Don’t be fooled by the ’70s vibe it outwardly projects: Hótel Holt can be surprisingly charming and its restaurant, Gallery, is a prime example of that. While it isn’t the most outwardly chic restaurant in Iceland, it is perhaps one of the last true bastions of white tablecloth French cuisine in Iceland.
Gallery’s head chef is Friðgeir Ingi Eiríksson, son of the hotel manager. Friðgeir studied under Philippe Girardon at Domaine de Clairfontaine, a chef who visited the Icelandic Food & Fun festival in 2012 and has in his lifetime won a nice stack of those awards and qualifications that the French are so fond of. The cuisine at Gallery could be roughly placed within the nouvelle cuisine tradition with slight Icelandic influences (at least until someone can explain to me what post-nouvelle cuisine means). I wouldn’t be surprised if Le Comptoir de l’Odéon provided some inspiration as well, seeing as Gallery offers a surprisingly affordable 3-course fine dining lunch menu.
The main dining space is overcrowded with paintings by the big names in early 20th century Icelandic impressionism, like the consummate bohemian and Prince-Valiant-coiffed Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval. In terms of the combined value and size of the works on display, Gallery can be an overwhelming experience. This is not helped by the 20-page wine list—impressive as it may be. I kept it simple and ordered a glass of the Vaucher Pere et Fils Bourgogne.
The meal kicked off with an amuse-bouche, an amphora of cucumber tuna soup. It would have been well suited as a palate cleanser like a strong vinegary tickle in the back of the throat.
My father had the halibut with pear, watermelon and fennel (3.490 ISK) and I had the foie gras (3.950 ISK). The halibut’s Icelandic description said “stórlúða” (giant halibut) but it was unusually tender despite the size and featured interesting but unexceptional accompaniments. The foie gras came in two forms, fried and terrined with jammed quince—in terms of flavours and raw ingredients you could hardly be further away from Iceland (or closer to France). Both instances were excellent—morbidly obese ducks strike again!
We decided to keep things French and quackalicious and ordered the duck á l’orange for main course (5.900 ISK) while père ordered the premier cru ribeye aged 12 days (5.900 ISK). The duck came with artichokes, “a velvet of carrots” and a mysterious aftertaste. Stonecold French classics here, the artichokes were cooked barigoule and very much in season and that aftertaste was skunky, almost barnyard.
The ribeye was a marbled slab with a dark crisp, maillard sweet as honey. The beef came with crispy, coated fries that my dad proclaimed were the best he’d had in 37 years. Béarnaise was buttery but light and had a strong tarragon flavour.
My dessert was a milky chocolate milkshake with a very light and eggy banana-rum soufflé and his was a cherry cream on chocolate crumbles with a tart raspberry sorbet (each at 2,290 ISK) The place was so white tablecloth that both of our desserts came coddled in good linen.
The dinner service is pricey as you would expect but the ridiculous levelling effect of the Icelandic economy is also in full effect. Down at the nanny state liquor store a bottle of corked sewage may be exorbitantly priced but it only costs about 25% more to upgrade to a good bottle of red. The same goes for the restaurants: the difference between the amateurs and the premier league may only set you back an extra 1.500 ISK per plate.
Predominantly French white tablecloth restaurants have become a rare breed. The French kitchen has earned a reputation as snotty, comically codified, sang-froid, ostentatious, frivolous, disconnected, dogmatic and exclusive. It can feel like a trip across Western Europe, where after being bombarded with one bloated cathedral after another your senses dull and the whole spectacle of codes and pompous artifice starts to press in on your sense like white noise. So it feels good to be reminded that it isn’t all Catholic ostentatiousness. The classic French kitchen can also be larger than life, mysterious, immersive, confident and protective. So if you like starched linen, Gallery knows how to deck them.
Gallery Restaurant at Hótel Holt
Bergstadastraeti 37, 101 Reykjavík
What We Think: Old guard French dining with some new twists
Flavour: French, laboured, rich in both senses of the word and unrepentant
Ambiance: Big and not too subtle
Service: Our server was likable but not up to the standard of a place like this. Too casual, forgot bread, water, unfamiliar with menu and wine list
Price (for 2 with drinks): 25–30,000 ISK (á la carte), 15–20,000 (fixed and lunch)