The coming together of two local institutions recently created an excited buzz in the local dining scene, when the folks behind Iceland’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Dill, took over the dining reins at Hotel Holt.
A Reykjavík institution, Hotel Holt is evocative of a bygone era, with dark wood panelling, deeply creased leather couches, and an unbeatable private art collection. The halls have seen innumerable weddings, discreet business shake-ups, and not-so-discreet attorney-banker drinking binges. Dill, on the other hand, put Iceland on the global culinary map, recently retaining its Michelin star for a second year.
I sat down for a chat with Holt’s newly-installed head chef, Ragnar Eiriksson, surrounded by original Kjarval sketches in the Hotel Bar. His team was putting together Iceland’s first, exclusive chef’s table—a private table in the restaurant kitchen, for guests seeking that extra touch of luxury. To say I was weak-kneed with anticipation is an understatement.
Old and New
Restaurant Gallery practically introduced French-style cuisine to Icelanders. Chef Eiriksson has been bold enough to leave out the Gallery’s mainstay lobster soup and I couldn’t help wondering if this was also a personal departure from the old. The menu shows not a trace of Nouveau French cuisine or—surprise, surprise—New Nordic, either.
‘’Forget everything that’s called French’’, Ragnar says, intently. ‘’I’m no longer painting on the New Nordic canvas. I can do whatever I want—I can use ginger and olives if I want to. Ingredients that are not associated with the—in my opinion—very worn-out concept of New Nordic.’’
I wonder aloud—is this Ragnar breaking out of the New Nordic mould? “This is my escape,” he laughs. “This is my Exodus. Coming here has given me the space to do whatever I want. I don’t work for a trend company.” He pauses, continuing: “New Nordic cuisine has sort of reached its peak, and the wave is washing back now. But you can really apply the philosophy of it anywhere.”
Weight of expectation
So what can people expect from the new Holt? “Luxury,” says Ragnar, “and comfort. A friend told me years ago that the word ‘restaurant’ means a place where you go rest, and restore yourself. You’re buying a break. Especially with a seven-course tasting menu in a room full of beautiful paintings—you’re occupying your time for the next three hours. It’s like going to the theatre.”
About jaded expectations though, Ragnar says “It doesn’t affect what we do, really. We came here to change things up a bit, and hopefully, we did. We are not here to follow some 50-year old legacy. We’re here to crash the party,” he guffaws.
It is surreal watching a quiet kitchen in action, with the swift lick of flames on one side and the monastic silence of a chef sorting salt-cured wedges of cucumber on another, all while Ragnar tinkers with his Spotify playlist of The Beatles and The Clash while deftly plating a grilled wedge of gem lettuce, doused in a butter sauce and dotted with trout eggs—our favourite course of the night.
The food we’re served is free of tweezered precision. It’s a relief that the food at Holt matches our earlier conversation. But it’s early days yet for the new venture, and the kitchen is likely smoothing out kinks. The fillet of trout crowned with buttermilk foam is a runaway success; the poached rhubarb with ginger and coconut cream, a work in progress. The wheat berry risotto with a few brown hop grains scattered in there is malty and toothsome, the lightly floured veal sweetbreads on top are decadent, if a touch overdone. I can see myself returning just for this dish, although the menu does seem a bit unfocused.
Overall, the new Holt offers a cosy dinner of comforting simplicity, and I look forward to seeing the menu progress with a little more work and time to develop.