January 30, 2015

NYC: Keste Pizza & Vino; restaurant review

Keste Pizza & Vino  271 Bleecker St./Morton, (212) 243-1500.  L-D daily; $$. 

The menu in this acclaimed pizzeria is simple--pizzas, calzones, panini, and salads—that’s it.  Order up a Toscana salad with fresh pear and walnuts, along with a spectacular thin-crust pizza Margherita topped with housemade water-buffalo mozzarella, shredded basil, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  Or maybe you prefer a calzone stuffed with mushrooms and a mix of cheeses that includes the fresh mozzarella.  Gluten free is an option among the forty traditional and contemporary Neapolitan-style pies.  The traditional techniques of Neapolitan pizzaiolos are followed here, including cooking in a wood-fired oven, and ingredients are authentic—perhaps explaining why everything is so tasty and the line to get in is so long.

exterior of Keste Pizza & Vino in NYC

pizza at Keste Pizza & Vino in NYC

pear salad at Keste Pizza & Vino in NYC

Kesté Pizza & Vino Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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images ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

January 28, 2015

Introduction to Seydisfjordur in Northeast Iceland; things to do + hotel reviews + restaurant review

Known for its old wood buildings, this cute artsy town is surrounded by mountains.  The river Fjardara runs through it, it has several waterfalls, and puffin colonies are nearby.  A 17-mile road over the forbidding Fjardarheidi mountain pass connects the town to the ring road and Egilsstaðir.  Though Seydisfjordur has a small population of approximately 700 inhabitants, it has a vibrant cultural scene, is home to concerts and East Iceland’s only two movie theaters, and hosts art festivals throughout the summer.  World-renowned artist Dieter Roth once had a home and art studio here.

Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

Heima  Austurvegur 15.  The name of this art gallery/studio space/living quarters is Icelandic for “home.”  Owned for a year now by a small group of friends—a local girl and some Danes—and supported financially by the town, this 99-year-old store has been converted and renovated into a space shared by a collective of emerging and established artists from all around the world.  One says, “Being in town is magical and makes you want to do something.” 

Heima artists' collective in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

LungA School  This high school has an art-based curriculum.  Participants live together, cook together, and learn together.  Workshops are led by established artists.
     The LungA art festival takes place in July. 

Hotel Aldan  This is a privately-owned little empire has hotels in a converted bank and in a post office and restaurants here and there.  Local day trips can be arranged. 

Reception is in one of Iceland’s oldest stores, which was built in 1920 and is now also a bar-cafe-restaurant.  The scene in which Ben Stiller jumps into a car and flees from the ash cloud of a volcanic eruption in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed in front.  L-D daily in summer. 

reception cafe at Hotel Aldan in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

Hotel Aldan is “The Old Bank”—which was actually originally an acclaimed hotel, before it spent a century as the town bank.  Interesting antiques are part of the decor, and some rooms have bathtubs. 

Hotel Snaefell is “The Post Office”—a 3-story wood house built in 1908.

room at Hotel Aldan in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

Skaftfell Bistro  Austurvegur 42.  Daily noon-10pm.  Operating on the ground floor, this charming little cafe gets quite crowded.  It offers homey food, aromatic coffee, delicious cakes and sweets, and also ale, wine, and other beverages—not to mention superb lamb chops and both reindeer burgers and reindeer pizza. 
     Skaftfell Center for Visual Art  Upstairs, this spacious gallery encourages and displays contemporary art.

Einstok beer at Skaftfell Bistro in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

lamb chops and reindeer sliders at Skaftfell Bistro in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

pizza at Skaftfell Bistro in Seydisfjordur in northeast Iceland

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January 26, 2015

Introduction to Faskrudsfjordur in Northeast Iceland; things to do + hotel review + restaurant review

Though there is no actual French settlement in Iceland, this town has a long association with French sailors.  In 1614, French fisherman came here in sailing ships.  Tragically, in the 1800s, more than 400 ships and 4,000 sailors were lost at sea.  Street signs are in both Icelandic and French. 

