One could almost mistake Iceland for a lost piece of the Australian continent, given how seriously grilling is taken here. For evidence, look no further than almost every balcony and backyard in Reykjavík. Naturally, a restaurant combining the best of local interests—seafood and grilling—is bound to be a winning formula. Or so we thought.
Stepping into Sjavargrillið can cause a little deja vú. The decor seems to be an exuberant expression of excess, from the ubiquitous Tom Dixon lights to the driftwood screens, and the antique skis, pots, and colanders. If places could warn you of things to come, this would’ve been a clue.
The seafood-focussed menu trots from beet graflax to deep-fried maki to grilled pork, with appearances from pasta and spring rolls. But the restaurant’s strength, as the name would have you believe, is in its grilled seafood, and they have a variety of tasting menus to try.
Highlights from the dinner included an elegant starter of pork cheeks and langoustine. The cheeks were tender thanks to the sous-vide, and despite the under-seasoned crustacean, the creamy celeriac and sharpness from the black radish made for a delicious bite.
Sadly, that remained the highlight, despite the valiant efforts of a near-perfect lamb fillet that arrived after an agonising 45 minutes. We didn’t mind. Michael Pollan makes an eloquent argument that the moment man learned to cook with fire was when we distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. It gave us time to reflect on why the restaurant served sous-vide meat after sous-vide meat, when we’d chosen the Grilled Taste of Iceland tasting menu (9600 ISK). There must be a choir of grill masters that weep when meat is sous-vide cooked and only finished on the grill for those perfect grill marks, rather than for flavour. We said a little prayer for all the lost opportunities.
Sjavargrillið does do a stellar job with its service and cocktails. One waitress (whose name I regretfully forget) recommended the Snæfellsjökull—a whisky-based cocktail that made for a nice change from saccharine drinks. She also apologised for an insipid grilled ling, returning it to the kitchen, and even offering us a discount.
It is perhaps best to stick with the lunch menu. The shellfish soup is a pleasant—if salty—bisque, lightened with some dill oil and assorted seafood. The deep-fried plaice, while perfect on its own, suffers the perils of the heavy-handed kitchen again; it is completely overshadowed by the remoulade and bearnaise, the grease-fest taken up a notch with the butter fried slivers of almond-shrimp salad (?) with capers. The idea is there—salty capers and fried fish—but it is violently exaggerated.
Just like you and I, restaurants too need to ask themselves: Should we adapt our initial inspirations to grow with the times? How can menus reflect changing sensibilities? Does the food need a spring cleaning of sorts, along with the decor? A little burst of acidity here, a smattering of crunch there, more than a fleeting kiss of flame for a crackling shell? Perhaps, the restraint to let the flavours shine through?
The intense blueberry sorbet that tasted of a thousand berries juiced into a midnight-black scoop of happiness may hold clues to the possibilities that Sjavargrillið might yet have to offer.
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