It is hard to decry the ills of tourism when one can today find great cafés and restaurants even in municipalities outside of Reykjavík—something that was unheard of even just a few years ago. While the downtown area may still be the extent of most people’s travels within the city, the surrounding neighbourhoods now offer choice, quality—and terrible cocktails.
For Chef Einar Hjaltason and his wife and partner Kristjana Þura, the decision to open Von Mathús in Hafnarfjordur was likely about being closer to home—Kristjana is from the harbour town. Von is focussed on seasonal produce; its name translates as “hope.”
Our own hope for a cosy date night was threatened by the sluggish service. For close to 40 minutes, there was no sign of our drinks, food or even the bread basket. Despite a specific request for a not-too-sweet cocktail, the gin smash (1950 ISK)—a muddled lovage gimlet, essentially—was a trip to the nammi aisle on a Friday night. Did I drink it? It was too expensive not to.
Thankfully, our desperation was eased by the modest-sounding chicken skin (2290 ISK). It’s not often that restaurants can wow you with inventiveness without resorting to gimmicks. What appeared to be an innocent slice of toast turned out to be compressed chicken skin, encrusted with rye crumbs and pan cooked to perfection. The wisps of tarragon mayonnaise could have been lifted by fresh tarragon—a perfect foil to the unctuous skin. Nonetheless, this was one of the best bites we’d had all year.
Crudos seem to be popular, but Von’s version, served with lemon mayonnaise, toasted hazelnuts and nori (2190 ISK) left us a bit cold. It stood no chance next to the chicken skin, but it also suffered from poor knife skills—a crucial detail in such a simple dish.
We noticed at this point that the tables next to us were also suffering the fate of the long wait. The delay was inexplicable, given that the restaurant wasn’t full. That cloud of dread threatened to engulf the evening, and it took forever for the mains to arrive.
My slow-cooked ox cheek (4200 ISK) was rightly tender, and fell apart with a whisper. The pickled cauliflower florets and roasted cauliflower mash were deep and flavourful. The bacon bits were an unnecessary flourish in an otherwise solid dish.
My husband’s fish of the day (3400 ISK) was a complete success, and hit all the right notes—a good piece of ling with lots of butter, and beautifully cooked veggies. The pea puree with whole peas divided opinion, but I’m a firm believer in texture, and couldn’t resist stealing bites of the lovely green goo.
We rounded off our meal with an apple, and a blood orange (1590 ISK each). The former was a take on apple pie tailored for the inner child: a whole roasted apple with puff pastry, ice cream and caramel sauce. The latter was a more adult dessert with parsnip puree and blood orange granita. Creamy, crunchy and unexpected.
Von Mathús seems to be running on the spell of its food alone. If the wine list were improved, the cocktails sophisticated enough to justify the price, and the service not so protracted, it could be a destination on its own. For now, it’s an upscale neighbourhood joint. For the sake of that chicken skin, I hope they tighten the service reins.