I dodge the diagonal raindrops of Rey-jah-vik’s spring through the glass front of the former hair salon turned upscale Nordic dining spot. The restaurant carries a muted industrial vibe, spread over three tiers. The open kitchen is on the bottom, and the bar rests up top. I take a seat within eyeshot of the bar. Matwerk. The name of the restaurant recalls German leather dungeons and cackling scientists.
Behind me, Chinese tourists are committing to their social media game with top-of-the-line video cameras. A couple at the next table stares longingly at the passing tourists, their fingers itching for Tinder. The lighting at Matwerk is perfect for date nights, and on the Nordic lounge mixtape, Lykke Li sings about following rivers.
The owners of Matwerk are chef Guðjón Kristjánsson and restaurateur Þórður Bachmann, who brought us Grillhúsið and Restaurant Reykjavík. The head chef is Stefán Hlynur Karlsson, coming in from Fish Company. The team describes their approach as “New Nordic Fusion.” In that spirit, we chose the two set menus. The Nordic Menu is a four course menu consisting of fish soup, beef cheek, lamb top round, and fried dough balls (8,500 ISK). The Matwerk Menu offers pork belly, beef tartar, Arctic char, and skyr brulée (7,900 ISK).
A modern twist on the early 20th century classic cocktail was dubbed “Future of Aviation” thanks to the addition of butterfly pea flower tea, which had the ability to morph from sky blue to lilac with the addition of citric acid. It’s a nice idea, but the chance for childlike wonder was lost by serving an already-lilac drink.
There were other misfires—the beef cheek may have been rescued from the cheap cuts tray by restaurants like Babbo in the late 90s, but I don’t know about taking the cheek slumming again with the addition of what looked like nacho cheese sauce and cronions. The Arctic char with dill skyr (I think) and kale was a miss. The char skin was crisp, but the underripe mango was a bad call. The “ástarpungur” (direct translation: “love ballsack”) is a traditional Icelandic pastry, reminiscent of a dense fairground zeppoles with raisins and cardamom extract. This ball had been tarted up with fro-yo and white chocolate, but the flavour and presentation were as limp as as… well, a sack of balls.
There were three standouts on the menu. The pork belly was layered with mustard seeds and circled by toasted barley and sautéed cabbage. The top round of lamb—a common cut in Iceland—struck a great balance between depth of flavor and tenderness, and came paired with sunchokes, the knobby, nutty lovechild of New Nordic chefs. The thick skyr brulée with a tart sheep sorrel sorbet and blueberry jam was delicious enough to demand a return visit.
I must say I expected more adventurousness from Matwerk. What we have is a meat-forward nuts-and-bolts Nordic joint which falters when it dares deviate from the set course. It’s heavy on butter and cream, sauces and purées, and the vegetarian dishes fail to live up to the buttery blocks of protein the carnivores are presented with. While it doesn’t feel particularly modern, Matwerk does stand head and shoulders above the flock of substandard tourist-fleecing restaurants that line Laugavegur. But perhaps that is damning with faint praise.
Bottomline: Matwerk is more kraft than art.