My Dinner at Dill
April 15, 2015
This was probably my favorite course at Dill. It doesn't look like much – but Icelanders are understated, so that's typical. It tastes like it looks – bland as snow – until you encounter intense little bursts of flavor that are the best version of butter you've ever eaten. And if you admire butter as much as I do, that's saying something.
I loved Dill from the first moment I walked in the door. I loved the quiet look of the place – all wood and stone – and the casual nature of the room. But what I loved most was that the entire restaurant smelled like butter. And – in the course of a meal that lasted four hours – the scent of butter never stopped.
Dill was the restaurant I was most eager to try in Reykjavik. My friend Evan Sung, the photographer who shot the wonderful new cookbook, North (which just won a James Beard award), said I had to try the restaurant while in Iceland. Still, I was skeptical: Iceland is not exactly known as a food paradise. (Although I know now it should be).
The first course, I'll admit, didn't do all that much for me. This seemed tricky, almost silly:
Really? I thought when they set this ridiculous flower pot in front of me with it's little hanging bit of dried salt cod, and it's dried parsnip. And though this dill dipping sauce was delicious:
it all seemed like a stretch. I sat back, thinking, show me more.
Then this arrived:
Okay, nice enough. Carrot with fresh cheese and a LOT of caraway. Tasty. But not exactly mind-altering.
Then the shredded catfish arrived, and I sat up. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced, a kind of magic in the mouth. Think savory cotton candy with bursts of brown butter threaded through it. Hitting that flavor was like a splash of cold water; take that!
Then there was this:
Beet, wrapped around liver. (The leaf is only there so your fingers don't turn red.) And suddenly we were out on the glaciers, wild beasts ripping at dead animals. The liver was intense, the beet like blood, and it was all primitive, elemental, incredibly delicious. All that in a tiny bite. I'm alive now, eager for whatever's coming next.
And it is perfect. I am an animal. I will devour this beef tartare on its bleached white marrow bone. I am out there now, howling with the wolves. It is delicious, but I'm no longer in the restaurant; this food has taken me to another place.
The porridge brings me back. It is as if the chef is trying to remind me that I'm a civilized being, an eater of grain. But of course, on top, there's that egg, cooked until it's nothing but crisp nubbins. As if to say – yes, you may be a grower, a reaper of grains, but you yearn to eat animals.
And then this comes, reminding me of my humanity. If there is any food that makes us civilized creatures, it is bread. And this is bread as I've never quite had it before. Slightly burnt. Still warm. Sourdough. Elemental. It is FANTASTIC bread.
And it is paired with this wonderful butter and gorgeous salt. The chefs take buckets down to the sea, then cook off the water to make the salt. Lovely stuff.
All this is prelude, just the warm up to the meal which now appears in a slow parade of fascinating dishes. It begins with salt cod – soft in the mouth, its deep saline quality tempered by the two purees: celery root and apple. It is the chef whispering in your ear, urging you to think about what happens when sea meets shore.
This pork belly with crisp bits of Jerusalem artichoke, smoked hazelnuts and powdered burnt leeks is a circus in the mouth, different with each bite. It slows you down, makes you stop and really think about what you're eating.
Next comes arctic char, the raw fish silky and almost sweet beneath its fennel and mushroom topping. It is the least exciting dish of the night. Pretty. Flavorful. But not a thrill.
But what is this? Rutabaga nestled into a little puddle of cream cheese, grains of millet dancing across the top, adding texture. I've always thought of rutabaga as a bully, a great ugly brute of a vegetable that forces itself upon you. But this is different: firm, meaty and so satisfying I am forced to reconsider my feelings about this once-despised vegetable.
And finally, the main meat course. Icelandic lamb is wonderful, and this is the best I've had. But the real revelation is that whipped lamb fat. Why haven't I ever had this before?
And finally the surprise of dessert. Chef Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason doesn't take the easy sweet path. He's still playing with flavor, throwing in elements that pop out to startle you. This lovely dish of angelica, caramel and walnuts is bathed in beer.
And this skyr – you're never very far from skyr in Iceland – is paired with celery and roasted oats. Who knew that celery could be so sweet?
The wine pairings were both brilliant and generous, beginning with copious amounts of rich, yeasty Champagne and stretching on through the hours we spent at the restaurant. So thank you Evan; I would have been extremely sorry to have missed this meal.
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We passed by each other on Reykjavik airport and I was sorry we didn’t have the opportunity to get acquianted, as a great admirer of your culinary work.
Spending two weeks at beautifil Iceland, I reserved us a table in advance at Dill and I am so happy you thought it was brilliant. Looking forward to it!
I love your words but not your photos. How about a few lessons with Mr. Sung? I’ve been bothered for a while that your food photos are unappetizing because of your color reproduction. However, we do have your words. Those are jewels.
Jo, I’ve thought about getting a better camera and taking more care with the photography – but I always end up rejecting the idea. I hate the thought of ruining a meal by fussing around with pictures. I’m not a photographer – it’s the words that matter to me – and I only take the pictures because people seem to like having a visual record.
But I see people at other tables, fluffing the food, lighting it, pushing the plates around, and it’s so disruptive to the meal. Spending time taking pictures makes the entire table stop; it changes the atmosphere of eating. I’m there to enjoy the meal, not document it. Sorry.
Sounds like what I’d heard of Ferran Adrià’s meals at the former El Bulli. The Icelandic version. Your photos are fine to just give some added dimension to the always great writing.