From Iceland — Sakebarinn: The Devil Is In The Details

Sakebarinn: The Devil Is In The Details

Ragnar Egilsson
Words by
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

Published June 18, 2015


Laugavegur 2, 2nd floor, 101 Rvk
Everyday 17:00-11:00
What we think
An affordable, below-average sushi place.
Rich and fruity take on westernized sushi.
Relaxed and intimate.
Price for 2
8,000 - 14,000 ISK

Japan and Iceland seem to have a lot in common—they are homogenous, nationalistic island nations that depend on the ocean’s bounty and are at the mercy of fickle plate tectonics. However, culturally, the two couldn’t be further apart. These differences are perfectly summed up by how the two nations approach cuisine— Japan is known for its minimalism and meticulous attention to detail while traditional Icelandic food is a haphazard jumble of processed, sauce-drenched meat dishes. When the sushi tradition made its way to Iceland, this cultural union gave birth to a strange chimera and I doubt even a Maury Povich paternity test could convince the Japanese they had a hand in its creation.

Japanese cuisine is synonymous with sushi in Iceland. The type of sushi Icelanders will be most familiar with will be Western-style with avocados and cream cheese, further localized through deepfrying and decking with mayo, Sriracha, fried onions, and teriyaki sauce. Aside from the salmon, the overwhelming majority of the ingredients will have no connection to Iceland or Japan and will not be sourced locally. I should note that this type of sushi is massively popular in Iceland and my vocal disapproval of it is generally not shared by my countrymen.

Due to my slant against the local sushi tradition, I invited two people to broaden the spectrum of opinion: a relative newcomer to sushi and someone who had tried a lot of sushi, but did not share my distaste for the Icelandic variety.

None of us were pleased with what Sakebarinn had to offer and it was quickly obvious that it was your middle-of-the-road bargain sushi place.

It shouldn’t be hard to offer decent sushi in Iceland. We have access to highquality seafood and the bar is set low. Sakebarinn smacks into that bar like a fat kid in a hurdle race.

It was the consistent lack of professionalism and attention to detail that wore us down over the course of the meal, from the phone manners that felt like I was interrupting a flustered teenager mid-text, through the peeling letters in the logo on the staircase, to the servers who seemed confused by our presence and reluctant to engage us, culminating in a delayed meal which compared unfavourably with the pre-made sushi trays you can pick up at supermarket chain Krónan.

Normally I would roll out a list of all the items we tasted, but it is complicated by the fact that the majority of the items we ordered weren’t available and had to be substituted. This was on a weekend with lively downtown traffic so it’s a mystery why they were consistently out of stock. The sake shortage was the most glaring, considering the name of the place. The selection totalled seven sakes, at least three of which were out of stock. On each occasion, we could expect a five to forty minute delay before being asked to pick something else.

We were able to order the sushi-sashimi combo platter (2,950 ISK), the Best for One combo (2,750 ISK), the shrimp pizza (1,990 ISK), the grilled reindeer on a stick (890 ISK), the Mango Tango roll (1,990 ISK) and a couple pieces of unagi nigiri (990 ISK). To drink we had a house white and our third choice of sake and, as they didn’t have any Japanese beer on tap, I ordered an Einstök, which was served in a large Víking pint glass. They also offer a fruit-flavoured sake made on the premises which this time around was mango and blueberry. The sake was priced between 500 and 990 ISK.

The staff did the best with what they had and to their credit they did offer us a drink on the house after the fourth item was revealed to be out of stock. I won’t lay into them further as the shortcomings of the staff are clearly the result of poor training.

The sushi itself was uneventful. Almost all of the rolls were uramaki and very large futomaki (sumomaki?). Most of the maki were half-collapsed on the plate and the rest fell apart at the first touch. The end-pieces of the maki rolls would sometimes be left on the plate. The deepfried pieces were chewy and the salmon lustreless, the rice stale and cold. The grilled reindeer consisted of some kind of meat pudding, which had been formed around a skewer and had a uniquely offputting texture. Aside from the reindeer, we were able to scarf the whole thing down without much drama.

The standout items on the menu were the more exotic makis, which Sakebarinn can be said to specialize in, such as the Mango Tango roll. It had a nice combination of sweet-and-savoury—maybe Sakebarinn could find some success as some kind of Izakaya Tiki party bar.

The best thing that could be said for it is the location, which is in a charming old building with a lot of history (it used to be a fancy hat store, among other things). With the right seat you get a nice view over downtown Reykjavík.

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