From Iceland — Veal Tartare With Tough Guy At The Overlook Hotel

Veal Tartare With Tough Guy At The Overlook Hotel

Ragnar Egilsson
Words by
Photo by
Ragnar Egilsson

Published June 24, 2015

Hótel Búðir

Hótel Búðir, 365 Snæfellsnes
What we think
A charming hotel with a rich history but the restaurant leaves something to be desired. Try the tartare, avoid the soups.
Quiet mostly upper-middle class families staring at their plates.
Missed clear-ups and refills due to pulling double duty with other hotel work.
Price for 2
20-30,000 ISK

The undulating highway 54 made a sharp turn by the mountain of Axlarhyrna towards Hótel Búðir and the gunmetal grey waters of Faxaflói Bay. A welcome sight after an hour of watching strong side winds pull ribbons of snowdrift, and the occasional rental car, diagonally across the road into the ditches which flanked it. The hotel rose ominously out of the lava field, between a small cove and a pitch-black 19th-century church. Helped by the dramatic weather conditions, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Jack Torrance peering out of a nearby maze.

The hotel was originally established as a guest house and restaurant in 1947 and looked for all the world like an oversized red summer cabin. In 2001 the hotel burnt to the ground in an electrical fire; it was rebuilt two years later in a mock early- 20th century style. In 2013, a share of the hotel was bought by Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, who, funnily enough, is serving a five-and-a-half year sentence for his part in the market manipulation leading up to the Icelandic banking crash thirty minutes away from the hotel, on the other side of the Snæfellsnes mountain range. It’s not clear whether he still owns a stake.

Once inside, the hotel quickly wins you over with undeniable charm and in the light of day, unburdened by the storm, the surrounding terrain will steal your breath away. The front lobby has an English country hotel vibe, with a vintage reception desk, taxidermied raptors, a telescope to view the islets in the bay, and a chestnut brown Labrador Retriever nestled up by the fireplace (the dog’s name is Nagli, which translates as “Tough Guy”). The hotel may be artificially aged but it certainly feels the part.

We had a very pleasant stay at the hotel but we did notice a certain lack of attention to detail. You would notice a scuff here and a leak there, nothing serious but enough to surprise me. This may be due to the hotel’s isolation and the fact that we were there off-season, but it became harder to swallow once we visited the restaurant.

The meal kicked off with a pleasant rhubarb mojito. The water bottles were repurposed Reyka vodka bottles with a bottom-fill of frozen water, which was a cute touch. With dinner, we had the house red and Einstök Pale Ale.

The night began with a taster of soycured salmon with black sesame seeds and a traditionally-cured salmon served with crème fraîche and salmon roe (2,350 ISK). Both were agreeable enough and should be familiar to veteran restaurant patrons in Iceland.

This was followed by cured lamb with rutabaga, pickled red onions and jam (2,350 ISK). The lamb had a beautiful texture and a deep colour, but failed to leave any impression aside from a faint taste of cloves.

Next, we tried the traditional veal tartare with tarragon, egg yolks, and horseradish (2,350 ISK). A French bistro classic done almost right, not overdone on the seasoning but the mayo blended in with the veal was a strange choice. I would still recommend the dish for the quality of the veal.

I began to notice that all the plates were accompanied by the same slick of balsamic, wilted microgreens, and rye bread crumbles—plating choices I had hoped high-end restaurants were retiring.

The soups were the most baffling. The creamy shellfish soup (2,350 ISK) contained exactly one prawn, one small oyster, and nearly no cream or flavour.

The mushroom soup special ran the opposite way. It was as if someone had taken portobello, oyster, and button mushrooms past their “best before” and puréed them into a thick porridge the colour of packet gravy. Unsurprisingly, it was identical to mud in both texture and taste.

The main course was a filé on the ribs with garden pea purée, mixed roasted root vegetables and thyme glace (5,250 ISK). The lamb had clearly seen the inside of a sous-vide bag but was in dire need of a sear. This was accompanied by a pulled shank with a sprinkling of jus. Icelandic lamb can easily hold up as the main attraction but the whole thing felt dense and old-fashioned. This was a familiar and welcome dish that could have used a facelift.

The hotel offers a unique experience but I must say that I expected more from the restaurant. It was off-season so there’s reason to expect their access to ingredients improves during the summer season, but I think a greater contributing factor was that the nearest high-end restaurant was an hour away so the guests were what marketing people call “a captive audience.”

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