Even by Icelandic standards, the Westfjords is isolated. A cliff-rung peninsula on the island’s northwest corner, it is tied to the country only by a four-mile-wide isthmus. Fish air-cure in drying sheds left open to the salty wind. Polar bears stray onto the shore. The hardy souls who reside here make their living in the chilled North Atlantic hunting for cod and haddock.
Monkfish or halibut often winds up in the panfry, a one-skillet meal of seasoned, butter-fried fish, vegetables, and potatoes at Tjoruhusið, a dockside restaurant in the town of Ísafjorður, open from May to September. When I happened upon it on recent visit to Westfjords, it reminded me of Try Pots, the chowder house from Moby Dick: fish soup bubbled on a stove manned by the grizzled chef and co-owner Magnus Hauksson, whose ingredients for his heimilismatur (“home-style cooking”) menu arrive straight off the boats.
After bobbing all morning near the Arctic Circle with two long-line fishermen, I was grateful for the Viking-size panfry placed in front of me in Tjoruhusið’s timber-frame dining room, formerly a harðfiskur (wind-dried fish) storage shed. Juggling skillets, Hauksson had tossed rich Icelandic butter atop sizzling plaice filets, finishing the dish with tiny boiled potatoes dug from a nearby field. Even cloaked under wild mushroom gravy, the fish that had been fathoms deep hours earlier was the dish’s essence. It was Nordic cooking at its most comforting, worthy of a sea voyage.
Open only during the summer.