They say that travel is not about the destination but about the journey. But what if it’s both? It certainly can be. And does that same philosophy apply to restaurants and food? It most certainly does as I just experienced with KOKS in Ilimanaq, Greenland.
KOKS, a Faroe Islands based 2 Michelin Starred restaurant, has temporarily moved to Greenland for its summer 2022 and 2023 seasons while their new permanent home is being constructed in Faroe Islands. Chef Poul Andrias Ziska is all about sourcing local ingredients from his immediate surroundings. On Faroe Islands, ingredients are foraged/ hunted and bought on the islands. He has transferred that approach to his temporary home in Ilimanaq, Greenland (300km north of the Arctic Circle), except instead of sourcing things from Faroe, he is scavenging the Greenlandic ecosystem and bringing Greenlandic Inuit traditions to your plate.
It is an experience and meal unlike anything else in the fine dining world, at least that I have experienced thus far. It is remote, it is delicious, it is adventurous, it is cozy, it is fun and exciting and it is memorable. This is not a jacket, tie, evening dress restaurant, so leave the formal wear and high heels at home. It is not remote in the sense that you are a couple hours drive from the nearest major international city and can still get back to civilization after the dinner, it is an effort to get here and you best be ok with the outdoors and nature. I am not trying to put anyone off, but to set expectations and ensure people reading this know what they are getting themselves into, as local guides encountered a few KOKS guests who had no idea what they were getting themselves into in Greenland and dressed improperly for the elements and signed up for hikes they were not ready for and ultimately did not have a single care about Greenland. They came solely for a Michelin starred restaurant thinking it would be the usual city-based fine dining experience. It is not. Sure, I admit that my Greenland journey did in fact begin with reading about KOKS and my reservation, with main purpose to dine, but I also took it as an opportunity to explore the edges of the planet and boy did Greenland deliver. KOKS is well worth the multiple planes and ferry ride through the UNESCO World Heritage Ilulissat Icefjord to get to. Do not just travel to Greenland solely for this meal, you’d be doing yourself a disservice, for to truly appreciate and experience KOKS, you really should go hiking, kayaking, meet some sleddogs and understand the Greenlandic landscape, seascape, history and culture beforehand.
This post is organized as follows:
Summary: a summary of my thoughts and experience
The Restaurant: Overview of the service, location/ architecture and fun facts I learned during my meal
The Meal: Pictures and description of the 22 course dinner and wine pairing
Reservations, Logistics, Things to Note: Guide to reservations, logistics of getting to/from and things to note before planning/ going and deciding if Greenland is for you (a crucial consideration even if you really want to eat at KOKS).
Conclusion: Parting thoughts
Upon days of contemplation, the experience is still fresh and ringing in my mind. It has quickly become the #2 meal of my life, after Noma 1.0 in 2016. Not only was nearly every dish from start to finish beautiful, full of textures, nicely balanced, some complex and some subtle, but to take local ingredients that most people would find challenging to stomach and turn it into something very much palatable and elevated is no easy feat. Chef Poul Andrias Ziska and his team does this seemingly flawlessly despite the many foreseen and unpredictable challenges Greenland brought to them. Further, to move your entire restaurant operation to another country in a remote locale whilst at the mercy of nature and still manage to execute the food, wine and service is impressive. Finally, the location. Greenland is stunning, pure, raw and as close to unspoiled as you can get these days even if it is at the forefront of Climate Change affects; and full of friendly and welcoming people rooted in their Inuit traditions, culture and history. Perhaps too, it was the few days before dinner wherein we were kayaking, hiking, learning about Greenlandic Inuit history, people, culture; and soaking up the ecosystem from the piercing cold of the Icefjords to the fresh crisp and aromatic air of the terrain, that contributed to my greater appreciation and understanding of my dinner and Ziska’s talents and mission.