French Hospital museum  Moved from another location to this new spot, this experiential museum is designed to look like the town’s original hospital.  On the main floor is a reconstructed hospital room.  Downstairs replicates the inside of a sailing ship, with bunks plus atmospheric ship creaks and groans and sea sounds; I had the sensation of movement as I walked through it.  An intriguing video on a Memorial Wall mimics the ocean, and when you look closely you can see in the waves the names of the sailors who were lost at sea.  Outside, an adjacent stream displays stones bearing the names of the schooners that went down.

L’Abri restaurant is located waterside.  I enjoyed a delightful lunch of cod with white wine sauce and a salad.

exterior of L’Abri restaurant in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland

Part of the Foss Hotel chain, contemporary hotel rooms featuring old-time details are available upstairs.  24 rooms; includes breakfast.

guest room in Foss Hotel chain in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland

Meet the Locals  In addition to arranging a village walk with a local, like I experienced, this free program also has other options, including a home visit.  My group visited:
The Little Chapel  Built in 1880, the town’s oldest house is repurposed into a tiny chapel. 

The Little Chapel in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland

Kolfreyja Gallery/Galleri Kolfreyia  This handcrafts shop operates inside a beautifully renovated historical house called Tangi.

knitted hats at the Kolfreyja Gallery in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland

Our guide, 50-year-old local Bertlind, caught us by surprise with her unexpected, very attractive edgy hairdo.  She told us that “the sun vanishes in November and we see it again in January.”  And she told us again about the “sunshine pancakes” that folks in this remote area eat during those months to cheer themselves.  By the end of our walk we had seen some of the 17 streams that run through this village and also a lot of trees, which was of special interest because Iceland is well known for having very few trees.

guide Bertlind with Meet the Locals program in Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland

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January 22, 2015

Introduction to Eskifjordur in Northeast Iceland; things to do + hotel review + restaurant review

Laid out along the fjord, this long, narrow, and charming fishing village and commercial center is one of the oldest towns in Iceland’s East.  Movie director Baltasar Kormákur, the son of well-known Icelandic painter Baltasar, filmed “2 Guns,” starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, here.  He also filmed “Contraband” and “The Deep” here.

Eskifjordur’s Church and Cultural Centre  Built in the late 1990s, this hexagonal church doubles as a concert hall.  When I visited, musician Jon Karason asked us to wear a blindfold and then led us in a musical experience designed to make us “think only about now, not yesterday, not tomorrow, not the volcano, only right now.”  We participated with no expectations, listening to guitar music punctuated with an American Indian story about two wolves named Good and Evil, in which the one that wins is the one you feed.  Music festivals are held here in summer.  The Bleiksá waterfall is just behind the church.

East Iceland Maritime Museum  Strandgata 39b.  Daily 1-5pm, Jun-Aug.  Situated inside the oldest house in town, which dates from 1816, this small two-story museum is slathered on the outside with black creosote.  It displays a reconstructed general store along with assorted nautical items--ship models, fishing equipment--and other more unexpected items such as a hand-crank candy maker and dental equipment.

Mjoeyri Guesthouse  Strandgotu 120.  Kitchens.  Open all year.  Small red cabin-huts and larger natural-wood cabins line the fjord’s shore.

This spot fits into my ongoing interest in experiencing places that have an end-of-the-road, edge-of-the-world feeling.  In addition to a regular bed, our A-frame red cabin had a loft with mattress on the floor that was reached by a ladder and which children would particularly adore.  It was amazingly quiet in our fjord-front cabin, so quiet that we could hear the water lapping at the shore.  The pleasant interiors are finished in baby knotty-pine wood.  Facilities include a boat-shaped hot tub (called a “hot pot” here) and a sauna,

and towel swans greet you atop the European-style, pushed-together twin beds with individual duvets.

And no key cards here—a hand-knit key fob bell helps you find the key when it is in your pocket.  At check out, you just leave the key in the lock as though it were 100 years back in time.  Arrangements can be made for touring, including reindeer guiding, cave tours, and ski and winter tours. 

Randulff’s sea-house/Randulfssjohus  Strandgata 96.  L-D daily, June-Aug.  Resembling a Norwegian herring house, this seafarers’ lodge has an informal museum upstairs where you can see rooms as they were left in 1890.  We tasted Iceland’s infamous fermented shark—which is milder here than in Iceland’s west—as well as dried haddock.  Both are still produced in town.  We  washed it down with a shot of Brennivin--Icelandic schnapps, which in the old days was called “black death.”  I put the shark meat in my mouth and chewed it, but in the interest of not causing a volcanic eruption in my tummy I did not swallow it.  The dried haddock was ok, and the Brennivin was good enough for me to buy some at the airport to take home.

