I am standing outside the accordion-shaped house tucked in the southern corner of Reykjavík and wondering how a building can be this easy to notice and yet so easy to overlook when you are thinking of a place to eat.
I know Aalto Bistro is there. It’s a lovely building. I just never go there for some reason.
The Nordic House—designed by famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto—serves as a centre for Nordic culture, now in the midst of the ever-expanding university grounds,. Tucked away in a corner, with a view over the reclaimed marshes and grazing geese, just before the pan-Nordic library, you’ll stumble on a bistro bearing the architect’s name.
Before Aalto Bistro, the spot was occupied by the trailblazing gastronaut Dill—this was before Dill moved to the corner of Hverfisgata and Ingólfsstræti and pried Iceland’s first Michelin star from the claws of the bulbous tire behemoth.
Aalto Bistro has continued Dill’s approach, highlighting local ingredients and growing herbs and vegetables on the Nordic House grounds. The restaurant is helmed by the well-loved chef, cod-botherer, and cookbook writer Sveinn Kjartansson (we especially recommend his Gourmand-winning book ‘Fagur Fiskur’).
Let’s talk money. Aalto Bistro isn’t free, but the prices are about what you’d expect from a sit-down restaurant in 2018 Iceland. Eating out ain’t cheap in Reykjavík. Prices start at about 4 EUR a pop for a hot dog at Bæjarins Bestu. Then there’s a steep hike to approx. 25 EUR for other fast food categories. Finally, a sharp spike to 80 EUR per person for a three course meal at pretty much any sit-down restaurant. This standard is, of course, obscene and is due to a combination of exorbitant rental prices, record salaries, strong local currency, and good old fashion greed.
The good news is that the prices don’t rise significantly beyond that point—even if you’re munching at the top tier of the Reykjavík food scene. Aalto may be shy of the tippity-top, but it’s ambitious nonetheless, with an eye for exemplary seafood.
Delicious crab cakes and goose breast
The first starter to arrive at the table was a crab cake with a couple of tweezers worth of fresh rock crab in the mix. A wonderfully sweet crab but a notorious pain in the ass to process. The crab cakes were light, low on flour and grease and just barely holding together. All was right with the universe.
Next was a delicate, cured goose breast with red bramble berry sauce and pickled kohlrabi (I would love to see more pickled kohlrabi on Icelandic menus seeing as everyone is all about keeping it local and seeing as kohlrabi is all about being delicious). A nice holiday vibe, which was only upset by the view of a gaggle of goslings outside the window (not the “hey girl” kind).
The first main course was a salad with ashy goat cheese, thin slices of duck, almond slivers and a delicious vinaigrette. The duck was expertly cooked and I’ve never gone wrong with goat cheese. I could have done without the pomegranates as they were well out of season and rather pallid and musty.
Second main course was the Aalto fish plate. Large mussels, trout, cod and scallops heaped on a plate. The stand-outs were the ridiculously fresh mussels and scallops. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: go to Iceland for shellfish. There’s better lamb and butter elsewhere, but Iceland has the best mussels bar none.
If you are craving that quiet, Lutheran serenity of Scandinavian seafood eaten in a marsh with a semi-elevated view of downtown – then Aalto Bistro is your best bet.
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