It is also great in some senses that KOKs, despite its 2 Michelin Stars, has yet to make big splashes everywhere nor (surprisingly so) found itself on the World’s 50 Best list yet to garner the hype. It is almost like a best kept secret right now. Perhaps the remoteness in both Faroe and Greenland is part of the reason, but to me that only adds to the appeal and reason why the experience is so incredible.
Ilimanaq has seen inhabitants as early as 4,500 years ago. And the “Fat of the sea” has fed generations of families here. It is located at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord. It has a deep history rooted in whaling, as well as key parts in the complex Danish-Greenlandic history and relationship. But today, Ilimanaq Lodge/ World of Greenland have breathed new life into the settlement by restoring 2 of Greenland’s oldest buildings and drawing visitors to an otherwise dying settlement (a common problem in Greenland). It is now a small settlement with a population of around 50 residents.
The restaurant is housed in a nationally protected building. It is one of the oldest buildings in all of Greenland. Built in 1751 in Denmark before being shipped over in piece and reassembled Ikea style in Ilimanaq. It first served as a Missionary house which of course means it has seen its fair share of horror stories and atrocities. But it also became the settlement’s store keeper’s home and the house wherein the lodge’s reception is was once the general store for the community. Many elements are original, including some of the creaky wooden floorboards and on the first floor, some of the canvas ceilings.
30 seats are spread openly across 2 floors and 5 main dining rooms. It is all connected and open. It is warm and cozy inside. Upon arrival you are offered to have your jackets hung up on the coat rack by the door or stairs. The lower level dining rooms have dark turquoise walls and canvas ceilings subdued by white paneling. The upper floors retain the full original A-Frame and wooden floor/beams, 2 distinct vibes. If it gets too cold, no worries, soft wool blankets are provided, and if your feet get cold, why not slip on one of the “Glacier Slippers” (fur lined slippers made from Seal fur) they have on offer? Normally they offer it to everyone, but on a fully booked night it gets chaotic for everyone to remove their shoes and slip on the glacier slippers. You are enthusiastically welcomed to your table, offered a towel, sparkling or still water before you are explained the 22 course menu and beverage choices (wine pairing, juice pairing or ordering from the wine list that for a restaurant that brought everything including wine fridges over with them is quite impressive).
The service is casual, friendly yet still professional, attentive with a well executed flow. KOKS’ mission is to create a homey atmosphere, one where you can freely move around and explore the various nooks and crannies of the restaurant and engage with every team member.
Most of the team are season by season contractors. Not all will return next season. They represent mostly Nordic countries but a few Bulgaria/US/Greenlandic, with a total 14 countries represented. By season end in 2022, you could tell they were quite bonded and had good chemistry. Not surprising given some of the challenges they all went through together in this locale. Some of the team have been living in housing without running water or functioning heat the whole time. On the first day of their arrival the jointly spent 15 hours prepping food from 1pm to 5am! They encountered many foreseen and unforeseen challenges. A temporary prep kitchen had to be built shortly after arrival. Wine got stuck at customs before opening day. A few early days saw them run out of water or wine mid-service, and on some days they did not get power until just 2 hours before service began. The team even tried growing their own herbs and vegetables in front of the restaurant as a little experiment but the microclimate proved too challenging and most plants did not thrive. Despite all this, the team told me they simply adapted and took on the Greenlandic way of life in stride “Let Nature Decide,” and for them it has all been part of the fun and learning and why they chose to come along for the ride with Chef Ziska.
KOKS has also brought in a wave of travelers who otherwise would never consider visiting Greenland. Even at the mixed feelings of local tour operators and residents for reasons mentioned in the intro. But perhaps that is part of the mission here. Rather than preach what to expect or reject certain high-end clientele, KOKS has attracted them to venture to Greenland, and whether they appreciate and enjoy the journey or not, at least they have been exposed to the beauty and abundance of Greenland. I hope?
