Matarkjallarinn sits nestled in the cosy basement of Aðalstræti 2, a 160-year-old building in the heart of downtown Reykjavík. Prior to Matarkjallarinn, it housed a branch of the Akureyri-based steak and sushi joint Rub 23, but is most readily associated with Sjávarkjallarinn, a seafood restaurant that was pivotal in raising the standards of Icelandic fine dining (“kjallarinn” means “basement”: both names make reference to the location). Although the site has been transformed since then through extensive renovations, it has the dual distinction of having been the landing site for Iceland’s first settler (the shore used to lie further inland) and its first major merchant.
The first thing you’ll notice is the grand piano which is tickled by lounge musicians most nights of the week—quite the rarity in Reykjavík these days, and a nice old-fashioned touch. The design is varied, consisting of things such as renaissance panelling, lithographs of European fauna and table lights made from Campari bottles.
We visited Matarkjallarinn to sample their Christmas menu, a frankly unavoidable choice during the holiday season as restaurants jostle to roll out their artisan Rudolph the Reindeer burgers, innovatively cured geese and home-pickled cabbage. And chefs Ari Freyr and Iðunn Sigurðar did not disappoint.
The five-course menu kicked off with a slow-cooked melt-in-the-mouth cod with lobster hollandaise, blanched asparagus, and slivers of double-smoked lamb. The croutons were superfluous, but the lamb added a nice touch of smokiness. Next was the ingenious salmon cured in Malt and Appelsín (a traditional holiday beverage made of orange soda and a non-alcoholic malt beverage). The salmon came with pickled cucumbers, horseradish and dill. It was a great dish which would have been even better with a touch more of the mustardy bite.
This was followed by a charcuterie board of parma ham and cured goose. We were warned to tread carefully with the wild goose and, lo and behold, we did discover a few shotgun pellets hidden in the delicate breast meat.
The main attraction was the pork belly with grilled celery root and carrot, grilled lamb, and mashed potatoes. Perhaps it’s my spoiled palate, but perfectly cooked lamb doesn’t hold much surprise any more, so it was the grilled vegetables that stood out to me. I would happily have ordered a plate of those on their own.
The dessert offering of the night was a strawberry sorbet with white chocolate and toffee. Each serving came with a strip of paper bearing proverbs, traditionally found inside Icelandic Easter eggs. One of them read “You are a winner,” and the guest received a bag of Icelandic candy for their trouble. As if the barrage of wild game, red wine, and toffee hadn’t punished our waistline enough.
While Matarkjallarinn may not be the a place to go on a tight budget, it provided great value in terms of the quality of the ingredients, their handling, and the portion sizes. The only ratio that left something to be desired were the cocktails, which were on the sweet and mild side— the norm in Iceland, given the high taxes on alcohol.
Overall, the service was above reproach and the atmosphere and dining provided an excellent night out for our small group of picky foodies.
Matarkjallarinn is open from 11:30-23:00 Monday-Saturday and 17:00-22:00 on Sundays. You can find them at Aðalstræti 2, 101 Reykjavík. Contact them by phone on, 558 0000 or via their website, www.matarkjallarinn.is.
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