Reykjavik’s newest restaurant is a combination of many good things
It was evident in early social media posts about seemingly underground suppers taking place in clandestine locations that Nebraska was not cut from the same cloth as other Reykjavík eateries. It’s not everyday that you walk into a restaurant with a clothing store as a front. But that is exactly what Nebraska is – a cosy little restaurant tucked away in an eclectic fashion boutique.
If you have lived in the capital a while or even just visited recently, you’ll have noticed the influx of dining options that stretch across the two kilometre length of Laugavegur, downtown’s main walking street. While not every opening has us jumping for joy, there are sometimes ventures like Nebraska.
Right off the main street, the storefront betrays no existence of the restaurant, except for discrete signage. Regulars are known to take great pleasure in leading their fellow diners on a merry little find-the-restaurant chase. Once you are in however, the now commonplace interior playbook of industrial chic is made somewhat fresher with the addition of deep green tile work. A long ramp leads guests, transforming them from possible shoppers to potential diners.
And if you are wondering if putting a restaurant and shop together makes for smelly clothes or drunken shopping adventures, at least the latter option is off the table thanks to an excellent exhaust system, co-owner Kjartan Óli Guðmundsson assures with a grin. “It’s definitely a good combination,” he says. “It’s a talking point and people love getting sunglasses and shirts after a few glasses of wine,” he laughs, “it just takes the edge off a bit.”
Guðmundur Jörundsson, Benedikt Andrasson and Kjartan are the brains behind Nebraska. Between them they have experience running successful fashion brands, product design and cooking professionally. The three are further bonded by their “shared insanity,” chuckles Kjartan, as he retraces the timeline of how things came together organically over the trio’s love of good food, good wine and design – all elements reflected at the restaurant.
With a menu that freely borrows from Europe and elsewhere, the food is light and fresh, in a vein associated with Kjartan, especially if you are familiar with his work at pop-up dining outfit Borðhald.
Trials and tribulations
Lucking out with a blank canvas of a space was just the beginning for the team. “When we were looking for a spot we wanted it to be in the centre, but not smack downtown,” Kjartan reveals. His wish for a location a little off the beaten track, so people would have to search for it, was amply rewarded when they found a completely empty space to be designed just as they envisioned. Since all three founders have a background in design, they handled the design of the space themselves, with some capable hands chipping in along the way.
Kjartan and co. were clearly pushing their luck attempting not just a restaurant, but a restaurant within a store. “We had quite a few challenges with navigating the licence jungle,” he confesses. “Since it is a very unclear process, it could be a lot more transparent if it would be possible to access a guide or a rulebook on what you need to open a restaurant. Right now it looks like it depends a bit on the opinion of what city official you talk to.”
Unlike our Nordic neighbours, building codes in Iceland are often archaic and stem from a reckless abandon for rulemaking that is at once specific, curiously vague and open to interpretation. The result is often restaurants that are investor backed where food is an afterthought, or restaurants that have to appeal to a bottomline at the expense of creativity or joy since the logistics of running a restaurant are simply too monetarily demanding.
Kjartan agrees. “It is an inefficient system and that is not good for the development of the city. The inefficiency is also very expensive for companies, and it often pushes businesses to bankruptcy and eventually just makes things more expensive for the customers.” This is a common refrain, one that has been highlighted time and time again, but seems to be of little concern to indifferent or oblivious policymakers. For comparison, ease of doing business in Denmark is ranked 4th globally, while Iceland is ranked 26.
Building code and health regulations are often overlooked as factors in building a vibrant city life, but instances like this bring to the fore how much real world influence they actually wield.
A fortunate turn of events
With the help of Ar. Arnhildur Pálmadóttir and Húsform, the team was eventually successful in navigating the paperwork labyrinth, resulting in a regulation approved ramp that now forms the very heart of the space. A semi-open kitchen overlooks the bar and the handful of seating that is grouped together in a very intimate, dinner-party-at-home vibe. The store Nebraska opened in December 2021 and, with the world rocked by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the restaurant Nebraska opened its doors almost a year later.
There are specific Borðhald influences on the menu – the light, easy breezy fair, not too fussy plating, rendered here in a more down to earth fashion seeing as the kitchen relies on well known classics with a few tweaks here and there.
A selection of bar snacks that go beyond olives and nuts is a welcome trend starting to gain foothold in the city, and the meat croquettes are particularly lovely here. Depending on what the kitchen is in the mood for, they are either made with lamb or beef. There are sardines and toast, and even caviar if you are feeling fancy. The chicken thighs are moreish with a sticky glaze and hit the spot when washed down with one of their many bottles of wine.
Nebraska imports fun, interesting wines from multiple importers and even has their own little production company called Grugg og Makk that makes Icelandic beer brews that lean on both beer and wine making traditions.
“We are very focused on providing a good curated wine list and are big believers that restaurants should have a focused drink program, for us it is everything from expensive and exclusive Burgundies and Bordeaux, to funky natural wines, a few simple cocktails and a small selection of beer, but really wine is our focus,” Kjartan adds. “We have good wines fairly priced and our selection by the glass is always of good quality and fairly priced compared to quality. Then we also make our own arancello and vermouth in-house and we have more such experiments in process.” The cocktails are especially delicious, with the bartenders happy to whip something up tailored to your fancies.
Vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters can all happily graze as one at Nebraska. Our favourite dish has remained the celery root carpaccio; with its wafer thin discs of the pickled root vegetable scattered with crunchy almonds and pomegranates and musky vegan goat cheese – it is an ideal starter before moving on to the heavy hitters. The babaghanoush, however, suffers from trying too hard. What should be a generous dip situation is turned into a spread-on flatbread dish that is cumbersome to eat and begs that age old question: does everything need to be reinterpreted?
The Middle Eastern-Levant influence is strong on the menu, continuing with the shakshuka. This one borrows from seemingly everywhere and is made heartier with the addition of chickpeas. It also happens to be vegan – no, you don’t really miss the eggs.
Meat lovers, on the other hand, will find comfort in an appropriately unctuous, fall off the bone ossobuco, served with all the traditional accoutrements of mashed potatoes, veggies and red wine sauce. How I’d love it for them to also throw in a marrow scoop for a fitting finale.
Desserts are simple but well done. The cardamom scented crème brûlée is a nice nod to both French and Icelandic traditions. It perhaps sums up Nebraska best.
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