From Iceland — Restaurant Review: At Íslenski Barinn, Retro Confusion

Restaurant Review: At Íslenski Barinn, Retro Confusion

Words by
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Published November 14, 2015

Íslenski Barinn

Ingólfsstræti 1, 101 Reykjavík
Sun-Thu 11:30-01:00, Fri-Sat 11:30-03:00
What we think
A promising menu that sporadically delivers.
Old Icelandic food redressed for today's sensibilities.
Early 00s fashion referencing the 50s, lost in the 10s.
Attentive and friendly
Price for 2
10,000-12,000 ISK.

Íslenski Barinn was established shortly that famous economic collapse of 2008, the founders citing it—along with the subsequent wave of protests—as inspiration. At its initial location, the restaurant overlooked Austurvöllur, the sleepy square by Alþingi where Icelanders gathered to voice their outrage in unison. It came with a manifesto: it would be a place for locals, one that took classic Icelandic traditions forward, in a hopeful way—fitting for a restaurant born out of Iceland’s mini-revolution.

The restaurant has since changed hands, and moved to its present Ingólfsstræti location. With new owners, at a new location, it’s unsurprising that Íslenski Barinn’s ambiance changed as well—and this is regretful, as it was previously a large part of its appeal. While Íslenski Barinn’s new iteration certainly offers hints of thoughtful detail, they rarely come together, making for a slightly confused atmosphere. However, friendly service and a full house went some way towards ameliorating this.

The menu is short and concise: there are small bites, some hot dogs, a burger selection, bar food, and seasonal specials. The menu itself could use a do-over, as the fine print makes it hard to read in the candlelight.

Restaurant Review: At Íslenski Barinn, Retro Confusion by Art Bicnick

Keeping with the spirit of the place we ordered a beer, and the “Puffed Cod Skin” (1,100 ISK), marine chicharrón if you will. Crispy, crunchy, with barely a trace of oil, this is a take on an Icelandic ingredient that I appreciate and want to see more of: it was resourceful, uncontrived, and well executed—tasty enough that we completely ignored the chilli mayo that accompanied it while nibbling on our skins throughout the evening.

Our meal was off to a good start. Disappointingly, our next dish, the Grafinn Lundi (thyme-cured arctic puffin, 1,690 ISK), failed to meet our expectations, suffering from both the “tiny jar treatment” (less prevalent than at the old location, but no less frustrating) and the aioli that accompanied it. I wonder what Freud would have to say about grown people feeding from baby jars—a trend that’s ready to see the inside of an urn. The puffin itself was all right, but the portions were minuscule and the mayo overpowered the thyme to the point that it might as well have been absent.

Restaurant Review: At Íslenski Barinn, Retro Confusion by Art Bicnick

Seriously—give the mayo a rest. This is a tip for all the restaurants that carry it as a default dip: nuh-uh. Not unless you’re hand-whisking your own luscious, creamy mayo.

For the main course, I had the grilled halibut (2,950 ISK), and my burger-loving hubby went straight for the reindeer burger (3,210 ISK). The halibut was beautifully presented, with barley, carrots and arugula. The fish was well cooked, the barley nutty, and the sweetness of the carrots was cut by the bitter rocket.

There was nothing to fault with this dish, but it didn’t particularly excite me either. The burger man enjoyed his burger, although we agreed that such intentional gourmandising of a burger, even a reindeer one, is unnecessary. The brioche buns are furthermore simply too sweet—and considering that the dish came with sweet potato fries and red onion chutney, it felt like a minor miracle that the burger’s flavour wasn’t smothered by all that sugar. That said, it was still an enjoyable burger, although nothing about it seemed to justify the hefty price tag.

Kudos to the attentive and friendly service staff. Thanks to them, our meal was well paced and enjoyable. We ended the night on a sweet note with the Ástarpungar (a classic Icelandic pastry made of fried dough) served with ice cream and caraway biscuits (1,300 ISK). The ‘pungar were delicious, seemingly made of rye and fried to order. Certainly a pleasant note to end the meal on.

Throughout the night, Icelandic reggae band Hjálmar hummed in the background, the restaurant CD player stuck in repeat mode (or so it felt), which nicely sums up the vibe Íslenski Barinn is currently going for.

Leaving the restaurant after a pleasant night, we were fairly satisfied, albeit a little disappointed that its promising menu failed to live up to our expectations. With a tweak here and there, and more dishes like that fried cod skin on offer, Íslenski Barinn could really push the envelope and deliver a far more memorable dining experience. Here’s hoping they do.

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