From Iceland — A Culinary Comeback (Kinda) — At six, Mat Bar Remains Hard To Slot

A Culinary Comeback (Kinda) — At six, Mat Bar Remains Hard To Slot

Published March 3, 2023

A Culinary Comeback (Kinda) — At six, Mat Bar Remains Hard To Slot
Photo by
Art Bicnick

I distinctly remember when Mat Bar first opened. The Hverfisgata corner had been a buzz of activity and, even with the windows still shrouded in paper, the place held promise of exciting newness. 

Now six years old, much has changed at the restaurant. Guðjón Hauksson, the former charismatic owner who longed to recreate a little slice of Italian joie de vivre in downtown Reykjavik is no longer part of the business. I must admit, there are times when I am at the restaurant and I expect Guðjón to greet me with a glass of his recent favourite wine, share a tidbit about what we are eating and laugh raucously with his diners. Alas, enthusiasm alone isn’t enough to run a restaurant and whispers of poor management eventually placed the restaurant in the hands of the chefs who have since held steadfast. 

Eventful anniversary

Once pegged as Nordic-Italian, Mat Bar has gone through a tumultuous transition of varying identities. Under head chef and owner Hrafnkell Sigurðsson, the restaurant reached its heyday with every visit guaranteeing a hit — chewy, candylike beets; delicate bok choy; fresh capelin roe, the rosy hued seed pearl-like fish eggs studded with slivers of spicy chilli; and a chocolate mousse with clementines and hazelnuts that I haven’t fully managed to get out of my mind for a few years now.

Photo by Art Bicnick

But over the past couple years the restaurant appeared to have given up on its initial premise of fresh, produce-forward plates, turning instead into a dumpling wannabe (an excellent langoustine dumpling notwithstanding), then Kabab Soltani, then a frankly forgettable pop-up that overstayed — all seemingly at odds with what diners had come to expect

I am happy to report that, over the last few months, Mat Bar seems to have bounced back and just in time for their sixth anniversary. 

Small plates, big character

One of the things that Mat Bar has always done better than most is channel bold flavours from their too-small-for-a-restaurant-kitchen where the wood fire grill is centrestage. The return to a classic-but-not-quite approach is seen throughout a menu that continues to change with the seasons. Keeping with kitchen constraints, they are coaxing flavours from pickled, fermented and preserved condiments, loyal to no one cuisine, but to flavour alone while keeping the vegan, vegetarian and meat lover happy.

Photo by Art Bicnick

A few months ago, I had a wonderful horse mussel with dill, chives, a creamy sauce and Lao Gan Ma chilli crisp. More recently, I enjoyed a chicken yakitori — smoky, tender chicken thighs, branded on the grill, piqued by a lemon kosho (a fermented Japanese citrus chilli condiment), with relief in the wedge of lacto-fermented white cabbage. Cocktails were a let down; the basil gimlet was a poor reminder of the punchy basil gobernador they once served. But the wine list is short yet solid, with something for old school tastes and the natural wine enthusiast.

The kitchen has definitely been looking back on their own classics and bringing them back with varying degrees of success. The mozzarella with pickled tomatoes is as delightful as it once was. The same can’t be said for the accompanying spongy flatbread, although it works better with the cauliflower dip. 

What is Mat Bar?

When I first wrote about Mat Bar, I struggled to classify the restaurant, settling then for “Nordic Italian.” Now I find myself staring at the same dilemma — one that the kitchen is grappling with, too, as evidenced on the menu. Is it Nordic Italian/Mexican/Thai/Japanese? Or is it a tapestry of everything the restaurant has been?

Photo by Art Bicnick

While I fervently hope for stability, I’m reminded of what was probably one of the best dishes I’d had all year in late 2022 — a wonderfully simple walnut cake with carrot sherbet and sour cream. Put together, the dish evoked carrot cake, but far more complex than its deconstructed elements. The carrot sherbet recalled gajrela, a halwa of slow cooked carrots in milk, smooth, and tantalisingly mysterious if you haven’t had the Indian dessert before. The walnut cake was bare like nonna’s, but eaten together with everything else it was a testament to a creative idea, executed superbly. If Mat Bar is looking for an answer to the question of who they are now, I’d look no further than that dish and work from there. 

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