Taste of Iceland 2014
1 Bennett Street, Cambridge
Monday — Saturday: 5:30 p.m. — 10 p.m.
Sunday: 5:30 p.m. — 9:00 p.m.
This past weekend, Taste of Iceland 2014 gave Boston the chance to experience some of what Icelandic culture has to offer. For this year’s event, Iceland Naturally, a cooperative marketing organization that promotes tourism, sponsored events including a concert called Reykjavik Calling at The Middle East in Cambridge, a Reyka Vodka Cocktail making class at The Liberty Hotel, and a photography gallery reception at 555 Gallery. But what drew me to the event was the rare opportunity to experience New Nordic Cuisine in the form of a special Icelandic menu at Rialto in Harvard Square.
New Nordic Cuisine has been on a meteoric rise around the world since 2010 when Noma in Copenhagen supplanted El Bulli in Spain as the top-ranked restaurant in the world, according to Britain’s Restaurant Magazine. The genre’s spread in the US has been gathering steam, with restaurants like Aquavit and Acme in NYC receiving wide acclaim. Unfortunately for us, there is not yet a major foothold for this style of food in Boston.
The focus of New Nordic Cuisine was outlined in 2004 in the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto. These ten commandments of focus on using fresh seasonal ingredients from the region, promoting Nordic culture, focusing on sustainable food production, and to finding new applications of traditional Nordic ingredients. Twelve influential Scandinavian chefs, including René Redzepi, Noma’s head chef, and Hákon Örvarsson, guest chef for Taste of Iceland, have officially endorsed the manifesto.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the New Nordic mantra is to unlock the potential of regional ingredients and eat them where they’re available. That made it a little ironic when it was announced that all the ingredients used in the meal were flown in from Iceland the day before. But given the quality of the ingredients served, I wasn’t about to complain.
Rialto normally serves upscale Regional Italian fare and has been a fixture of Boston’s fine dining scene since it opened in 1994. Proprietor Jody Adams won the Best Chef: Northeast James Beard Award for her work there in 1997. Adams received another nomination after Rialto’s extensive renovation in 2007. Since then she has appeared on season two of Top Chef: Masters and opened another restaurant, Trade, near South Station. For the special Icelandic menu available from Mar. 14 to Mar. 18, Jody Adams collaborated with lauded Icelandic Chef Hákon Örvarsson, winner of the Bocuse d’Or and World Culinary Cup competitions.
For the beginning of the special Icelandic meal ($85), we were served bites of five traditional Icelandic dishes. One of these was “Harðfiskur,” which Chef Örvarsson called “Viking Food.” It was simply Iceladic dried fish with butter, and it was without question the most polarizing dish of the night. It had the texture of over-dried beef jerky, but had a pleasant mild flavor, with the butter supplying some much-needed moisture. Numerous mentions of cat food were made during the time spent chewing this item.
But after that, I doubt I heard a single comment expressing anything but delight. Cured Salmon with lemon-sour cream and lumpfish caviar, pickled herring with curry dressing and spring onions, and deep-fried crispy cod balls with dill sauce all proved to be delicious and well-balanced and revealed the high quality of seafood that Iceland has to offer. I also heard some people raving about some grilled langoustine tails, but unfortunately I didn’t get to taste those.
Then the first of the more substantial courses arrived: Cold-smoked and gently poached Arctic Char with honey-grain mustard, horseradish cream, dill oil, and fried breadcrumbs. Similar in texture to lox but more subtle in flavor, the Arctic Char was perfectly warm and soft, with richness from the cream, bite from the horseradish and mustard, and subtle crunch from the breadcrumbs.
Next came rack of free range Icelandic lamb. It was served very rare with root vegetables, celeriac puree, dried herb and blueberry dust, and a juniper berry infused lamb jus reduction. Unsurprisingly, it was great. The lamb was well-seasoned and succulent, with extra punch coming from the cleverly-used dust.
For dessert we were served a sweet Skyr mousse cake and a not-as-sweet Skyr ice cream with jelly of apples, hazelnut crumple, and cinnamon-flavored poached rhubarb. As I learned for the first time at the meal, Skyr is an Icelandic cultured dairy product that is slightly thicker than yogurt and slightly sour. In the dessert, the multiple uses of Skyr with differing but equally appealing textures and sweetness highlighted the flavor and versatility of the ingredient. With the added rhubarb, apple, and crumble, it made for an exceptional end to the meal.
Overall, my Icelandic meal at Rialto provided an excellent introduction to New Nordic cuisine and showcased the unique and supremely high quality ingredients that Iceland has to offer in a well-thought-out and highly refined menu. Sadly, there isn’t currently a full-time New Nordic restaurant in Boston, but if current trends hold, there will be soon. In the mean time, you can check out Chef René Redzepi’s Noma cookbook or Chef Örvarsson’s Arctic Char and Cod recipes posted on the Kennedy Center’s Facebook page and test out your New Nordic culinary skills. If nothing else, there’s always next year.