Food Review: Kolabrautin – Pain And Gain

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published March 31, 2015

The first thing you see when you walk into Kolabrautin is a neon sign that says “Scandinavian Pain.” The sign was originally debuted nine years ago by Ragnar Kjartansson at a Norwegian art festival, and it is a good fit for the restaurant which I, four years ago, criticized for a offering an uncertain mix of Italian and New Nordic styles (I also called Harpa a “sooty ice-cube blocking the view of my favourite mountains”). Today, I am happy to declare that I have made peace with Harpa (those blinky light things helped) and Kolabrautin has since refocused and won me over.

Although Kolabrautin’s menu mostly eschews Scandinavian pain in lieu of Southern European warmth, the decorations are still on the cold side. I definitely still struggle with the mirrored ceiling, no doubt meant to invoke basalt columns (an idea that Icelandic architects and designers never tire of invoking).

The cool sleekness is offset nicely by a large wood-burning stove and some fantastic service. The staff is extremely well trained by Icelandic standards, ninja-like in their anticipation of the customer’s every need.

Kolabrautin has an impressive selection of Italian wines, divided by region. To accompany our dinner, we settled on a Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino 2006, an earthy and full-bodied wine with ludicrous tannins, a great wine but probably not the best choice for seafood dishes.

The wine, and other liquids, were served in geometric space-age Chef & Sommelier glasses. Those were fine enough for the wine, but frustrating when drinking water from whisky tumblers that widen around the middle, making them impossible to hold except as if drinking a single malt in the snootiest way possible.

We started our meal with a Negroni (2,000 ISK) made with Punt e Mes, an intense red vermouth from the palace of sweet bitters that is Fratelli Branca. The drink was stellar, and would have made Orson Welles proud.

Our first primi was the gnocchi with pecorino, smoked pine nuts and baked kale (2,600 ISK). The gnocchi was well made, with a deep flavour. It furthermore has the dubious honour of being Kolabrautin’s only vegetarian offering, not counting substitutions.

The second primi was the Calamari with barley and black garlic (2,980 ISK). Black garlic is a hideously time-consuming ingredient which came into vogue a few years back and seems to be on the rise again. The process involves slow-cooking heads of garlic until they turn black and take on a uniquely sweet and sour flavour reminiscent of balsamic vinegar. The black garlic streaked the plate much like balsamic would at most restaurants, while adding a subtle touch. The few flimsy strips of calamari were well-cooked but under-represented. Since we dined at Kolabrautin, they have substituted the calamari for scallops.

The belly and fillet of lamb with turnips and charred onions (5,450 ISK) was an interesting dish, the most Scandinavian offering on the menu. It is made from two of the softest parts of the lamb: the fillet, known for its lack of fat and mild flavour, and the belly (which used to be called “lamb breast”), which is mostly fat and known for its pungent flavour. A lamb dish is almost mandatory in Icelandic restaurants, but it seems they were trying to add their own spin on the staple with this odd combo, using the priciest part of the lamb to meet expectations at their price range while boosting the flavour with the belly. It doesn’t hurt that a belly will also score a chef some cool points in our post-David Chang world. It was a tasty dish, but a bit of an overreach in my mind when other lamb cuts might have delivered the same balance.

The lemon Zabaione with puff pastry, crème fraiche ice cream and blackberries (1,900 ISK) left me dry, but not nearly as dry as the pastry. That dessert needs serious rethinking.

Fortunately the yoghurt in three textures, served with apples, mint, and verbena (1,900 ISK) was completely genius. A truly well-balanced dish with a nice blend of textures and as light and crispy as fresh linen. Heavily recommended.

Kolabrautin has come a long way from my last visit. The finer touches in design are still missing, and some dishes don’t quite deliver. But gone is the heavy hand of salt, fat, and buttery sauces and forced dalliances with New Nordic cuisine. The result is a pretty impressive modernist Italian restaurant breaking away from the standard fare.

 


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