The cozy, woodsy restaurant is one large open space.  It serves a menu of local specialties that includes Icelandic shrimp, brown bread and really-good rolls, reindeer meatballs with a sweet red currant-chili sauce, and white chocolate Skyr yogurt with blueberries.  Butter is served atmospherically atop a rock.  This restaurant is under the same ownership as the Mjoeyri Guesthouse, and it is just a short, scenic walk between the two.

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images ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

January 20, 2015

Introduction to Neskaupstadur in Northeast Iceland; things to do + restaurant reviews


Located on the fjord Nordfjordur, this avalanche-vulnerable town has constructed a variety of defenses, including a long stone wall to catch runaway snow.  As in most towns in Iceland, an outdoor geo-thermal public swimming pool is in the center of town, and because the town is also the center for volleyball in Iceland it has two sand courts.  Many excursions can be arranged from here, including gourmet foodie tours, kayaking, golfing, trout-fishing, hiking, snowcat tours, and skiing.

Museum House/Nordfjordur Museum/Museum of Natural History  Eglisbraut 2.  Daily 1-9pm.  This two-story building is home to local art, various collections of tools, and a large display upstairs of stuffed local wildlife. 

Hotel Hildibrand  Hafnarbraut 2.  15 units.  This boutique apartment hotel features simple, clean-lined contemporary style.  Units have stellar views and private balconies.  The inn was reopened in 2014 by the great grandson of the original owner. 
●Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant  Iceland’s slow-food movement is centered in this simple hotel restaurant.  The menu focuses on seafood, including sushi, and foodies are welcome.  My delicious lunch included: 

bread with two spreads at Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant in Neskaupstadur, Iceland
bread with two spreads: tomato, and arugula-pine nuts with an Italian Pino Grigio

wild mushroom soup at Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant in Neskaupstadur, Iceland
creamy Icelandic Wild Mushroom Soup and Cured Wild Goose with Sour Crowberry Vinaigrette (from the blueberry family)

Arctic char at Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant in Neskaupstadur, Iceland
delicate peach-colored Panfried Arctic Char with Caramel-Butter, sautéed greens, garlic potatoes, and barley with a tasty Italian red Campofiorin

reindeer steak at Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant in Neskaupstadur, Iceland
Port-Glazed Wild Reindeer Steak (it tasted ungamey with a hint of liver) with creamy walnuts, freshly picked vegetables, and sweet potato mash

Skyr mousse dessert at Kaupfelagsbarinn restaurant in Neskaupstadur, Iceland
Skyr Mousse with White Chocolate and Fresh Blueberries

Skorrastaour farm  In the valley of Nordfjordur, close to town..  You can ride the celebrated Icelandic horse on this lovely farm.  You can do a simple ride and experience the horse’s famous tolt gait, stay for a night, or book in for a longer stay that can include riding lessons, herding sheep, a walk in the valley to pick blueberries and crow berries, and more.  Guest rooms are available in a renovated barv with a sleeping loft.  The owners speak excellent English, and you become a member of their family during your stay.

On my visit, we had afternoon tea with the owners in their home.  On the menu were “sunshine pancakes”—crepes served with blueberry preserves and whipped cream—and round donut-hole-like “love balls.”  The pancakes are served to celebrate the return of the sun after the sunless few months that occur here every winter. 

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January 16, 2015

Introduction to Reydarfjordur in Northeast Iceland; things to do

The longest and widest of Iceland’s eastern fjords, this town is a regional trade center.  The main employer is the Alcoa aluminum smelter. 

