Published March 30, 2012
Nam is a curiosity. Nam offers a Pan-Asian fusion menu designed by a chef coming straight from top shelf Michelin restaurants like Opera Källaren in Stockholm. But it also happens to be a fast-food place located in a gas station in the suburbs, and is run by the same people that brought us the fast food Tex-Mex place Serrano. The name is similarly dualistic, it either represents the Icelandic acronym NAM (“Ný Asísk Matseld” = new Asian cuisine) or the abbreviation for “Vietnam,” you know, the one favoured by battle-gnarled veterans frothing about ordnance and agent orange through their straggly street-preacher beards.
Let me note that I am big fan of Vietnamese and Thai food, but not as much of a fan of the type of the typical Pan-Asian kitchens we’ve had in Iceland up until now, that usual drab selection of overcooked pork in syrupy mystery sauce. So you can imagine the orientalist swoon when I heard NAM would be offering Bánh mì, real dumplings and bento boxes (none of which have been steadily available in Iceland until now). So on one hand this was happy news, but seeing it all jumbled together on the same menu brought flashbacks of mystery pork sauce.
I remain equally divided about the quality of the location. It’s frustrating in one sense, as I personally never have any business up in Árbær, and I don’t work in the vicinity. But the area is loaded with businesses and wedged between two popular residential neighbourhoods and the gas station that houses it is located by the main artery out of town, right before the road forks into the eastbound and westbound path.
So the wife and I took a seat by the Formica and started to load it with everything they had. A melange menu calls for a melange gavage! This totalled: 2x Lychee ice-teas (150 ISK), 6x dumplings (300 ISK/3 dumplings), 1x chicken banh mi (1190 ISK), 2x Vietnamese spring rolls (300 ISK) and a bento box with ribs, edamame, rice, mixed wok veggies (1790 ISK for a bento of your choice).
The Lychee ice-tea was fantastic, like sour lemonade with a lychee tail. The dumplings were searing hot with a nice savoury filling, but they were too doughy and didn’t have enough filling for my taste—think jiaozi or gunmandu rather than wonton.
The banh mi was too adventurous for me. In a country with no banh mi culture, I would have been happy to see a traditional one before expanding into fusion territory. The classic banh mi consists of a light baguette, coriander (cilantro), fresh mayo, chillies, soy sauce, lightly pickled carrots and/or daikon, cucumbers and then usually either spicy pork or chicken (pâté or head meat if you want to go really traditional). The NAM banh mi was nicely spicy, the bang bang sauce was awesome and the chicken was well cooked. But the bread was too dense and I don’t feel like sesame seeds belong on the baguettes (sesame seeds seemed to blanket everything on the menu). I’m also not convinced that kimchi (fermented cabbage) was a necessary substitute for the carrots. Not the best banh-mi I’ve had, but if I have a craving and am in the neighbourhood I can see myself relenting.
Spring rolls were the fresh Vietnamese kind in rice paper rather than the deep-fried ones some may be used to. They are basically like a salad tube for dipping into a sauce of your choice. Definitely order a couple of those on the side. The NAM ones were heavy on cabbage and red leaf lettuce and tasted faintly of marzipan.
The bento box was the real head-scratcher. I am not an expert in Japanese cuisine, but I have always considered the bento to be a lunch box, traditionally made by the homemaker for a working spouse. Bentos are cleverly designed, with separate compartments where single portion items are placed in a way that provides a balanced diet and pleases the eye. Think of those graphics we get in the West of the ideal portions of meat and veg arranged on a segmented plate…it’s basically that, but in real life.
A bento can be anything you want it to be so there’s no reason to get dogmatic. The NAM bento is a success as far as I’m concerned. Great slow-cooked beef and blackened ribs with a distinct star anise flavour. The edamame was crispy and cooked with soy sauce and Szechuan pepper. Even my nemesis the cauliflower was edible.
Overall NAM is a strange beast and I’m still not decided on all of it. I felt they strayed too far from tradition and the meal could have been more filling but there are a lot of new flavours you won’t find elsewhere in Reykjavík and as things go it is a pretty healthy choice. NAM could be a pipe-dream but I could also see this taking off worldwide with some minor adjustments.
What We Think: A fairly solid Asian fusion take-out. Healthy and light. The bento box is a curious addition to the fast food culture
Flavour: Vietnamese-Japanese, peppery, anise, nutty, veggie
Ambiance: I’d recommend take-out
Price: (for two): 4.000 ISK (approx.)