There has long existed a firm divide between Reykjavík and the greater Reykjavík area. For some of us, the distinctions between local municipalities blur into, well, Reykjavík. For others, 101 is full of downtown rats, 107 is for hipster snobs, the suburbs of Grafarholt don’t exist and Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður are seldom top of the list of anyone’s favourite dining destinations. Stereotypes within our small city aside, I have to admit, I rarely go to Garðabær myself.
So when rumours swirled about a brand new restaurant poised to open right by the bay in Arnanesvogur, once home to Garðabær’s docks, I was curious. The larch clad building steadily rose and as the pandemic creeped up on us, it seemed like the restaurant wouldn’t open after all.
But curiously, the pandemic has only spurred the team on. Open since May, Sjáland is likely one of the busiest restaurants in town today. They’re open for lunch, dinner and corporate events seven days a week, in addition to weekend brunches and champagne happy hours.
I’m greeted by chef Ólafur Ágústsson, once at the helm of Systir, Dill’s sister restaurant, and Kex Portland. Now the executive chef at Sjáland, he says, “it’s been easy, the transition. When you walk into something like this and it’s completely new,” he says, sweeping his arms across the vast dining space, “and you have someone like Stefán [Magnússon] and he buys your ideas and brings on people like Rúnar [Pierre Herivaux] and Víðir [Erlingsson], it’s a great set up. Goes very smoothly.” Rúnar has previously worked at Grillið and is a Chef of the Year silver medallist. while Víðir has worked at KOKS and Reykjavik Meat. Together, they form the core of Sjáland.
Stefán is the restaurateur behind Reykjavík Meat, Mathús Garðabær and Sjáland and it’s hard to miss his influence on the interiors. The building too has received a lot of attention recently. Designed by Zeppelin Architects, the building is modest on the outside, favouring an integration of the outdoors and indoors with sweeping views of the bay and a terraced roof, perfect for summer al fresco dining. Inside, the dark, smoked wood interiors, plush seating and Moooi Meshmatics chandelier create a decadent atmosphere (enough to make one forget the draughty lobby bar.)
The restaurant seats 90 and the banquet hall an additional 180. There are also plans for a smaller private dining experience for “more focussed menus,” Ólafur says.
Elevated comfort food
“We want to do comfort food, maybe a bit elevated,” says Ólafur. “We want people to be able to enjoy a ‘fine dining’ experience,” he continues, making air quotes, “without all the fuss. We wanted a relaxed atmosphere, big bold flavours and simple food.” He also admits he’s never worked solely for this clientele.
“But you have to learn a new rhythm. And you learn very soon that diners here are far more demanding and forthright than, say, in Reykjavík”. Rúnar confirms, “they are unafraid to speak their mind, which has been very refreshing,” he says.
The menu, which has undergone several changes in its short life, certainly reflects that vibe now. “It is kinda seasonal and kinda how we feel,” Ólafur confirms. There are wood fired pizzas with various toppings (an anchovy potato pizza sounds enticing), a selection of various proteins and as many desserts as main courses. The pizzas are available for lunch and dinner. And if you’ve been lamenting the loss of Hverfisgata 12, well you’re in luck as the pizzas here certainly echo those pies. “It’s his baby,” Rúnar says pointing to Ólafur, “he’s all about the pizzas.”
The kitchen sends out an assortment of starters—beautifully composed plates of smoked trout with candied fennel and preserved lemons, a steaming seafood soup with startlingly well cooked local shrimp and scallops, and a bloody beet and fig carpaccio punctuated with savoury thimbles of foie-gras crumbles. “I think it’s the only dish that has stayed,” Rúnar says of the carpaccio, “except for the pizzas.”
The menu and the wine list play it safe and don’t veer towards staples favoured and, I suspect, strongly dictated by the neighbourhood (plans are underway for a contemporary wine menu that will change shortly). It is a conflict that plays out on your plate and belies the kitchen’s fine dining roots.
The food, however, tries to balance what I’ve come to identify as distinctly Icelandic dining expectations with modern flourishes. A beautifully cooked, lightly salted cod is served with roasted cauliflower that is sneakily pickled as well. The halibut, from Nora Seafoods is doused in a mysa-fermented cabbage sauce. The vegan dish of grilled broccolini, pak choy and dukkah like seeds is all bite and grit and I really enjoy the smokiness the grill lends them.
Working out the kinks
While in their previous manifestations these chefs pared down the focus into distilled flavours, here “more is more” is really the mantra. The rib-eye is expectantly fatty and juicy, but the mashed potatoes alongside also have brisket in them. The lamb is excellent and the pickled mustard jús carries the acidity that I’d been longing for to cut through the richness of the other dishes. Alarmingly, almost every single dish is served with a herb oil, the presence of which I discover to be the handiwork of a young chef with an enthusiastic trigger finger on the squeeze bottle, although I question its presence entirely. Given a little more time, I think these kinks will be worked out eventually as they hit that stride between crowd favourites and their own signatures.
I marvel at the portion sizes which are more than generous, and the continued bonhomie in the dining room is an indicator of the diners’ happiness and the attentive, sprightly service.
I sit back and wonder at how curiously full the restaurant is, how much the locals have embraced their neighbourhood restaurant, and ask myself if I’d leave the confines and comforts of Reykjavík dining for a meal here again. As if he’d read my mind, chef Rúnar appears with a dessert that has, I admit, changed my mind. “You can’t leave without desserts,” teases Rúnar. He carefully pours what seems like a gallon of cream into an expectant mound of skyr ganache sprinkled with frozen blueberries, rose petals, and homemade granola. “It is for all the ammas,” Rúnar says and as if to confirm simply how good it is, my 7-year old upended the entire bowl to catch every last drop.
Sjáland is located at Ránargrund 4 in Garðabær. The head chefs at Sjáland are Rúnar Pierre Herivaux, Víðir Erlingsson and Ólafur Ágústsson. Front of house team; Almar Ingvi Garðarsson, restaurant manager Styrmir Örn and Sigurður Borgar Ólafsson. Check out their website here.
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