When you go out to experience fine dining at the steeper end of the price scale, you often find that while the atmosphere may be stylish and the food glorious there is nothing particularly unique that seems to justify the price tag. Not so at Við Tjörnina, a top-class restaurant by the pond (the name literally means ‘by the pond’) that specialises in Icelandic ambiance and the delicacies of the sea.
As soon as you enter you know this is no ordinary establishment. For one thing, it looks like a fancy version of the stereotypical Icelandic grandma’s house. The furniture and the décor are all more reminiscent of a well-to-do mid-fifties household than a restaurant, but it’s the architecture that really highlights this unique theme. It really did used to be a well-to-do household and rather than totally remodel it and knock down the walls, it has been kept more or less intact. The result is a uniquely homey feel and a mix of privacy and intimacy; there are only a couple of tables per room in just a few rooms.
On the subject of the actual food and service, it’s equally hard to comment without having it sound like a sales pitch: they are just that good. When we first arrived, my friend and I were shown to a cosy living room where we had some drinks sitting on ridiculously comfortable sofas and chairs that looked to date back to at least the fifties. The music, while not from our generation, set the mood perfectly. You get the distinct feeling that you’re being set up to take away a fond memory, and it works like the charm that it is.
After we were seated and provided with bread that seemed to be right out of the oven, we ordered a starter of seafood soup and smoked guillemot, which is a bird native to Iceland, just as practically all the other items on the menu seemed to be. Suffice to say both were brilliant; I actually slurped the remains of the soup up from the bowl when no one was looking. Just as we were finishing up, the head chef came out with a mischievous grin and two plates, each holding a divine portion of what appeared to be garlic-sautéed lobster and scallop. It went perfectly with the white wine that the friendly and helpful waiter recommended.
We were already sold on this being one of the best meals of our lives when the main courses arrived – a honey-roasted spotted catfish in red wine sauce and another kind of catfish sautéed in butter. Both were beyond words, cooked to perfection and seasoned by the Gods. The red wine sauce may have been a tad thin for my tastes, but that’s so petty it’s a bit like saying Gandhi is your hero but you don’t like the bald look – a minor detail.
Lastly, the dessert didn’t let the rest of the meal down. I ordered the skyr, and much to my delight it was served exactly the way my grandmother in Skagafjörður used to present it for special occasions. You get a small pitcher of liquid cream, a bowl of sugar and a cup full of skyr, peaches and Icelandic berries. The result is probably the tastiest thing you could still call traditional Icelandic cuisine. On the other side of the table, my friend didn’t comment on the chocolate fudge cake so much as he moaned in ecstasy. After trying a bite, and having a sip of his cognac, I agreed it was time to head back to the sofas for a bit. There we discussed such lofty topics as how it was possible to be this full and comfortable at the same time, before vowing firmly to come back another day.