Mixed first impressions at Reykjavík’s new small-plates place, Skreið
I was ecstatic when I heard that this building, at the middle point of Reykjavík’s shopping strip, would finally be home to an honest-to-god business that can be visited by the people who actually live in Reykjavík. Until a few months ago, the house at Laugavegur 4 had been variously empty or housing tourist tripe promising “magic ice” (whatever that is) and now would play home to a pintxo restaurant no less.
The new owners, Steinþór and Ásgeir have successfully woven their Basque-ish restaurant into the existing architecture. Until now, they have been best known as the owners of downtown club Röntgen, but having dipped their beaks into the restaurant scene before, as well as managing downtown festivals like Innipúkinn and Sónar, so there was good reason to expect them to deliver on atmosphere and bonhomie.
The ground floor of Skreið greets you with a small boutique, encased in old newspapers and glass product displays selling take-home wine and sardines, familiar to any of a generation of trendy Icelandic downtowners, who will have squatted for stints in Berlin or Barcelona before settling back in Iceland to procreate and debate city planning in the hot tub of Vesturbæjarlaug.
Making your way up the spiral staircase to the second floor, home to the restaurant proper, you are met with bursts of crocheted cushions, displaying either startled horses or less-startled naked ladies. Out of the two euphemisms for “small”, commonly used by restaurant critics, Skreið definitely leans more “intimate” than “cosy”. This, along with the marriage of second-hand kitsch and casual Barcelona cool, makes for an altogether welcoming atmosphere.
As punters have gotten a peek into the gruelling restaurant world on TV, reality and otherwise, they have begun to shy away from celebrating the singular vision of the “great man” in the kitchen. This is probably for the best if you’ve seen how they let off steam (favourite: Chef Slowik, least favourite: Mario Batali). It’s not clear to me what has taken the place of that great vision, but we seem to be operating along the line of “vibes” now.
This has gotten to the point where I routinely forget to check who is running the back of house. I was quite surprised to see Davíð Örn Hákonarson helming the kitchen. Davíð is a talented chef, coming from a short (but excellent) stint at Hótel Húsafell and as the head chef at CO in Paris, but I simply hadn’t pictured him delving into Spanish cuisine, as his background is resolutely on the Nordic cuisine spectrum.
The good thing about small plate restaurants is that a critic can gobble their way through the whole menu with ease, so you get a good overview of the whole thing.
The peppery catalan olive oil which we were introduced to as a side with the bread ended up taking a prominent role in most of the dishes and overwhelmed some. The splash of oil worked well enough with the eggplant with agave, but overstayed its welcome with the crispy octopus slices and sardines in pil pil sauce (sauce that is oil emulsified with salted cod gelatin).
The range of vegetarian dishes worked best at the table, like the manchego with honey and a dusting of walnuts or the flavoursome sautéed mushrooms with a velvety egg yolk for dipping. The meat dishes were more hit-and-miss. The chorizo was served with little fanfare — three ladyfinger-sized sausages lined up on a white plate with a bit of chunky herb salsa on top – and felt closer to Chinese lap chong in flavour and appearance. The salted cod croquette had a gooey and overly-sweet centre (sweetness was an issue with several dishes). Finally, there was the Basque beef sirloin, which was well-seasoned but served rare enough to have been able to lead the charge in Pamplona.
Skreið makes a strong first impression, with a look and atmosphere that evokes a Barcelona restaurante (that’s Spanish for “restaurant”) but the dishes have a tendency to overcommit to simplicity or attempt a spin on the ingredients that veer off course.
The late night, small plate vibe is welcome in the current restaurant climate and the jovial atmosphere reflects that. While this hasn’t translated yet to the dishes yet, which would benefit from more balancing and vitality, you could do worse than stop for a small veggie plate, some gentle music and a glass of natural wine, before spilling into the streets for some mild-mannered mid-30s mayhem.
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