When the Vikings arrived in Iceland, their culinary concerns revolved around food preservation, not flavor. That led to distinct specialities still enjoyed by Icelanders today such as hrútspungar (ram's testicles pickled in whey) and hákarl (rotted shark meat that reeks of ammonia). Thankfully, the advent of refrigerators, along with abundant natural fisheries, has decreased dependence on such idiosyncratic fare, and visitors today will be able to peruse an Icelandic menu without too much trepidation. (Watch TIME's video "In Iceland, Frozen Accounts, Boiling Assets.")
At the center of the country's restaurant scene is Sjávarkjallarinn (Seafood Cellar). Housed in the capital Reykjavík's oldest underground storeroom, which served as a stable in the late 18th century, the restaurant is known for its fusion of Asian flavors (think kaffir lime, star anise and yuzu) with fresh Icelandic fish, served within hours of being caught. The menu changes twice a month and recently included enticing entrées like a blue lingcod seasoned with red ginger, wasabi and shiso (a minty herb), and crispy salmon with soybeans, saffron and parsley. Other dishes, like a succulent barbecued lamb chop garnished with pecans and cèpes, benefit from Icelandic husbandry: the island's sheep spend their summers grazing freely in pristine mountain pastures. (See pictures of Rome.)
Substance, however, doesn't detract from style. Sjávarkjallarinn has a reputation for its chichi clientele who come to indulge in one of Reykjavík's priciest menus and the restaurant's delightfully over-the-top presentation. Sashimi arrives on billowing beds of mist, courtesy of dry ice. Prawns and langoustine must be fished out of glass jars. Almond-and-lime skyr, a strained Icelandic cheese, is served on a banana leaf, wrapped like a present with bows and cellophane paper. The elaborate packaging is charming, but ultimately unnecessary: flavor and freshness make a meal at the Seafood Cellar a gift in itself. For details, see www.sjavarkjallarinn.is.
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