Modern Taste of Iceland at the James Beard House: Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason of Dill Restaurant

by Jason Roth on November 4, 2010

Perhaps it should have been obvious that a dinner mostly flown in and prepared by visiting Icelandic chefs would necessarily end with a dessert consisting of an erupting volcano. The freeze-dried skyr and crowberries weren’t so obvious.

Nice place you got here, Mr. Savalas. Big Kelly's Heroes fan.

Personally, I thought the volcano dessert was such a good idea that my suggestion to our table (full disclosure: there was Swedish beer before dinner and an above-average wine pairing throughout) was that Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason and his team ought to try a whole series of desserts based on natural disasters. A mud slide would be easy, but a tsunami or Bubonic plague would take a little creativity. (Bad taste or not, I’d flavor my tsunami with lemongrass.)

Arctic char, the first passenger on Icelandic Air makes an appearance.

Other ingredients that made the trip in suitcases via Icelandair included: herring, capelin roe, arctic char, langoustines (the best I’ve ever eaten), lamb, and wild goose.

Pickled herring and onions: isn't this all they eat up there?

Oh, and I can’t forget about Rudolph and friends.

Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid.

My first experience with smoked reindeer was a good one, I’m happy to say. And if smoked reindeer isn’t unusal enough, the final savory course of the night, the Icelandic lamb, was paired with a reserve selection from Midsummer Cellars, from the personal library of Helgi Tomasson. That would be the Icelandic-born artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, to all you fellow ballet non-aficionados.

Staking out territory for hors d'oeuvres in the JBF courtyard.

The hors d’oeuvres changed slightly from this prepared menu, but otherwise it was essentially the same.  And speaking of hors d’oeuvres, it’s kind of an unspoken rule at the James Beard House that you may trample fellow diners during cocktail hour. Fortunately, people were sane and courteous this evening, and the number of vulture sightings was low. (Also, my wife and I have a strategically identified cocktail hour loitering location, which will remain confidential. And no, it can not be inferred from the above photo.)

Puerto Rican night? Norwegian? Wait, don't tell me.

As alluded to above, every protein in the meal was packed or carried in suitcases from Iceland. Unbelievable, but the kind of unbelievable stuff the James Beard House has come to be known for. Wild goose? Check. Arctic char, and dried dulse? Check.

Big-ass Swedish truffle covered with volcanic ash. It's the only way I take my goose.

More arctic char, this time with... mussel cream?

Here’s a tip I shouldn’t be giving away, if you decide to book a dinner at the James Beard House. (You don’t need to be a member, by the way, but you pay more as a non-member.) Look for the events that are more about the promotion than the “honor of cooking at the James Beard House”. Both can be equally great, but events involving hotels or large restaurant corporations aiming to get new business, or in this case when the chef actually admitted being employed by his country’s tourism board, these events really try to sell you. And, therefore, the quality and quantity of ingredients is often glaringly higher. Was it necessary to take up valuable luggage space with spruce tree needles? No, but it made for the most uniquely served, and scented, langoustine I had ever had. Oh, and that would be ultra-pureed cauliflower in the background, and in the bottom left of the second plate, a dash of “horseradish snow”.

Langoustine Christmas.

The brandade of bacalao and beets even won me over. In actuality, I don’t remember my last experience with bacalao. (My grandmother had made baccala when I was a kid, but for some reason, my cousins and I stuck with homemade pasta over her offer of dried, salted fish.) It was actually quite tasty, and being prepared as a brandade probably didn’t hurt. I think I even finished my beet, square and miniature though it was.

Salted cod and beets have an uphill battle for me, let's be honest.

The lamb was free-range, which the chef described to our table in a romantic story involving the carefree, wandering life of the baby sheep that sounded almost enviable until, well, you’ve probably seen Silence of the Lambs by now. But evidently in Iceland, the lambs are truly free-range, which results in a noticeable gamey quality. Whether I would have normally enjoyed this quality, I’m not sure, but the chef prepared it perfectly, and with the accompanying barley, as well as the dish of super-creamy root vegetables, the course was quite a closer to the savory portion of the meal.

The carefree life of a free-range Icelandic lamb.

I’ll point out that the intermezzo was a dish containing celery, celeriac, cottage cheese, and walnuts. But only because I like using the word “intermezzo”.

Celery and cottage cheese: not your kid's pre-dessert.

The dessert was truly spectacular, and unfortunately a static photo doesn’t do it justice. An ice cream(ish) “volcano”, made with a type of soft cheese called skyr and accompanied by crowberries, contained an empty, hard-chocolate tube within it. Once the dish was served, the chefs made rounds pouring a molten, fruity “lava” into the center. And the “lava” bubbled! We were given the secret: a bit of dry ice at the bottom powered the whole contraption.

More spectacular than a financial crash.

At this point, we were full and completely satisfied. Sounds like the perfect time to bring out some cake! It turns out that vinarterta is a traditional Christmas dessert. (See, I knew there was a Christmas theme going on. Either that, or Icelanders just make the best of their weather and barren landscapes by treating every day like Christmas.) The filling is a prune mixture, and this particular version was light enough to fit down. I think I may try this recipe for Christmas, which not only allows for preparation weeks in advance, but demands it.

Vinarterta: now that's Christmas.

Along with my wife and I, reporters from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and Seattle Times were on hand. It was clear from his reactions to the chef’s offerings that the WSJ reporter was a tad apprehensive about the tastings, and he didn’t mind voicing that in his own recap. Anyway, that’s me in his article’s photo, on the bottom left. My wife must have been leaning back and enjoying her wine.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kjartan Gíslason November 17, 2011 at 7:33 am

Good day to you :)

I was one of the chefs cooking that night and I’m very pleased reading this. I was wondering if you could give me permission to use your photographs from this night for my blog, since I didn’t have time to snap some myself?

Really enjoy this site :)

Best regards

Jason Roth November 17, 2011 at 8:01 am

Absolutely, please do. And thanks for making me recollect about this meal. You guys were amazing and I’d definitely look you up if we visit your country.

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