Ultimately, KOKS hopes that when they leave in 2023, their experience can inspire another chef, hopefully Greenlandic, can take over the space and continue doing fun/experimental things with local cuisine and ingredients.
Blanc de blancs “Cuvee de Reserve” NV, Pierre Peters, Champagne, France
Mattak Nunatta Naatitaanik Illulerlugu: Mattak (whale fat wrapped in whale skin), with bouquet of Greenlandic greens. It is marinaded in a little bit of Soy, just like traditionally, Inuits would dip the Mattak in soy sauce.
Bowhead Whale, one of 2 Bowhead whales allowed to be caught each year (there is an annual quota for this particular whale species) was caught 2 weeks before Koks arrived and the. Inuit fisherman were kind enough to give Koks the meat/fat/skin to use for the season. Traditionally simply dipped it soy sauce, Koks did something similar, but more braised, tasted a bit like Taiwanese braised pork belly, it’ll be more a texture thing than taste thing for people.
Puisip Aavanit Tarteletiliaq Uilunik Qeqqussanillu Illulerlugu: Seal blood tartelette (seaweed tart coated with seal blood) with blue mussel and seaweed. Inspired by Greenlandic elders eating seaweed dipped in Seal blood.
Qaleralik Peperrodi Dildimillu Miseqqialerlugu: Greenlandic Halibut (frozen then sliced), horseradish and dill sauce, horseradish surprisingly mild in its kick so didnt overpower anything. This dish was a procession of textures and temperatures as the sliced halibut changes temperature and texture as it gets to room temperature.
Chenin blanc “Trust Your Gut” 2020, Lukas van Loggerenberg, Western Cape, South Africa
Raajat Ooqanngitsut Kamille Kombuchamit Miseqqiami: Raw shrimp in sauce of chamomile kombucha. At first very acidic but mellowed out as you ate, nice crunch too.
Raajat Niaqui: Shrimp head and skin grilled on black charcoal, then turned into cream and filled in fried head. Smoky, fresh, crunchy, creamy. A slightly different take on the usual simple fried shrimp head you often find in Japanese tempura restaurants.
Ammassak Naatitanik Siaasakkanik Akulik: Capelin and grilled lettuce. The KOKS team catches the fresh Capelin by pouring milk into sea which attracts the females thinking its sperm. They advise that you can eat whole thing or just the body, or skip the head only. The head is after all the most fishy bit. I would probably say start with the head then tail then body so the bitterness and fishy taste is balanced out by the rest of the fish and the grilled / fermented lettuce stuffed in the fish.
Kissavaasat Kaviarillu: Scallops and Caviar. Scallops are slow boiled for 4 days to create a broth then its turned into a cream to create the chawanmushi base. The dish is creamy, then soft from the scallop crudo, then a tad crunch and salty from the caviar, but surprisingly not an overpowering in your face salty at all. Was such a beautiful dish, texturally and balance of taste.
“Vina Corrales” Fino, Bodegas San Francisco Javier, Spain; a wonderful smooth and subtle Sherry created by the winemaker of none other then Pingus
Saatuaq Qeqqussanit Pupinnik: Snow crab and mushrooms. Fermented local mushroom, mushroom froth/broth (not local) and sunflower seed. Super delicious, again surprisingly not overly salty with the various forms of mushroom. The sunflower seed not only added crunch but also an aromatic earthy note different than the mushrooms earthy note. Crab was soft and sweet and fresh. Another very balanced, subtle, textural dish that showcased some local flavors.
Albarino, “Armas de Lanzos” 2016, Bodegas del Palacio de Fefinanes, Galicia, Spain
Sululppaagaq Stikkelsbaerinit Qappititanit Miseralerlugu: Ocean perch with fermented gooseberry. Fish meat seared to perfection, fried fish scale, roe. Again so much happening with textures here. Also nicely balanced flavor profile, the subtle and not overpowering notes of the fermented gooseberry brought out an acidic yet light and fruitful cut across the cream based sauce.