Icelandic Wartime Museum/Icelandic World War II Museum  During World War II almost 4,000 British, Canadian, Norwegian, and American soldiers were stationed in this town of only 300 inhabitants.  This museum operates inside an abandoned freezing plant, and is reconstructed to resemble a hospital camp built by Americans as an Allied base here in response to Norway’s occupation by Germany.  Visitors enter a replica barrack and cinema hall to see displayed artifacts.  Some original barracks remain outside the museum. 

mural in Icelandic Wartime Museum in Reydarfjordur, Iceland

cafe displayl in Icelandic Wartime Museum in Reydarfjordur, Iceland

World War II barracks at Icelandic Wartime Museum in Reydarfjordur, Iceland

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January 14, 2015

Introduction to Egilsstadir in Northeast Iceland; things to do + hotel review + restaurant review


In this remote area that is the oldest part of Iceland, the terrain is reminiscent of that in Scotland.  The barren-looking ground is covered with low-growing green plants punctuated by plentiful waterfalls and snow-capped mountains .  It is a paradise for sheep, horses, and cows.  For humans, it offers respite, with winding two-lane highways and long, narrow mountain tunnels traveled by few cars.  The deep East Fjords are particularly beautiful.  Winters here are long and dark, with only 4 to 5 hours of light in some places.  

Bardarbunga  This is the volcano that erupted in 2014.  I was fortunate enough to see the eruption as I flew over it during my visit then.  It is now “vomiting” (as the locals put it) a few times a day. 

Bardarbunga volcano erupting in 2014 in Iceland

The airport here is a 1-hour flight from Reykjavík. 

Hotel Herad  Midvangur 5-7.  60 rooms.  Buffet breakfast.  This efficient contemporary hotel is all clean lines but with some art thrown in to cheer things up.  Ask for a room with a view of the lake. 

room at Hotel Herad in Egilsstadir, Iceland

reindeer art at Hotel Herad in Egilsstadir, Iceland

Hus Handanna Art & Design  Midvangi 1-3, a few steps from hotel.  This spacious shop purveys an array of top-notch Iclandic art and handcrafts that make wonderful souvenirs.  Items include everything from colorful felted fingerless gloves to fragile ceramic tea-light containers.  My favorite was the carved-wood reindeer mother and child that fit into each other

interior of Hus Handanna Art & Design in Egilsstadir, Iceland

reindeer art atf Hus Handanna Art & Design in Egilsstadir, Iceland

Monster Lake  This point in the Lagarfljot river becomes so deep and wide that it is defined as a lake.  It is home to the legendary beast Lagarfljotsormurinn--Iceland’s version of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster--which was first reported in 1345.  “The Story of the Legendary Worm” dates to the 14th century and is about a young girl who lived on a farm by the lake.  She was given a gold ring as a gift.  Her mother told her that if she put the ring in a box with the worm, the gold would grow.  Of course, she put it in the box and the gold grew, but the worm grew, too.  The girl panicked and threw them both into the lake, where the worm became a huge monster and terrorized the villagers.  Eventually two farmers decided to kill the monster and get the gold.  They bound it, but the monster still was able to put its back up out in the water and now bad luck comes when people see it.  In reality, my tour guide has a  friend who saw it in 1968.  Some elementary school kids saw it in the 1990s, and this viral video on YouTube shows it in 2012.  While some people think the video proves the monster’s existence, others think it proves that the monster is just some netting twisting in icy water.  An Iceland panel decided by a narrow majority vote that this grainy 2012 footage is legitimate.  I think it looks like a cross between a viper and a tape worm.  What do you think?

Hallormsstada Skogur   The small new forest provides nice walking trails near the lake.

leafy trail at Hallormsstada Skogur park in Iceland


exterior of Gunnar Gunnarsson Museum at Skriduklaustur in Iceland

Gunnar Gunnarsson Museum  This cultural museum honoring celebrated Icelandic author Gunnar Gunnarsson operates within his former home.  It also tells about the circa 1493 Augustinian monastery ruins being uncovered right now in a field across from the house.  It is the only cloister in Iceland that is completely excavated, and the most northerly one in Europe. 

Klausturkaffi restaurant at Gunnar Gunnarsson Museum at Skriduklaustur in Iceland

Klausturkaffi  The museum’s small restaurant is also an attraction, and a prime place to stop for a spectacular buffet lunch spread.  An a la carte menu is also available.  My favorite items were the crowberry spritzer and wild mushroom soup, though the entire array was delicious. 

Vallanes Farm  This greenhouse farm is renowned for bringing organic Modir Jord products—most especially barley--to Icelandic cuisine.  It is the largest organic farm in Iceland.  As you travel in this area, you’ll also come across their vegetarian burgers and fresh herbs, such as angelica and caraway.  Everything at the farm is 100% organic, including local wild berry and rhubarb jams.  A recipe for Gabriel’s Breakfast made with barley cereal is on the website.

