From foraged craft cocktails to shrimp heads, this Icelandic gastro-pub exemplifies joy in brevity
When I first wrote about Hlemmur Mathöll’s opening, I simply called it Mathöll, ending the article wondering if the concept would be a paradigm shift in the local culinary scene. Six years later, food halls have become so commonplace, they seem to mushroom all over the country, offering sameness in different locations. Rarely do any make the cut that renders each distinct.
Not so with the OG, however. Hlemmur Mathöll continues to be the heavyweight, showing others how it’s done. Here, the recipe for a successful food hall is in plain sight: choose ambitious ventures with originality and quality, and a good mix of big name brands and spunky newcomers. A more recent addition to the recipe for success I simply must add having experienced disastrous dining experiences in other mathölls: cutlery offered by individual stalls.
If one were to say that the success of Hlemmur Mathöll has centred on Skál!, they wouldn’t be wrong. From day one of their operations, Skál! has managed to exceed expectations and defy easy categorisation, with the food and drinks maintaining an enviously high standard in terms of sheer deliciousness and affordability.
Icelandic gastro fare
While we are often late to global trends here, a group of ingenious entrepreneurs expanded the definition of a gastropub while redefining casual dining in an extremely challenging market. Björn Steinar and Gísli Grímsson from Saltverk, Iceland’s best known sea salt, and chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson from Slippurinn were the stellar team behind Skál! that started it all.
Did Skál! set out to be a gastropub, or has it ever called itself one? Not at all. But given the equal focus on brews and braises – you could pop in for a glass of minerally natural wine, craft cocktails, or beers from local and guest breweries, and pair it with plate after plate of carefully concocted dishes – the gastropub moniker comes naturally.
Things are slightly different today at Skál!. Gísli has moved on to focus on his Vestmannaeyjar-based projects and Danish chef Thomas Lorentzen has ably taken over the reins at the beloved spot.
Truth be told, despite its steadfastness, Skál! did suffer from bouts of inconsistency that peaked during the departures or absences of head chefs. In the past couple of years since Thomas’ arrival, that consistency long associated with this restaurant, has resurfaced. Even from his early days, one could sense that the legacy dishes of Skál! would prove to be limiting for a chef of his calibre. Boasting head chef stints at a smattering of respected Danish establishments, including Restaurant Kadeau, Thomas has been bold with his additions to the Skál! menu.
It isn’t always easy to step into the shoes of someone like Gísli. It is here at Skál! that we had our first taste of cod wings. It is also here that we saw the humble beet elevated to more than its earthy roots, prompting repeat orders through the evening. It is also where Fanney Dóra, when she was the head chef, debuted her smoked carrot dish, silken ribbons of carrots cured in soy and söl, at once smoky, salty and reminiscent of smoked fish, prompting fall-short copycats across town.
Of sesame oil cocktails and shrimp heads
Skál! has always redefined trends. Before anyone had heard about natural wines, barring the handful of Copenhagen transplants (who’d proudly point out the lack of availability), Skál! introduced us to that zippy, bubbly, sometimes fickle world. They experimented with and executed a cocktail with soy and sesame oil (a damn good one at that!) before craft cocktails became commonplace. Small plates found new meaning and expression here, then with their cauliflower a la buffalo wings, with the nicest pickled celery, and now with their deep-fried spot prawn heads that are a crackling delight of texture and heady flavours, one whose return I fervently await.
It has been heartening to see a dedicated test kitchen at Skál! The kitchen regularly posts its exploits on Instagram, prompting loyal diners to grab a bite of whatever it is the kitchen is working out. Quite popular in Europe, but rarely seen on menus here, a dish of retired dairy cow was on a recent lunch menu, which I regretfully missed. The skirt steak (3550 ISK), despite its popularity, has never been my favourite; the meat is too often too stringy and remains nondescript despite the tasty accompaniments.
The lamb (2950 ISK) however, consistently delivers big flavours on what otherwise looks like a very simple composition: here is a pink roundel with a thin black ring around (medium rare cooked lamb fillet dusted in leek ash), one pristinely creamy quenelle of sunchokes spaced slightly apart from its darker black garlic counterpart, the respite of green in the pureed parsley. It is a beautifully composed dish both on the plate and the palate, proving once again that small plates aren’t simply code for lazy tapa portions.
Beyond seasonal sustainability
Buying local (veljum íslenskt) has been championed for so long in Iceland that it is easy to forget that quality often doesn’t configure in that equation. Restaurants, however, have long been the silent champions of local, seasonal, high quality produce one doesn’t always see on store shelves. Skál! has been persistent in this regard. Be it the goat meat “shepherd’s pie,” foraged pineapple weed and angelica, or the hand-dived scallops, dining here has that rooted-in-Iceland feeling to it. The menu rotates often and reflects the seasons in a thought-provoking fashion, moving beyond fads.
Take those aforementioned scallops for instance. Around their debut they used to be Faroese, with little squirts of rhubarb studded through. Then Thomas’ duet with the Westfjörd scallops, with slices of the meat, layered between paper thin discs of turnip, and a milky cucumber sauce, served alongside an open toast of smoked scallop roe is now in its most pristine avatar — served ice-cold, in the shell, with a tinglingly refreshing red currant granita and hazelnut oil (2750 ISK). The horseradish provides the kick necessary to jolt through the creamy bites and all the temperatures and textures elevate it to a memorable spoonful. This dedication to work and rework ingredients and dishes into versions that keep getting better when you thought they simply were perfect as is, is really the reason many continue to return to Skál!
Vegetarians and vegans need not fret. Sure the beet dish has been struck off this new menu (gasp and horror!), but I admire that Thomas has eased us into the transition with a smoky, charred zucchini (2150 ISK) that really is a delight.
The beverage flight is as dedicated to its craft as the food. Natural wines are plentiful by the glass, and chances are they will have your favourite open by the bottle, like the very affordable and pleasing Succes cuca de llum. Mæja Sif Danielsdóttir will happily walk you through this exciting landscape if you are a newcomer. I recently had a glass of expressive zippy, floral leaning Gruner Veltliner from Claus Presinger that made for a great night-cap.
Turning foraging for the masses into a whole new experience are the cocktails and drinks. Urban and rural lines blur with ingredients like pineapple weed, angelica and lovage central to the libations. Helmed by acclaimed bartender Keli Ingi, whose work I have been earnestly following since his Nostra days. Here he marries the Skál! principle of local with his chef-like approach to ingredients. He also mixes mocktails with as much care and complexity as he does his cocktails. Instead of too-sweet ginger beer tumblers, expect herby, bitter, fruity and smoky. The three citrus gimlet (2950 ISK) is seemingly simple but, like many of his drinks, hides a depth of technique and time working with ingredients. The seasonal lemonades are homages to summers past with rhubarb beating others in popularity.
What Skál! does with aplomb is deliver on that sweet spot of creative fine dining that doesn’t break the bank. It doesn’t preach its principles about food; instead, it is a lively, joyous celebration of flavour. Their continued ambition and dedication to technique and quality puts Skál! notches above stand-alone restaurants professing to do the same, but delivering none of the chutzpah or originality seen here. Whether it is for a simple snack with wine, an intimate dinner with a friend, or a rambunctious group seeking something electric, Skál! has you covered.
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