We then approached the halfway mark of the dinner and it was time to transition from sea to land. But it was no simple transition. You are offered to take a break and enjoy the outside space if you so choose and bring along any beverage you might still have or I am sure they’d have been happy to top off one of the prior pours. We opted to head out and enjoy the last rays of light the by then the clouds had rolled in to ruin the otherwise beautiful clear day earlier. Nonetheless, to my surprise after a few minutes the brought out the next course, their so called palette cleanser (I say this in that its not your normal sorbert or sherbert that you may exepct).
Umimmammit Suppaliaq: Musk ox broth with local Blackcurrant. The berry’s acidity and sweetness cuts through but complements the salty and rich ox broth, perfect in the chilly evening outdoors and nice in between dish from fish to meat.
Afterwards on our way in, seeing that we were very interested in the food thus far and overall environment, we were offered to take a peep into the cold/final staging kitchen. Chef Ziska was sure enough busy plating!
Gevery-Chambertin “Vieille Vignes” 2018, Marc Roy, Bourgogne, France
Tuttumit Tartariliaq Pupinnik Qappititanik Qalligaq Ramslogilik: Reindeer tartar with fermented mushroom glace, black garlic and ramson. Additionally there was shaved air-dried Reindeer blood atop the reindeer meat. Certainly the best reindeer I’ve had. Not gamey at all and there was a nice mix of crunchy, tender, lightly smoky, herby, a light spice, and smoothness all going on at the same time.
Aqisseq Solbaerinit Salsalerlugu: wild caught local Ptmarigan with Blackcurrant salsa. Served on Ptmarigan wing (that has been cleaned/ washed and is dried every day before each service to reuse), it is white because the birds were caught in winter. The blackcurrant salsa is formed in part by naturally fermented crowberries that the team extracted from the gizzards of the bird. Within the layers of the skewer is also cured reindeer lard and mushroom. Not quite knowing what to expect except that it might be super gamy and chewy, turns out it was surprisingly super good, nay, amazing. Not at all gamy, the meat was tender, a bit like a duck flavor and texture. That blackcurrant salsa was amazing, naturally fermented but still sweet. The reindeer lard and mushroom both soften but add richness to the other profiles happening. Also, be careful of the toothpick used to hold the layers together, it is separate from the skewer of the wing!
Barolo “Bric del Fiasc” 2012, Parolo Scavino, Piedmont, Italy; served from a decantar, first time having by the glass wine pairing wine poured from a decantar that they have been letting the wine air for hours prior to service.
Arfivik Barbecue: Bowhead whale belly meat. The whale belly is simply grilled, as they explained that after experimenting this was actually the best way to cook and let the meat showcase itself. Served with blue mussel, black garlic and beetroot sauce. Absolutely amazing, both flavor wise and texture wise it was like a cross between wagyu and o-toro. Even more incredible was the dish is served with a miniature Faroese whale hunting knife made of mahogany, inlaid with walrus tusk, made exlusively for KOKS. And yes, there are stories of attempts to steal the beautiful knives.
Umimmak Kakillarnalerlugu Sallaatsumik Siataq: Braised muskox shoulder with juniper. Good but most underwhelming and average dish of the night. The pickled cereliac atop was a nice acidic and crunch addition to the dish though.
KOKS ILIMANAQ – Blueberry and Juniper, OY, special brew beer, Faroe Islands; only 500 cans produced exclusively for KOKS Greenland
Qajaasanit Tiiliaq Immummit Lovstikkenillu Parfait – Ilerlugu: Bog Labrador tea with milk and lovage parfait, pickled pine needles, served on a bed of bog labrador, which the Greenlandic word for the herb mean “looks like Kayak” as the Greenlandic language describes and attaches words based on descriptions and shapes. This dish was so refreshing and aromatic. Having just hiked before dinner through the natural shrubs and herbs of Greenland, it literally smelled and tasted, or so what I imagined it would have tasted like, hiking through the Greenlandic terrains. Showing just how well the team took it on themselves to understand their new temporary landscape and translate those elements on to a dish.
