We all have our go-to places. Neighbourhood spots where you know the menu by heart, where you salute the waiters by name and chest bump the chef. I’ll hazard a guess that Íslenski barinn is not that place for many Icelanders. But who needs Icelanders when you have top ranking on the Chinese messaging app WeChat? Is that the kind of power that drives a person mad enough to start making flapjack puffin tacos? Let’s find out!
Sir, I’ll trade my Igloo for a slice of your fin whale
Laugavegur is seeing a mind-boggling amount of tourists for midday, midweek, midwinter, mid-recession. Not even the stormiest and coldest couple of months in recent memory have deterred these travellers. They want that goddamn lobster roll and if that means freezing to death in line outside Íslenski barinn, then so be it.
When we step inside I think this must be what it’s like for Italians to go to an Olive Garden. You are immediately hit with a familiar, musty grandma smell, which is, dare I say, a good sign. At the very least, it’s the right smell for a place serving plokkfiskur.
As for decor, Íslenski barinn is dodging some well-worn clichés and trading in some lesser known national characteristics. There are some signs that they aren’t shy about courting controversy, such as playing thoroughly-cancelled troubadour Megas on the loudspeakers, tacking up a vintage placard protesting NATO and serving up a shocking amount of controversial proteins on the menu — if you have a problem with fin whale hunting (as I do) then you will likely not be pleased that it features in more than one dish.
Is a hot dog without a hot dog still a hot dog?
Back to the aforementioned plokkfiskur. It’s a traditional Icelandic stew of shredded cooked haddock, chopped potatoes, onions, black pepper and bechamel. That’s it. Now, the version at Íslenski barinn has seen the addition of both béarnaise sauce and cheese, upping the richness considerably. It’s very Icelandic to add béarnaise to everything, but the resulting dish failed to deliver. The potatoes were fully mashed, it was heartburn-inducingly rich and there wasn’t enough cracked pepper.
Our other main was the reindeer burger, which in Reykjavík are only distinguishable from beef burgers by their price. Still, this one was good.
It’s really the small bites that are worth a try at Íslenski barinn, and it’s those that have taken the tourist world by storm. The puffin skonsa is grilled puffin breast on a type of pancake, served with blueberries, remoulade and slices of fresh chilli. It’s probably the most gimmicky thing on the menu, but I admit it was a pretty tasty dish. The main problems here were the structural integrity of the flapjack and the fact that all of it was served lukewarm.
Finally, there’s the humarpylsa, the lobster hot dog, which is essentially a lobster roll, except the lobster has been fried in batter and is served with cheese, mayo and jam. Again, it was tastier than expected, but the lobster gets lost in the pillowy bun, crusty batter and mountain of fatty condiments. Which is, again, quite an Icelandic thing to do.
According to China, it’s just this place and that one volcano
So what’s the verdict? The place is more authentically Icelandic than expected, though it’s hard to tell what is a conscious display of national pride and what just comes gushing out of the owners’ DNA. The service was attentive and responsive, making for a welcoming atmosphere, and the food is as advertised. If you go in for this kind of stuff, then you’ll be in safe hands but I’d be lying if I said I’ll be frequenting the place.
Then again, they don’t need me for this concept to work. Not only do they seem to be making money hand over fist in a challenging economy, but their cultural influence outside of Iceland is significant enough that the place is veering on genuine cultural relevance. Because we are fooling ourselves if we think that the Icelandic identity we wish to project will be carefully handled by national tourist bureaus. Like it or not, it will be carved by the storm of whispers on the socials, funnelling attention to pubs serving fin whale flapjacks.
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