photographs it seems like I Photoshopped the colors somehow. But everything was actually that beautiful and that intense. The next course, thinly sliced and barely cooked lamb heart, served with beets and sea salt cured hazelnuts, was that pink and silky against the beautifully glazed dish. The very lamby tasting heart was perfect with the sweet yet earthy beets and the crunchy, salty nuts.
The main dish couldn’t have been more simple, or more delicious. Roasted lamb shoulder, topped with pistachios and pork cracklings atop a bed of pickled onions. Salty, sweet and tangy with the crunch of the nuts and the pink of the onions against the white ceramic.
My favorite part of the meal, though, was probably Gunnar himself. I think that when a restaurant not only produces such excellent food, but such a serene and peaceful vibe, that it has everything to do with the person behind the stove. Or behind the lamb in this case.
I was in Iceland courtesy of the Food & Fun festival, and my airfare was paid for by Iceland Air.