Vallanes Farm greenhouse in Iceland

When pioneer organic-farm owner Eygló Björk Ólafsdóttir (pictured) welcomed us to his complex, which has been worked since the 1100s, he said, “Good morning and welcome to my kingdom.”  When he took over here in 1979, it was a dairy farm.  In this country with  few trees, he planted one million saplings in shelterbelts and forests, and officially began his organic farm in 1989.  A B&B and hostel are also available. 

Vatnajokulspjodgardur National Park  Located mostly in the highlands, this park covers almost 14 percent of Iceland.  The country’s largest glacier, and Europe’s biggest, is here. 
Vatnajokull Ice Caves  These caves are located inside an Icelandic glacier.  It's pretty hard to get cooler than that.

visitor center at Vatnajokulspjodgardur National Park in Iceland

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images and video ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

January 12, 2015

Reykjavik, Iceland: Golden Circle tour; things to do

Golden Circle tour 

This day trip is short in distance from Reykjavik but long on sights—it takes in a trio of the most iconic wonders in Iceland.  And in between, you’ll see moss-covered lava fields as well as tiny birch trees that are the only indigenous trees on this island (early Viking settlers brought all their wood for house and boat building as do residents import it today). 

where North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Iceland in Thingvellir National Park
North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet

Silfra crack in Thingvellir National Park in Iceland
Silfra crack

Thingvellir National Park  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where representatives of all Iceland tribes met in 930 at Lake Thingvillaten, establishing the world’s first parliament.  In 1000, the group officially adopted Christianity, and they continued meeting here annually until 1798.  In 1944, when Iceland became independent from Denmark, the nation assembled here to celebrate.  Also, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet here, and visitors can walk through the separation caused by them slowly drifting apart (it was seen in Season 4 of "Game of Thrones").  Since  most tectonic plate boundaries are underwater, this is an unusual and scenic opportunity.  Snorkeling is permitted in the clear water of the Silfra (the crack between the plates), where they can also touch both plates at the same time.

This park is also home to a loo with an amazing view. More loos with a view.

Gullfoss/Golden Falls  Nearby, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe roars at an L-shaped bend in the Hvitá River.  It falls into the river in two wide stages, and rainbows form in the mist on sunny days.  A path leads along the falls to a spectacular viewing area.

Geysir Hot Springs  In Haukadalur.  This geothermal area is sprinkled with steaming water and bubbling mud pools.  Geysir is the original geyser and the first one described in print and is the one after which all others are named.  At about 10,000 years old, it no longer erupts.

But every 10 to 15 minutes the Strokkur geyser sends up a spectacular plume of hot water and steam about 100 feet into the air.  A bubbling up is seen just before it explodes.  Be careful with your camera, because the steam can cause problems.

More non-erupting, colorful sulphur pools are in the immediate area, and the Litli Geysir gurgles and hisses beside the path from the visitor center.  An unusual activity that is sometimes arranged here is making Geysir bread, or “hot spring bread.”  Participants assist a chef in digging up rye bread that has been ‘baking’ underground for 24 hours and also boil eggs in a hot spring.

Fridheimar Greenhouses  On some tours, a stop here is included, allowing you to see how delicious organic tomatoes are grown indoors year-round with help from bright lights to mimic the sun, bees to fertilize, and technology and computers to monitor things.

Fridheimar Greenhouse in Iceland

cafe at Fridheimar Greenhouse in Iceland

This site’s owner says, “We make every day perfect for the tomato, and they turn into a perfect tomato for us.”  You’ll want to sample some of the tasty tomatoes and also the small cafe’s specialty tomato soup.

blonde Iceland horse at Fridheimar Greenhouse in Iceland

An adjacent stables is home to Icelandic horses, and horse shows are scheduled. 

Lindin Bistro  In Laugarten.  If you’re on your own, plan to stop at this Michelin-starred restaurant for lunch.  You’ll get to sample the premium local produce made into seasonal specialties.  The bread is baked in the ground by hot springs (as described above), and I hear the  lobster bisque is divine.

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images and videos ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers