The Seafood Cellar closed its doors earlier this year and in its place we have Rub23 from Akureyri, opening its second location in Iceland. The Seafood Cellar was one of the best and most progressive restaurants in Iceland, so I think it’s fair to say that the people at Rub23 have their work cut out for them. The comparison is in many ways an unfair one, as the two places set out with completely different aims, but it is also inevitable for fans of the old place to want to see how they measure up.
I have been to Rub23 more than once now, and I feel I have a pretty good idea of what they’re about and have had a chance to try most of what they have on offer. Rub23 is a high concept restaurant. It is a sushi-meat-fish-Japanese-fusion using Icelandic ingredients and the menu is roughly divided into a) sushi/Japanese and b) a variety of fish and meat with accompanying sides and a choice of your own spice rub (such as Arabian, Indian, Creola and Smoked BBQ). Thank God they also offer set menus—a mystery menu and a few fixed sushi platters.
Last time I went there, I picked the mystery menu (7,990 ISK), but this time around I wanted to swim with the sushi. My date and I picked out the following dishes to share: Sushi pizza tempura (1,990 ISK), Rub23 Best Seller (3,790 ISK), Ten Ten Three Tempura Maki (2,290 ISK), a spicy tuna roll (2,290 ISK) and some eel nigiri (690 ISK for two pieces).
Let’s start with the sushi pizza, which from what I gather, hails from Montreal and, much like poutine, there is something about the idea of it that makes me want to bash my brains out with a jar of mayo. But this may be entirely down to my personal, strong-held, traditionalist opinions on sushi and I will try my best to take Rub23 at face value. A sushi pizza is basically a fried maki “patty” topped with some sushiesque delectables. The toppings were a mystery, but I’m pretty sure I tasted salmon and some kind of vegetable. It was actually far tastier than it had any right to be (although I had to take a long, hot shower afterwards).
The Rub23 Best Seller was a pretty standard 14-piece selection although I found the portions a little on the small side. The fish was fresh as is usually the case in Iceland but some of the pieces had too much going on for me to be able to properly enjoy the freshness.
The Ten Ten Three Tempura Maki and the eel nigiri were the stand-out, a very decent tamagoyaki and a tasty tempura lobster and the eel nigiri was one of the best I have had.
Deep-fried maki rolls with mayo may be a pretty distant relation to the subtle spirit of Japanese cuisine, but the results are undeniably pleasing. Similarly, the cooked items such as the lamb and catfish are terrific. The main problem is that there is too much concept getting in the way and most of the plates would benefit from being simplified. To me it feels like they are taking too many liberties—and not always creative liberties. Bottom line: they do the cooked bits well but the raw bits are so-and-so.
To be fair, people were having a great time at the surrounding tables and seemed to be enjoying their meal. In fact the group of eight at the table next to us were having so much fun belting out Eurovision songs that I nearly forgot I was in a restaurant at all. It got to be a bit much and next time I would appreciate if the staff could advise them to do like the seafood and shut their clams. Other than that I have no complaints about the service staff—they were very helpful and clearly know their menus (and that’s no small feat at Rub23).
Rub23 is an ambitious concept and I noticed that they had retained some of the people from The Seafood Cellar, but other than that the two places are simply not in the same league. The variety is refreshing but ultimately I feel it weighs the place down, as does the overwrought concept. Where the Cellar strode confidently, Rub23 feels like an over-eager teenage boy at a school dance trying to show off all his best moves at the same time. You can easily pick out a great three-course meal at Rub23; it’s just too bad you have to pick your way past all those flailing, enthusiastic limbs.
Aðalstræti 2, 101 Reykjavík
What We Think: If you feel that sushi places should be allowed to fry and fuse with impunity then you will probably find little to object to. Sticklers may groan.
Flavour: Pick-your-own-rub meat and fish along with a full sushi menu.
Ambiance: Quiet and romantic the first time around, loud and Eurovisiony the second time around.
Price for 2 (with drinks): 15-20,000 ISK