From Iceland — A Stubbornly Seafood-Only Restaurant

A Stubbornly Seafood-Only Restaurant

Published July 3, 2024

A Stubbornly Seafood-Only Restaurant
Photo by
David Maupile & Ana Rebelo Pinto

Sjávarpakkhúsið is well worth the drive to Stykkishólmur

Iceland is perpetually going to be known as the land of fish and even better lamb. Walk down any street, anywhere in the country and chances are that you are minutes away from a fish of the day offer, or a seafood restaurant that actually has just the one token seafood dish. Not Sjávarpakkhúsið, though. The name means “Seafood Packaging House” — which incidentally, it was for a while — and the restaurant now honours both its memory and its seaside location by serving seafood and only seafood.

It almost seems like harakiri, serving just seafood. What about those who want to eat some meat? Or none! You know, choice?! But head up to Stykkishólmur, a mere two hour drive from the capital area, and you’ll see why. Of all the places in Iceland where one could run a seafood-centric restaurant, this area of Breiðafjörður is the most well-suited.

If you look at a map of Iceland and you see a bay separating the capital area from the wispy, fingered fringes of the West? That is Breiðafjörður. And that shallow bay, with its archipelago of teeny islands scattered like rice grains in the ocean makes for a rich aquatic life. Even if you haven’t stepped foot in Stykkishólmur or this region, chances are you’ve had a taste of the area if you’ve tried local mussels or scallops being served in Reykjavík eateries.

Seafood everything

Stykkishólmur is dotted with jewel box-like timber houses, pristine examples that betray the wealth of its former occupants, but their careful restoration serves as a sign of the wealth of the current occupants. Sjávarpakkhúsið, too, is a respectfully restored twee little house that overlooks the town’s pride: the harbour and Súgandisey. Walking into the restaurant is an immediate respite from the bitingly cold north winds and the soothing moody blues and greys of the tasteful interiors subtly hint at the treat that awaits you. Everything is appropriately aquatic, from the old photographs on the walls, to little flourishes like anchors and hooks. A small piano is tucked away close to the bar, in case you feel like being the evening’s entertainment.

Everything is appropriately aquatic, from the old photographs on the walls, to little flourishes like anchors and hooks.

The dining room seats just about 30 odd people and is often a mix of local diners and passers through. The low ceiling height of the intimate spacing succeeds in creating that enviable, chic private dinner vibe, which is further heightened by the candle light and early summer gloaming.

The menu is simple; a study in its no-nonsense presentation of small dishes, big dishes and sides. Thankfully, they have steered away from the “plates to share” madness that has gripped the capital — one I hope we recover from soon. The wine menu is small, but on trend with a mix of traditional and natural wines. Cocktails focus on house made syrups and infusions from local ingredients and even the teetotaller is willingly accommodated.

My partner and I made a beeline for the tasting menu, eager to try as many dishes as we could. And the 10,900 ISK price tag for six courses almost seems too good to be true.

Things are off to a crackling start: fried to order, barely sweet soðbrauð (traditional fried bread, reminiscent of kleina, sans cardamom) are served with in-season lumpfish roe. The glistening peachy pearls are all pop and crunch, an unexpected but successful pairing with the warm bread. The scallops — the pride of Breiðafjörður — are served cubed, in the shell, a Nordic take on ceviche with a bright herb oil and a ponzu-kombu dressing. Rounding things off were piping hot deep-fried cod cheeks smothered in a rhubarb barbeque sauce. We devour every single bite, marvelling at the simple yet beautifully constructed plates, delighting over the warm bread, arguing over the proportion of cream cheese to roe (more roe please!), and debating who should get the last piece of cheek. A crisp, young Riesling from Sybille Kuntz (2200 ISK) works splendidly over the course of the meal.

As we wait for our mains, we can overhear our next table neighbours. It is clear that one of them is a regular and her guest is a first-timer. A true ambassador for the restaurant, you could hear her describe the dishes on the menu to her guest, check with the owner about specifics and masterfully guide her dining companion to try new things he seemed to be on the fence about. At our own table, my daughter was refusing to share her dish of lightly smoked arctic char tartare (2890 ISK). I did manage to sneak a bite of the flatkaka “crisp” — a playful chip and dip situation.

By now our mains have arrived. First up is a lightly smoked trout, with chunky green apples and shaved fennel, blanketed with a wasabi sauce that tasted more green than expected, perhaps from the wasabi leaves? My partner and I are divided; the fresh bits and bobs don’t seem to lift the dish, well cooked as it is. Perhaps it is the many iterations of this same formula that has become commonplace and our palates are jaded by its predictability. A head scratching slow cooked cod dish (4350 ISK) with Feykir cheese and caramelised onions for dinner on another occasion had us similarly amused and wondering if the Italians do indeed know what their seafood-cheese fuss is about.

In any case, the kitchen quickly regains our interest with the wolffish. In this case, spotted wolffish sits on a celeriac puree that is neither stodgy nor too watery. Bronzed slices of the fish are bathed tableside in a creamy horseradish sauce studded with more of that lumpfish roe we simply can’t seem to get enough when in season. A simple fish-vegetable-sauce formula may seem predictable, but this dish is proof of why it works. With this plate, the chef also honours balance, keeping that green herb oil to a whisper and letting the sinus clearing sharpness of the horseradish shine.

It takes more than a healthy lashing of guts and a generous sprinkling of madness to open a restaurant away from the capital area that serves exclusively local seafood.

As we await dessert, we look around to find the restaurant packed. Many travelling couples are also enjoying the tasting menu, several clearly in town specifically to dine at Sjávarpakhús (it’s a small place, and I’m a keen listener, shhh). It makes sense given the reputation the restaurant has garnered. It takes more than a healthy lashing of guts and a generous sprinkling of madness to open a restaurant away from the capital area that serves exclusively local seafood.

Delicious detour

Sjávarpakkhúsið is aware of its off-the-trodden path reputation and is helpful and flexible when it comes to reservations. An accommodation I imagine is harder to make during peak travel season. I urge you to make that reservation and keep it. At a time when dining out is increasingly expensive, here is an establishment that takes its commitment to its community and environment seriously — they even have a Nordic Swan certificate for their operations — and reflects that same honesty in its pricing and service.

For longer than is justifiable, I’d put off dining here, citing excuses like distance and convincing myself I’d already tried the seafood from the area. Don’t be me. Drive to Stykkishólmur — a truly warm experience awaits.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!