Dining out when on holiday is risky. When faced with an array of choices and recommendations, it can be impossible to pick THE restaurant which might make your trip. Nobody wants to waste a precious evening of their time away on a disappointing venue. That’s why it’s so exciting when you pick a place at random and it turns out to be an absolute winner. This happened to Adam and I while we were staying in Reykjávik last month, and we had such a great experience there that we will happily sing its praises to anyone who’ll listen.
For such a small city (population 200,000), Reykjávik’s culinary offering is astonishingly rich. On strolling down Laugavegur, one of the main shopping streets, we encounter numerous bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs with enticing menus and lively action within. We had not been expecting much of a choice. After all, the little that we knew about Icelandic cuisine pretty much extended to hákarl, a local ‘delicacy’ (buried shark fermented it in its own urea for several months). With this preconception it is with trepidation that we wander the streets in search of a meal which would give us a flavour of local culture, but won’t make us want to vomit at the mere thought.
We need not have been worried. Adam picks out Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill), a cosy-looking little restaurant, on the basis that it’s heaving. Just as well we settle here, for as we step through the door, the streets are lashed with horizontal rain in a characteristically sudden downpour. (They say in Iceland that if you don’t like the weather, all you need to do is wait five minutes). The colourful lighting from the jam-jar lampshades is low but not too dark; the restaurant itself is small but split over two levels and the tables are intimate but not too close together. The overall feeling is one of warmth and welcome. Immediately we are greeted by an immensely cheerful manageress with impeccable English, who on hearing we don’t have a reservation on this busy Tuesday shows no sign of dismay, but simply seats us by the impressively-stocked bar and explains that she will find us a table as soon as possible. Two pints of rich, brown Viking Classic lager each later, she is as good as her word, ushering us to a table where the unusual, quirky set-up of the cutlery and glassware suggest an establishment which takes pleasure in getting the details right.
A brief perusal of the extensive menu has us hooked. Adam is most intrigued by one of the set menus, advertising itself as the ‘Grill Party’ and requesting you to ask your server for details. We reckon it is well worth a gamble, especially as the staff (all of whom have such perfect English it was almost shaming) seem highly knowledgeable on the dishes. Ordering two more beers, a bottle of very decent Valpolicella Ripasso to breathe at the table and the so-called Grill Party, we sit back to see what our hosts can produce.
First to the table is an appetiser of cured lamb, crusty homemade bread and a smoky mayonnaise. Next, a sharing dish of lobster and blue ling with cauliflower and mussel sauce. On the side, we are presented with little brass pots each containing a perfect cube of juicy pork belly dipped in barbecue sauce; not something we expect in an Icelandic restaurant: crispy, melting and full of flavour. Teeny, delicate portions of cured salmon with beetroot, walnut and goat’s cheese bridge the gap between courses, and are swiftly consumed and replaced with a presentation three very similar-looking meats, all glossy dark brown in colour with a pinkish tinge in the middle. These are puffin, shag and minke whale. At this point, we actually have so much food that our waitresses moves us onto a larger adjacent table. However, somewhere along the line we mix up these identical portions. We have no frame of reference to suggest which is which, and are too greedily impatient to sample them to call the waitress back over. In spite of not knowing what on earth we are eating, they are all complemented beautifully by blueberry sorbet, pickled cabbage and hazelnut biscuits.
Next up is grilled salmon and perch, and we begin to seriously worry about fitting in the rest of the meal. When the next course arrives, it is so delicious that all our doubts simply melt away. Tender, pink slices of seared beef ribeye with root vegetables, celeriac purée and Béarnaise are accompanied by a tiny metal hotbox on which rest chunks of smoked lamb sprinkled liberally with a soft, white ‘hazelnut snow’. After one mouthful, we are speechless, slumping back in our chairs. This course manages to top all which preceded it – it’s simply extraordinary.
Just when I think we can’t possibly handle any more, we are brought our dessert – a tiny mousse of caramelised white chocolate, rum and raspberry garnished with dill sorbet, followed by a spectacular crème brulée with caramel foam, sorrel ice, strawberry sorbet, and ground cacao beans. Both are exquisite. Thoroughly and utterly satisfied, we pay up, give our thanks to the smiling waitresses, who banter with us freely in their second language, and walk into the night air, only to be greeted with another sudden and sodden Arctic squall just as we set trudge to our hotel. Our only thoughts are of bed and the imminent, overwhelming food coma.
We expected many things from Iceland when we picked it as a destination – glacier hiking, stunning landscapes and the Aurora Borealis among them. We even hoped to learn how to pronounce the name of the infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (ask one of us next time you’re here. We can do it, honestly.). We didn’t expect to find such a high-quality food scene, however – every other meal we had whilst there was also fantastic, though Sjávargrillið’s offering was truly standout. If you’re looking for something a little bit different, we’d recommend you give this unique country a go, but be sure to swing into this particular gem of a restaurant.