When you find a bar/restaurant named Íslenski barinn (The Icelandic Bar) in the capital of Iceland there are probably two thoughts that come to mind: One, it is a tacky tourist trap cynically attempting to second guess the demands of the tourist industry, or two, it’s clunky patriotism wrapped in cloying nostalgia serving homogenized versions of my amma’s waffles and serving it to someone else’s amma at a healthy mark-up. Íslenski barinn fits comfortably in the second category (the obscure references to Icelandic history are a tell), but don’t let that discourage you because Íslenski barinn is doing a heck of a job with the Icelandic classics.
Íslenski barinn rests somewhere between a trattoria and a restaurant. They’ve taken classic themes from New Nordic cuisine, simplified them and even dropped a few clichés (like Italian dessert varieties using Skyr) while falling headfirst into others (dusting with roasted rye bread crumbles). They are far down the food chain from a place like Noma or Texture, but are upholding the underlying principles of New Nordic cuisine, such as reviving local dishes, sourcing for fresh ingredients straight from the producer, finding new uses for old ingredients and looking for potential new ones, being diverse, local, democratic, seasonal and exhibiting only the faintest whiff of ethnocentrism.
Wall to ceiling, the place is adorned with traditional handicrafts and an interesting array of photos that, surprisingly, showcases the full spectrum of Icelandic culture—from masticating horses in the midnight sun to teargas canisters in mid-flight during the 1949 NATO protest.
I am ecstatic about the rapid increase in microbreweries in Iceland and Íslenski barinn is the only place I’m aware of that offers the full selection. Something me and my dinner companion took full advantage of. I chose Norðankaldi, which is a medium bitter ale with a distinct caramel taste and was pleasantly surprised. Had too many of those to remember what she had.
The menu is a little on the large side. It’s two pages short of being a dinner menu and that’s not the vibe they want to be going for but the prices are very reasonable. After a long deliberation she decided on the Seafood Feast prix fixe (3.990 ISK for two courses and 4.450 ISK for three), which included a shellfish soup, roasted Arctic Char and a chocolate cake. I decided on ‘Hvalur 6’ (whale dish named after the controversial whaling boat—1.630 ISK) and ‘Útlaginn’ (a puffin, duck and char combo platter named after the great 1981 realist Viking film—3.990 ISK).
First course. Here is where we noticed the lack in table service despite five to six people manning the floor. We were relaxed and in no hurry, but the frequent reminders for drink orders and table clearing started to wear thin as the night went on.
Luckily, the fish soup more than made up for it. A well-stocked bowl of liquid joy and a big, mouth filling flavour. I am not a big fan of whale meat but despite that (and my mixed feelings about the hunting of minke whale), I have to admit that the ‘Hvalur 6’ dish of smoked and cured whale was glorious. I can confidently say that the cured whale was the best whale I’ve had and the smoked whale ranks second.
For the main course, it would seem that they re-purposed the shellfish soup as a sauce for the arctic char. These kinds of shenanigans I would let slide if we had randomly chosen these dishes together ourselves, but as part of a prix fixe it’s a ridiculous thing to do. The soup was great, the fish was great, but never the twain shall meet. Fix the prix fixe plz!
My portion of lightly-smoked puffin, roasted char and slow-grilled duck combo could have been a little more generous despite reasonable pricing. I am in the minority in Iceland that likes the flavour of seabirds and felt the lightly-smoked puffin did too good of a job of disguising that flavour. The grilled duck was actually a rillette served on a bent spoon without a discernible purpose (did they expect me to wolf down the whole thing in one bite?). The duck was fine, but I wouldn’t pick this plate again.
We picked a dessert that never arrived and this was, I regret to say, symptomatic for the service that night. In a way I felt bad for the guy as he was obviously new on the job and it reminded me a bit of myself (full disclosure: I tried waiting for a couple of months before it turned out that I am the worst waiter in the known universe).
So while the service I got was not where it needed to be, I would definitely consider this place next time I’m showing foreign visitors around.
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