Kombu Mousse Sikalaagaq Selleritalik: Roasted Kombu mousse with celeriac and oat. They use the roaste kombu (seaweed) to get a coffee taste becuase “using coffee would have been too simple and not a natural ingredient found in Greenland”
Fruebaerinit Aammullu Marengsiliaq: Stone bramble and blood meringue, topped with seal blood and hibiscus
Ajuaasanit Cremeliaq Tungusunnitsoq: Sweet Limpet Creme; a fermented limpet and carrot caramel served in a limpet shell. Its oddly like a tangy/bitter/oceanic carrot cake in a cream/caramel form. I liked it a lot.
Equutinit Kaagiliaq Sikalaagaq: Roasted bladderwrack cake. A seaweed based cake with Beetroot. Spongy cake, taste was definitely on the lighter side.
Hvidloginit Qappititanit Fudge: Black garlic fudge onion caramel topped with an onion glace. This was so amazing, they even made an extra for me when we got one last glimpse at the cold/ plating kitchen. That black garlic hits first but what lingers it the onion. All fudge/caramels have been ruined for me. Sweet and savory to near perfection.
Coffee brewed in a snake skin wrapped chemex
Selection of digestifs to choose from, their full selection is more extensive but these were our waiter’s favorites. Went with the super peaty but smooth and long sweet finish Ardbeg Uigeadail
Reservations, Logistics, Things to Note
There are a few important things to note about KOKS Greenland and things to consider when planning a trip to dine here and travel through Greenland.
First and foremost, there is a Greenlandic saying that states: “Let Nature Decide.” And this basically dictates your entire journey through the country.
Given the logistical challenges of traveling to Ilimanaq in the winter as well as the simple fact that its freezing, KOKS Greenland is only open for 3 months in each of its temporary summer runs. Reservations are made online, the system is managed by World of Greenland, a subsidiary of Air Greenland, which operates the Ilimanaq Lodge, excursions from both Ilimanaq and Ilulissat and the restaurant that normally occupies KOKS’ current space.
The 2023 will run June 12th to September 9, 2023.
They have improved the booking system and package offered, and information is far more clearly stated now than when I booked in April 2022.
For 2023 season, at the single non-refundable price of 6750DKK ~USD$910, you prepay and book for your KOKS meal, lodging at a standard bungalow (entry level) or $934 for a deluxe bungalow, get roundtrip ferry to/from Ilulissat and 1 guided excursion, breakfast included; limited to 1 night stay. They have also adjusted the ferry times to better suit a 1 night stay at the lodge. You can inquire to add a Full Day Glacier Adventure as well, would highly recommend doing this, although unsure which tour operator they will use in 2023 as the 2022 one said they will not be doing it in 2023 again. I am sure many of these changes came about from the various challenges and learnings from the 2022 season as well as the need to manage expectations for the city folks thinking they coming to a blacksuit fine dining establishment people who dont properly do research.
Summer 2023 season bookings were released on September 12th at 11AM West Greenland Time, GMT-3; and most days still have many availabilities.
30 seats/night, 1 service. First seating option starts at 18:00, last seating at 19:00
For comparison, this was our summer 2022 costs and process:
The 2022 season ran from June 12th to September 8th, 2022. For us, the summer 2022 meal, lodging, ferry and excursions were all separate and we could cancel the meal 28 days prior. Meal: 2,100 DKK/person ~USD$290, prepaid, inclusive of service and taxes; wine pairing: 1,500DKK; ~USD200, not inclusive of service and taxes and paid for after meal. One-way ferry to/from Ilulissat: USD$88/person; Deluxe Bungalow at Ilimanaq Lodge: USD$480, welcome drink, breakfast included. Full Day Glacier Adventure: $360/person. We also prebooked a lunch at the lodge for our last day at $24/person, but it seems that is no longer an option.
