Published January 6, 2018
About a year ago, eschewing the somewhat overfamiliar New Nordic trend, a delightful little ‘Nordic Italian’ restaurant opened up on Hverfisgata. While the original focus was fleeting, in its short life, Mat Bar has already made a firm place for itself on the downtown restaurant circuit.
It is no secret that Mat Bar’s mozarella (1,880 ISK) has something of a following. Guðjón Hauksson, the owner, sought out a little known local Italian cheesemaker to produce fresh, handmade mozzarella balls that quite possibly rival their Italian brethren. A play on the traditional caprese, this fresh cheese is paired with pickled tomatoes and basil oil. It’s light, refreshing, and an instant ticket to summer.
This (best) produce-first approach has held the restaurant in good stead. The menu changes seemingly in the blink of an eye, with favourite dishes coming back in new forms, taking on both the mood of the kitchen and the diktats of the weather.
Take, for instance, the crushed potatoes (1,180 ISK). In winter, the spuds are served with stracciatella and pickled chillies, while in the summer they came doused with rosemary and sea salt. The glazed carrots (1,380 ISK), once tossed in a dusting of sprightly herbs, are now warming and festive, served with wholegrain mustard and roasted granola clusters.
Unorthodox wild ride
Mat Bar has become one of my favourite restaurants in town. I’ve been on lunch dates with girlfriends, date nights, and hosted groups big and small—and each time, Mat Bar has delivered. So when I say I’ve given their their wild-wild west approach to menu rotation a lot of thought, trust me. And it’s not just the menu changes—the kitchen recently snagged a new coal-fired grill, with many staples subsequently reimagined with sear and smoke.
When they replaced my favourite baby calamari with pickled lemons, I cried a little. But the new grilled version with an olive tapenade, pickled chillies and fiery panko (1,760 ISK) are flash grilled and tender, with the olives making for a lovely earth-meets-sea bite.
The ‘blind menu’ vibe has also grown on me. How else would I have stumbled upon possibly the best bite I have had this year? The grilled scallops (1,990 ISK) are barely cooked, their unctuous sweetness brightened by a sauce reminiscent of a Romesco.
Nibble on a bone
The lamb chops (2,890 ISK) and veal (3,150 ISK) are two other stars of Mat Bar’s current menu. The latter is served best as the on-the-bone version—it’s juicy, and captures the ‘ladies in dresses who nibble on a bone’ vibe that Guðjón admits he was going for. This gumption to push boundaries and test ideas is what draws me to Mat Bar. Who else would’ve push grilled radicchio on unsuspecting Icelanders, not to mention, more recently, lamb hearts?
It is a pity, though, that besides the house standards, one has to buy wine by the bottle. A single glass would be great for social drinkers like me. But, then again, cocktails like the negroni (2,500 ISK) and the basil gobernador (2,180 ISK) are simply excellent.
Mat Bar has come far from its Nordic Italian roots. Today, it’s a bohemian little place with a lot of soul and great prices. I know that whenever I dine there, a delicious fate awaits me.