One of the highlights of a small food market in Reykjavík last Christmas was a pop-up Italian bar. It flabbergasted us visitors with dried olives and smoked almonds that we ate by the fistful, leaving us thoroughly intrigued. Now, that little pop-up has opened the doors of its new Hverfisgata location to the public.
Guðjón Hauksson is the man behind Mat Bar. “I actually met my wife in Rome, Italy,” he says. “I lived in Bergamo and Lombardy for a while. We travelled a lot, and did guiding tours in Sicily. Our friends like to go where we go—off the beaten track. So Italy is very close to my heart.”
Chef Gisli Auðunsson from Slippurinn was instrumental in developing the menu, and the Nordic influence is apparent in the flourishes on each plate. But the kitchen at Mat Bar is rooted in the simplicity of Italian cooking. “We use very clean, high-quality produce, and we don’t do anything complicated, so that the ingredients can shine,” says Guðjón. “But we add a twist with a little Nordic-style cooking. We pickle a lot, we smoke, and we use local ingredients like skyr.”
Seasonal and Local
Guðjón works with local suppliers to ensure the quality of Mat Bar’s ingredients. “There is a lot of really high-quality produce in Iceland,” he says. “Both slow food, and from small producers. For a long time I had my offices in Sjávarklassin, working as a consultant for both food and seafood companies. I realised how many people there are making locally harvested, beautiful products like this monkfish liver for instance. I call it the foie gras of the sea. They are mainly exporting it. Typically for Iceland, nobody is using it here.”
His mission to celebrate local produce is front and centre on Mat Bar’s menu. The monkfish liver (1720 ISK) we’d heard so much about was sublime, like a custard-y foie gras with nary a trace of its original ocean abode. Served with in-house pickled rofa (local turnip), brussel sprouts and peppers, it was a true reflection of the Nordic-influenced Italian fare Mat Bar strives to showcase.
We also tried textbook-perfect arancini (1280 ISK): shatteringly crisp outside, cuddling a creamy risotto with al-dente rice. The locally made mozzarella with pickled tomatoes and basil oil (1880 ISK) gave way to telltale signs of hand-pulled layers in the fist-sized generous blob of cheese. A local purveyor is making it specially for Mat Bar. The grilled squid (1760 ISK) sounded tame only on the menu. Tender baby squid, tentacles fried, body grilled to a velvety smoothness one does not associate with squid sat atop smooshed pickled lemons: a clever play on texture, with smoky and sour notes. This dish displayed a welcome restraint with sauces, typically unseen in Iceland, but a constant theme here—which we hope they continue.
“I want beautiful produce on the Mat Bar menu,” finished Guðjón. “We’ll continue to have a lot of off-menu food that is seasonal. I want Icelandic produce to be available to diners.” If you haven’t been to Mat Bar yet, make sure you do. Dine like the Italians do, Aperol Spritz in hand.