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How's Bayou: Entrepreneurs on ice

Hofdi House & Hofdatorg in Reykjavic, on the street that brought you the financial collapse of 2008. Photo: Keith Marshall

Hofdi House & Hofdatorg in Reykjavic, on the street that brought you the financial collapse of 2008. Photo: Keith Marshall

REYKJAVIK. For centuries, denizens of this sub-Arctic island of fire and ice struggled to define themselves as a people, as well as to take their place among respected nations of the world. Vikings settled the land in the late ninth century, and by 1262, Norway had assumed the rudder of state, passing it along the way to Denmark, when the two kingdoms united in 1380. It wasn't until 1944 that Iceland claimed independence while Denmark was busy being occupied by the Nazis.

Then, what next? An isolated land mass, surface covered by lava, few trees, a unique Norse language proudly adhered to, but spoken by no one else. What's a growing country to do?

The Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in October 1986, held in the neutral space of Reykjavik's harbor-side Hofdi residence -- ordered from a Norwegian catalogue in 1909 to house a French consul and his family and assembled on site -- focused the world's eyes on Iceland for a day or two.

But things returned to ho-hum status until 1993, when the entire country celebrated its prime minister's humongous bite of a Big Mac, as McDonald's opened its first location in Reykjavik. Photos appeared in every publication. Iceland had joined the world community, sealed with a burger and fries and toasted with Coca-Cola.

For the next 15 years, the "Business Vikings" of the country reached out through banking channels to investors across the world; then came October 2008, when Iceland led the world into the most serious financial downturn since the Great Depression.

If near-total bankruptcy wasn't enough for the languishing latter-day Vikings, McDonald's pulled out of Iceland the following year. Despondency reigned.

But just for a year or two, until an unlikely pair of Nordic cheerleaders brought a smile back to the face of Reykjavik.

"Ok. You're in Iceland. Most likely for the first time. Not something you do every year, right?"

Thus, in 2014, begins the kvetch of young Icelandic entrepreneurs Simmi and Joi, former Nordic TV and radio personalities, on the broadsheet menu of their wildly-successful Islenska HAMBORGARAFABRIKKAN restaurant, prominently located since April 2010 on the half mile of Reykjavik real estate that brought you the global financial meltdown of 2008.

The only meltdown in this temple of Icelandic hamburger culture is the smorgasbord of cheeses that distinguish many of the sixteen burgers in the Icelandic Hamburger Factory's eclectic repertoire.

THE hamburger joint that anchors Hofdatorg. Photo: Keith Marshall

THE hamburger joint that anchors Hofdatorg. Photo: Keith Marshall

Trumpeted by no less a celebrity than "Iceland's best known fisherman, Eric Clapton," reputedly a regular, the restaurant anchors the corner of the 19-story shimmering glass parallelepiped Hofdatorg, Reykjavik's tallest building, that overlooks the city's dramatic ocean harbor and the site of the 1986 Summit.

But Simmi and Joi would feel just as much at home on New Orleans' Freret Street corridor or in the latest street-food or farm-to-table restaurant in Marigny. Their style and sense of humor are like a shot of iced vodka to complement the latest cocktail creation at Cure

And they're proud of trumping Wendy's: Not only are their burgers square, so are the buns on which they heap Icelandic beef from herds that have been so isolated for centuries that the stock is prevented by law from being interbred with others, lamb from sheep who have the enlightened palate to graze only on mountain thyme and organic vegetables assiduously cultivated in geothermal greenhouses warmed by the same heat that feeds Bardarbunga, a volcano that may erupt during our visit.

But the drawing card for me was an item linked to a blowup of the famous photo of Reagan and Gorbachev, shaking hands in front of Hofdi house, just across the street from the restaurant, that hangs near the entrance:

Grilled lamb tenderloins with dill-aioli potato cubes, root vegetables,
portobello mushrooms and port gravy. This delicious dish was enjoyed by
Reagan and Gorbachev during the Hofdi Summit in 1986.
ISK 4595

It's a bargain at that price, approximately $37.50. And for an additional ISK 2495 ($21.00), you can take home the plate on which it's served, a replica of those used at the Summit.

It all seems so comfy now, those good old days when realization of the dream of nuclear disarmament seemed so near. Can we start over again?

Lamb for dinner, President Obama? And for you, Vladimir? No, we're out of Chicken Kiev.

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.