18 November 2009

marshmallow lessons

I was one of the fortunate invitees to a rather spectacular dinner on Saturday night, at the now famous blue house. One of the temporary house residents A, a restaurant owner from Germany, had been in Iceland for the autumn lamb slaughter season, learning about where exactly the food's coming from. He'd also started producing a new lamb sausage, a perfect marriage between the texture and seasoning of the best dried German sausages and the smoky Icelandic lamb flavor. He' flew back to his restaurant a few days ago, so Saturday was his final hurrah of sorts.

On Saturday evening I walked to the Blue House in the velvety darkness, and as I neared the house the smell of delicious roasted things wafted down the street, carried by the snappy breeze pouring off the sea. Inside the house it was steamy and warm and full chatter as A put together the final touches on the appetizers. We sat down soon later, the sixteen of us crowded into the living room, friends and new additions alike.

To start, tender shrimp on bread with a homemade cocktail sauce that disappeared quickly from in front of this enthusiastic crowd, and then came the flavors I'd been smelling down the street. Roast pork, roasted cauliflower all toasted on the ends, herbed Bavarian-style dumplings poured over with sauce from the roasted meat, and a creamy thin-slice cucumber salad to offset the richness of the other flavors. Absolutely divine- decadent and infinitely edible, reminiscent of so many good times in Germany but done in a way that managed to be strangely light on the stomach. Of course we all ate too much but still managed space for the skyr tart that hid a treasure trove of booze-soaked cookies in the bottom. Even the Argentinian priest had to try some of that one.

And then, time for the after party even though we were all slightly comatose from the deliciousness. We pushed the tables aside and on came the SingStar, heavy on the German tunes since so large a proportion of the attendees were German. Nothing starts a party quite like disco-era Eurovision. Once everyone was warmed up enough we went outside to the grill-pit where a snappy fire had gotten started, over which we toasted marshmallows. The bag of marshmallows I'd bought were made by Haribo, and since apparently Europeans didn't grow up toasting marshmallows, the bag had printed a series of drawings to show how to do it. I had to explain to the assembled multitude how close to the fire to hold it, the proper brown-and-bubbly look to be going for, that a bit of steam is a good thing, that it's best when the thing starts to get misshapen, but beware of that hot sugar.

As we crowded around the fire, the massive darkness above us lit up with northern lights. They've been a rare sight this year so everyone marveled appropriately before turning back to the cozy light of the fire, the hiss of toasting sugar, and the friendliness that comes from a group of people from all over the world, somehow brought together on a gorgeous night on this strange rock of an island.

11 November 2009

not mourning the departure

After our first attempt to hail the departure of McDonalds failed, S was determined to try again, so we went again a few days later and braved the line for a final "góðborgari" for me and a McFish for him. As always, the food tasted exactly like the McDonalds in France or Canada or America (the only locations I've tried it) and came in the exact same packaging as always. Nothing special there except for the line snaking out the door and the trail of cars idling for the drive-through window.

The replacement joint opened only hours after McDonalds closed, so one week later we went to sample the new wares. For proper comparison purposes, I ordered the same thing on the menu as before, still called "góðborgari" (apparently the Icelandic names weren't copyrighted by McD's), still located in the same spot on the light-up menu, still without explanation of what it contained. The new joint doesn't have fish burgers so S had to go with something else, breaking the continuity.

In terms of décor, it seems that all they did was swap out the sign, and order a bunch of round brown stickers with the new logo that they slapped over all the spots where the golden arches were. Everything that was yellow and red before is now brown (brown shirts, brown writing, brownbrownbrown), but otherwise they're doing their best to replicate the feeling. As many of the names as they can are almost the same (McFlurry is now Flörri or something that sounds pretty much the same if you say it in Icelandic), and the burgers are still served in boxes like the McD's style, although I confess to being less than charmed by their graphic design. The boxes are covered in neon pink and blue squiggles with one of the new brown stickers slapped on top. Still, they're a domestically produced package so yay for that I suppose.

Foodwise, it's a mixed bag. The burger is undeniably that Icelandic flavor of patty, detectable upon first bite. The sauce was also pure Icelandic burger-sauce, the kind you can buy in squeezebottles at any quickieshop. The one positive change in the burger department is that the vegetables were recognizable as what they were- crisp real lettuce and a properly flavorsome tomato. Still, would I go out and pay for this in the rather inconvenient location when Búllan is so much closer and at least makes efforts at secret sauce? Probably not. I don't love burgers-in-boxes that much, and the fries weren't superlative in any way either.

I also tried a chocolate shake since I don't remember the last time I had one and that was so wretchedly non-chocolate flavored that I gave up after drinking about a quarter of it. So much for brand new excitement. I think I'll save up my kronurs and go somewhere that's got a worthwhile menu like Basil and Lime, where I went with a friend on Saturday. Go, get the lobster pasta and order extra bread to soak up that ridiculously decadent cream sauce. Don't bother with Metro unless you're going for the I-am-living-modern-history angle.

10 November 2009

two ways

Last Saturday I met one of the very few traffic engineers in Iceland, and we spent some time discussing how they're in the process of overhauling the timing of all the lights in town so that certain corridors have the "green wave" where you can hit greens all the way along. This was happy news, since only a few months ago I'd been having a conversation about how the number and timing of the lights in town can make geographically close places seem very far away. I'd actually done a mini-project just after that where I took a camera-phone picture of every red light I waited at over the course of a week's worth of commuting. I missed a few (my cameraphone is slow, I was of course focusing on driving, and sometimes they turned green only a second after I'd stopped), but it still shows the variety and frequency to some extent. You can see how the Búllan left-turn stop is a frequent appearance, but also how the view at some lights make it no hardship to wait. Still, I'm happy to see that these changes the traffic engineer mentioned have started to make a noticeable difference, and I'd be interested to see if a week of red lights in a few months (when there's enough light to repeat this project) would yield the same number of photos over a week.

To contrast with this, I occasionally go for the 40 minute walking commute that I've mentioned before. My most common route passes my local corner bakery, then heads over the pond and down Laugavegur, ending on the rather ordinary office-building street where I work. I've continued the walking commute in spite of the season change, taking another route in the darkness of Icelandic November. In the dark the appeal is different- the route I take goes along a street displaying views to the left of downtown, and passes a number of small houses where I can see people reading the paper and drinking coffee in their kitchens. I've also found other mysterious corners of Reykjavík, like the location of the handicapped association swimming pool, and hidden gardens located in the center of downtown. To follow the whole trip from one morning a month ago, check it here.

So now you see how most of my days start and end, a string of red lights or of uninspired architecture framed by what is still some seriously memorable landscape. Could always be worse.