Beautiful, cozy, relaxing A-Frame villas on the beach of cliffside overlooking the sea and Ilulissat Icefjord. Waking up here was incredible, near pure silence. Deluxe Bungalows are worth the small upcharge for the better unobstructed views of the sea, breaching whales and Icefjord. The beds are in the loft of the A-Frame, can be arranged in a king bed or 2 singles; portable night lamps are also on each nighstand to use for trips down the stairs to the bathroom or living room at night. The lodge does not have WiFi, nor TVs, they invite you to read, relax and be one with your Greenlandic surroundings. They have heat and are well insulated. Water is heated by solar panels, so be aware of that. There is Nespresso machine, water kettle, tea, mini-fridge (no mini-bar, but a welcome G&T). Plenty of outlets to charge devices and cameras. Comfortable seating options both indoors and out. The furthest bungalow is about a 5-10 min walk from the reception and restaurant, dont worry the staff does transport your luggage and bags for you if you so choose. Ilimanaq and the lodge is not suitable for handicap folks and probably not so ideal for kids younger than say 5 given the lack of railings in some areas.
Traveling To/From Ilimanaq and Greenland
Getting to Greenland from anywhere in the world is not easy. There are a handful of expedition cruises that venture to Greenland as well, but that likely wont allow for a night to go to KOKS. Other option is to fly. During the summer months you have 2 choices. Air Greenland operates daily flights from Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen, a 4.5 hour flight each way. Icelandair operates weekly service from Reykjavik to Kangerlussuaq as well as Ilulissat and Nuuq. Most international flights go to Kangerlussuaq the largest runway in Greenland, but one of the smallest towns. Then it is a domestic transfer on Air Greenland to various destinations, with most frequencies to Nuuq, the capital, and Ilulissat, the main tourist town. Airfares to/from Greenland are expensive. Air Greenland is fun and novel to fly but service is minimal. Biggest thing to be prepared for is weather and unpredictability. Build in 1-2 days before and after your journey just in case. Domestic planes fly into Kangerlussuaq from Nuuq, if weather enroute or at either airport is bad, domestic flights are likely to be delayed or cancelled and you could find yourself spending an extra night or 2 in Kangerlussuaq or elsewhere, Air Greenland does pay for accommodation and food in most cases. Be flexible, be calm, and remember the Greenlandic saying “Let Nature Decide.”
Once you successfully get to Ilulissat either by ways of Iceland or a domestic Greenland flight, you then have to take a 30-45 minute ferry to Ilimanaq, but what a journey. You literally sail right through the Ilulissat Icefjord! But I highly recommend building at least 1 night in Ilulissat before going to Ilimanaq and at least 1 night after. Not only for the extra rest, but the extra time to tour/ hike/ kayak/ sail/ boat tour through the various landscapes of the area. As mentioned, this really does help inform your KOKS experience. NOTE: the dock at Ilimanaq is not a fully built out dock, in fact there really isnt a dock at Ilimanaq. You embark and disembark the ferry/boats directly on to a set of stairs that wind up the rocks and you are at the mercy of the tides and weather as always. As such dont wear a dress, your finest suit, your nicest shoes…etc., this is mainly an outdoors destination.
Weather is unpredictable. Even during summer with the midnight sun, it is relatively speaking cold. The name of the game is layers. You’ll be bundled up in the morning and nights and likely end up in a T-Shirt midday.
Whether you choose to visit Greenland to explore the Icefjords and hike or mainly to dine at KOKS, come with an open mind ready for adventure and exploration and you really will be rewarded with incredible scenery, jaw-dropping landscapes, if lucky and if you come in September even some Northern Lights, a deeper understanding of what is at stake with Climate Change, and of course, an unforgettable meal at KOKS.