Iceland is well known for its beautiful scenery, its natural spas, and the friendliness of its people — but what about the food? Thanks to shows like “Bizarre Foods” or “No Reservations” which feature hosts eating really gross things, many people associate the Viking island with what Anthony Bourdain described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” in the world: Kæstur hákarl — chunks of Greenlandic shark that have been fermented in (among other things) urine for up to five months.
All that is about to change.
As Iceland's tourism booms — attracting over 2 million visitors in 2017 — the hardy islanders are stepping up with their local cuisine.
But while Reykjavik is now full of acclaimed restaurants, gastro pubs, and fine dining establishments, the real Icelandic epicurean gem is one not many tourists know about: Tjoruhusid. Hidden in a former cod drying house hours away from the capital in the North West in the Western Fjord region of the country, I first heard of it last February while on a trip to see the Northern Lights.
“Ohhhh this is diviiiine,” I moaned to my friend Sif during lunch (at one of the lovely but will remain unnamed restaurants) in Reykjavik.
“Yes, it is very good,” she agreed, “But it is really nothing compared to Tjoruhusid Restaurant.”
It took me half a second before I asked if we could go now.
“No, no,” she laughed. “It is very far away in Isafjorder, in the West Fjords region. Not many tourists travel there but if you ever get the chance, you must go. It is very fresh — they only serve what they catch that day — and it is the most Icelandic restaurant in the country. Even Icelanders will travel for the food there. It is ... very special.”
“Thanks for the tease,” I grumbled, wondering how I was going to get to Isafjorder.
And then, four months later, while hitching a ride on the Vintage Air Rally across the Arctic Circle, I found myself in this exact town — and made a beeline for Tjoruhusid. My friend San who headed up the rally had booked our group a table and, after checking into the Isafjorder Hotel, seven of us headed to the restaurant.
Located in a longhouse just outside of the modern town, down a small farming road, Tjoruhusid is part of the original Danish whaling and trading settlement erected in 1781. Surrounded by an 18th-century church and a few historic houses, the building that houses the restaurant was originally used to put tar on shipping ropes, then later for curing cod in the 19th and early 20th century. It lay abandoned for several decades before being bought by Magnús Hauksson (“Maggi”) and opening as a restaurant in 2004.
My group arrived slightly out of breath 25 minutes late for our 7:30 p.m. reservation — which, despite the fact that it's seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a problem at Tjoruhusid.
“I'm so sorry — we only hold reservations for 15 minutes,” the hostess explained over the din of a packed house.
“But we just flew in and were held up at the airport,” Sam said. “Isn't there anything you can do?”
“We are completely full,” the hostess said.
“Please, we're starving,” I pleaded. “I've heard about this restaurant forever — and who knows when we'll be back?”
“I suppose you could sit outside?” she said. “It is a bit cold but we have blankets and cushions ...”
And so, despite the chilly Icelandic evening air, we took her up on the offer, crowding onto a bench in the yard. Considering what came next, it was a sound decision.
Our waiter, Pordur Ingolfur Ulfur Juliansson ("Wolf"), explained, “There is no menu here. We serve only what is caught by our boat during the day and it is a buffet style. Tonight there are many dishes so please, don't take too much of one dish and try them all.”
We warmed up by starting with the fish soup. The soup was made with a cream, tomato and langoustine base, filled with chunks of cod and can only be described as heaven.
“Don't eat too much soup,” Wolf warned us after several in my group ordered seconds and then thirds. “You haven't seen the buffet yet.”
Inside the restaurant, everyone sat communally around long bench tables, and to the right was the buffet — a huge table loaded with over 10 large pans of fish dishes. As one pan would empty, another would appear from the kitchen located just behind the buffet.
On offer that evening were: Halibut in butter and capers (“We sauté the capers for a while in the butter first before adding the fish to bring out the flavor”), Cod cheeks fried with lemon and garlic; Salted cod with olives and sundried tomatoes; Massive seven inch long prawns sautéed in butter and garlic (freshly made, so if the pan of eight was empty you just had to wait a minute for another pan of never ending juicy jumbo prawns to arrive); Pollack cooked with blueberries, bacon, red onion and citrus (bacon and blueberries with fish — who knew it was so delicious?); Pan fried Place with oil, lemon and cherry tomatoes; Wallfish (arctic catfish) in a green peppercorn sauce; and finally, a divine spotted fatty wallfish in a cream sauce with mushrooms and capers that I still dream about.
It was a fish feast for the ages. Despite the fact that I ate till it hurt, first untucking my many layers and then finally unbuttoning my pants, I still tried to fit in more. I cried uncle when, after my third helping of prawns, cod cheeks and wallfish, Wolf announced there was a dessert table.
“That was the best meal I've ever had,” I announced to my fellow Vintage Air Rally participants, before waddling slowly back down the lane through town and to my hotel. Mark my words — I don't know when, but I will be back. Tjoruhusid is worth the trip.
Note: Make reservations and do not be late. Even in winter months or the shoulder seasons of spring and fall the restaurant is packed. The buffet price is $58 and includes all you can eat as well as coffee and tea. Alcoholic drinks are extra.