Iceland isn’t exactly known as a sushi destination. But chef Jonathan Bisagni spent several months last summer working in a seasonal sushi restaurant in a small fishing and arts town called Seyðisfjörður, which is on the opposite end of the country from the capital Reykjavik.
“The bulk of our fish was caught locally. We had fishermen going out every day. And whenever we need it, one of the waitresses’ dads was the fisherman. You just give him a call, he’s the best fisherman in town,” says Bisagni, who’s previously worked at Slipstream, Sticky Rice, and Toki Underground as well now-defunct eateries like Kushi and Taan.
Bisagni has since returned to Sticky Rice to help give the H Street NE restaurant a bit of a refresh. The changes might not seem too major from the outside, but Bisagni says they’re fundamental. He’s been training staff, reviving brunch, and trying to introduce more sustainable fish to the menu.
“They’re just on auto-pilot buying the same stuff,” Bisagni says. “So I’m working with the younger chefs there and getting them all excited and [showing] them how to find better fish.”
The changes are informed from Bisagni’s stint at Nord Austur in Iceland. After leaving Slipstream, Bisagni was planning to take a break and go to Europe when he found out about the job to help open the Icelandic restaurant. “Sushi in Iceland is like sushi in America in the late ’80s or something. There’s a handful of sushi spots. People are weird about eating raw fish,” he says.
During his time there, Bisagni says he prepared sushi exclusively using Icelandic fish. “We didn’t even have tuna,” he says. “But a lot of the fish caught in Iceland is shipped to Japan immediately… That experience and that restaurant was really about highlighting Iceland as a fishing capital for the world.” For example, while cod isn’t typically used in most Japanese restaurants, Bisagni took advantage of its freshness in Iceland.
While Sticky Rice doesn’t have the luxury of a fleet of fishermen at its door, Bisagni has been trying to come up with fish alternatives while keeping the same seafood purveyors. “Let’s say you develop a great salmon dish. It may be better and more interesting for the customer to try rainbow trout or arctic char because those types of fish are typically raised in more sustainable ways,” he says.
Bisagni won’t be sticking around Sticky Rice for too long. He says he’s planning to head back to Iceland this spring. But when he comes back at the end of the summer, he’s looking to do an Icelandic food pop-up in D.C. “I think people are interested in something that’s unavailable,” he says. Kind of like sushi in Seyðisfjörður.
Photo by Sara Hill Isacson