From Iceland — Remembering The Sea Baron

Remembering The Sea Baron

Published March 23, 2015

Ragnar Egilsson
Photo by
Gunnar Konráðsson

Sægreifinn, The Sea Baron, is a fish restaurant that was founded in 2003 by the late, great Kjartan Halldórsson. Originally a fishmonger, Sægreifinn soon began offering grilled fish and lobster bisque to hungry travellers and locals in the downtown area. Kjartan sold the business in 2011 to his employee Elísabet Jean Skúladóttir (and it’s still going strong), but continued working the grill for a period afterwards, only taking a break when his health problems absolutely demanded it.

Kjartan passed away on February 8. He was 75 years old and leaves behind three sons and nine grandchildren.

Many of us at Grapevine came to know Kjartan and Sægreifinn. It may have been a simple matter of logistics: it is located quite close to our offices, and many of us had been waiting for exactly this kind of place when it opened. Whatever the reason, many current and former employees formed a bond with the place and the charming gentleman behind the counter.

In memory of Kjartan, some of us who have been involved with the Reykjavík Grapevine in one way or another over the last decade thought we should share our memories, such as they are, of the indomitable Sea Baron.

Bart Cameron

Bart Cameron, Former Grapevine editor

I’m not positive how well I knew Kjartan. My Icelandic isn’t fantastic. Aðalsteinn, our ad man, found him. Back then, the little area his shop was in wasn’t really a place you went.

He was one of those energetic men who could probably bite a penny in half. His soup was great and I think I went back every other week as my wife and I would go there to buy our fish. There were amazing stories usually—he might be serving whale to Germans who asked for fish, and then explaining that Icelanders don’t have different words for whale and fish. He told me a lot of things about Icelandic fish that I later learned weren’t true, but that didn’t hurt anyone.

I featured him in our book. For one thing, he cooked good fresh food. For another, his stand was affordable. And people just loved his stories.

When I visited Iceland recently, his shop had become a huge tourist attraction. Between that and writing that ridiculous story about Bill Clinton eating a hot dog at Bæjarins Bestu—it’s just strange to know I had a hand in building myths. Though Kjartan—he was so charismatic, if we hadn’t written him up, someone else would’ve found him.

On a less amusing note: Kjartan worked brutally hard. His stories and energy were great, but there was desperation underneath them. Probably the whole staff can tell you about the time he hosted us for a dinner, but he got sick and wound up sleeping in a closet while his daughter served us.

To think of that little stand as I last saw it, surrounded by businesses from people who had access to capital—as opposed to Kjartan, who survived entirely on inner energy, sweat, and a relentless smile—is wonderful.

Grapevine mainstay

Paul Fontaine, Grapevine mainstay

I met Kjartan in Hafnarfjörður. On my way there, I was told that this guy could work magic with whale meat. The whale meat I had tried up until that point tasted like boiled beef that had been soaked in tepid sea water, so I was skeptical to say the least. I was also looking forward to lecturing this guy on the unethical nature of whale hunting, just to satisfy for my own self-righteousness.

Once we arrived, though, I was met by an old man in an apron bent over a grill who greeted me with what was probably the warmest smile I had ever received from a total stranger who wasn’t about to talk to me about Jesus. That kiboshed my plans to lecture him about whaling, and I decided instead to politely suffer through what I was certain was going to be a rubbery, flavorless helping of minke.

What I got was the tenderest, juiciest, most flavorful mammal flesh I had ever tasted. I must have been visibly stunned, because he started to laugh at my reaction. “But this is good!” I said, or something similar. “How?” Kjartan shared with me the secrets of making tasty whale meat, which was essentially, “You have to tenderize it first. I use one of these,” he said, showing me one of those cool aluminum mallets with the medieval spikes on both sides. “Then you need to marinate it. I recommend letting it soak for a couple days.”

The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur—there was not a small amount of beer involved—but I won’t forget how goddamned tasty that whale meat was, nor how welcome Kjartan made me feel. It was like going to have dinner with a good friend who hasn’t seen you in a long time, and is happy to have you there. One helluva guy.

