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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Land of Fire, Ice, and Fine Feasts

Iceland, though half an ocean and more than a few icebergs away, felt closer than ever this week. Iceland Naturally, which promotes travel to this mid-Atlantic volcanic isle, instigated a joyous and meticulously organized celebration of Icelandic food, drink and music to celebrate Icelandair's maiden voyage from the Capital City to the Land of Fire and Ice. One facet of this celebration featured an exposé of Icelandic cuisine at Characters Fine Dining, with internationally lauded chef Hákon Már Örvarsson teaming up with Characters' chef Shonn Oborowsky.

Pickled herring opened the evening with an integral, sunny disposition that bespoke of cold, saline waters and a faraway sun, all recapitulated by chewy and sweet rye bread sporting a jaunty cap of tender herring, tart green apples, and feathery spring onions.

Grilled langoustines - the buxom, older and wiser sister to prawns - shone with golden lashings of butter that caressed each curve with knowing certainty. One can think of countless dishes that would be elevated exponentially merely by replacing over-used prawns with langoustines.

Cured salmon stood out, thanks to even-handed preparation with Brennivin, which is a strong-as-nails distilled liquour that is Iceland's de facto, official beverage. Though Brennivin straight out of the bottle is strong enough to stun a horse, it cleverly allows the velvety, lightly smoky salmon to prevail.

Cod fritters, though a nod to one of Iceland's main fisheries, were more textural than flavourful. These spheres were a duality of mealy, salty centres enrobed by crunchy, crispy crust. Fried seaweed crisps were a welcome surprise - not unlike nori on steroids.

Harfiskur presented cod in another guise; this time, dried. Such a provision would have, theoretically, lasted forever in the days before proper refrigeration. It required concerted effort to eat more than a morsel at a time, though a thick layer of butter helped to reveal the cod's subtle sweetness, the longer one chewed.

Arctic char was, quite simply, magical. First cold-smoked and then cooked until barely done, this northern cousin to salmon and trout floated on the merest dregs of dijon and rested under tiny puffs of horseradish. Adjectives seem insufficient; it tasted like the north, like home, and like memories.

Unabashedly gamey lamb furthered this trend by sharing quarters with roasted carrots and rutabagas. Coniferous hints of juniper and vivid purple whispers of blueberry spoke of the beasts' natal countryside.

Skyr, the evening's final offering, presented another quintessentially Icelandic food. Indeed, Icelanders have enjoyed skyr long before the meteoric rise in the popularity of yogurt-like foods and their artisan cheese cousins. Here, skyr appeared as a lofty and almost imperceptibly tangy mousse, sharing the plate with a finely textured snowball of skyr ice cream. Quivering apple jelly and fruity-acidic rhubarb compote bounced their extroverted personalities off the introverted skyr, with all parties involved emerging victorious.

My tastebuds might have traveled to Iceland long before the rest of me will, but I must commend and thank Chefs Hákon and Shonn for an evening of fire, ice and fine feasts.

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Read Marlow Moo's experience here. Skål, Moo!


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