Ragnar Egilsson, Grapevine's food editor

Ragnar Egilsson, Grapevine’s food editor

Kjartan lead the transformation of the blue-green boat shacks by the marina, which gave us the bustling restaurant scene we have there now. This in turn has helped preserve the cultural and architectural heritage of the area. Kjartan was a great storyteller and told stories peppered with a number of colourful curse words (at least until he had to tone it down a bit after the Sea Baron became a must-stop on the downtown tourist circuit).

He was a real old-school tough guy who made a great lobster bisque and was as farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, local and seasonal in his cooking as some of the best restaurants in Iceland.

I still remember vividly when I and one of Grapevine’s owners paid a visit to this curious gentleman that had set up shop by the marina and was taking his first steps in the restaurant business after a long career at sea.

After a nice chat, we decided to offer him a sizable discount on magazine ads and we pointed out some ways for him to better get his name out there. Following that, we did all we could to spread the word of this charming little soup shack. For no other reason than because we liked the place and him personally.

I wouldn’t dare to assume credit for Kjartan’s success but on a good day I can’t help but think we played a tiny part in his initial recognition and it never fails to put a smile on my face.

Kjartan was a real entrepreneur who used the tools and knowledge at his disposal to build a business and always danced to his own tune, and he represented a living bridge between the old marina and the new. I was deeply saddened to hear that this unique man had passed.

Finally, Kjartan always reminded me a little of my late grandfather on my mother’s side (who also worked for a time as a cook on a fishing boat), in their mannerisms and the way they spoke. I simply can’t think of a kinder way to describe a person.

Aðalsteinn Jörundsson, Grapevine’s Sales Director

Aðalsteinn Jörundsson, Grapevine’s Sales Director

When I first started selling ads for a living, I took it as a compliment when people told me I was too pushy, when they said I was a shark. This was before I understood that building long-term business relationships is far more important—for your business and your soul—than biting a huge chunk out of a client’s budget. My first sales call to Kjartan was an important first step towards this realisation.

On the afternoon of December 23, 2004—Þorláksmessa—I was hanging out with my friend Ragnar, casually going through my sales numbers and dreaming of Christmas break. To my disappointment, I came to understand that I needed a little more to finish my first month as a Grapevine sales guy with a bang. So, I called up Kjartan and asked whether I could come over and show him some ad space.

“Of course, vinur minn, come over and I’ll let you try some skate!”

I brought Ragnar to the meeting. Kjartan was just washing up after serving skate to some workplace function, so the smell was very harsh. He greeted us with that warm smile of his, ushered us to a seat, starting piling the horribly smelling dish on some paper plates and asked us if he could interest us in some happiness, too.

“Sure, happiness, we’re into that!”

He then brought over some vile, sickly-sweet liqueur that was thick with sugar and proclaimed—screeching with his prankster laugh—“It doesn’t taste good, but if you drink a couple of those, you’re sure to find happiness at the bottom of the bottle!”

He then walked around, cleaning up the place, people coming and going as we worked on our skate and on our happiness.

Ragnar tells me that we decided to give him a sizeable discount on ads at that meeting, but the truth is that I needed to hold back on not giving him everything I had to offer for free, simply because I instantly loved the man.

I’m sure you understand. I was trying to sell ads to an old man who had worked hard on trawlers all his life, was now retired. A man who it turns out didn’t have the patience to retire, so he decided to try his hand at the most difficult, most likely-to-fail business there is—in a building that was on a demolition list—and succeeded!

At length, he told us about how the system was desperately trying to discourage him from opening his shop, but he somehow managed to do it anyway. He literally fought the system and won. The man is a hero, and every single restaurant in this small patch of harbour space owes him everything.

I eventually learned that Kjartan had already decided he was going to buy our ads, and he wasn’t going to haggle over the price—he simply trusted me to be fair. He had killed the shark, with skate and happiness.

Read Also:

sæ kjartan halldórssonLegendary Bisque Maker, Sægreifinn’s Kjartan Halldórsson Passes Away



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