Brút isn’t beating around the bush with its celebration of all things fish
“Cod is god” is an adage that has an iron fisted grip over restaurant menus — and seemingly the imaginations of restaurateurs, as well — across the country. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that’s all the waters around Iceland offer up.
When Brút described itself as a seafood-centred restaurant, there were many that had concerns for their prospects. Walk down the high streets of Reykjavík or through any small town in Iceland and you’ll find that “fish restaurants” are dime a dozen and even those who don’t claim to be one still serve a fish of the day — more often than now cod, its third cousin ling or the other white fish haddock.
So how different could Brút really be? I asked myself when they opened their doors a year ago. I’ll admit to being both wary and curious, given that chef Ragnar Eiriksson’s last showing at Hótel Holt, which despite a few memorable dishes left diners slightly bewildered. Since then, he has kept a relatively low profile, surfacing behind the bar at Vinstúkan Tíu Sopar where he conjured up the short-lived but brilliant plate of jamon Serrano with anchovies and cherries, wafer thin slices of cheese with beurre noisette and grated hazelnuts, served alongside delightful conversation. So talk of the same team joining hands for Brút had raised expectations tempered with trepidation.
More than cod
Housed in the recently renovated Radisson 101, with views across Pósthússtræti and Tryggvagata, Brút beckons you off the street with its tall windows and playful graphics. Once inside, the cheery London-Scandi vibe with its discreet details like the wood panelled walls, Wastberg lighting and artwork by celebrated Icelandic artists set the tone for the dining affair to follow.
The kitchen sets the record straight right off the bat. The menu showcases no less than 13 different kinds of seafood! Almost all are local and the selection is on somewhat of a rotation, with varieties like mackerel making an appearance based on availability.
Whelks, aka sea snails (2750 ISK), are cooked till tender in copious amounts of garlic butter, their swirling tapered shells so hot, one has to rein in enthusiasm and properly savor them, escargot tongs and all. Thick, opalesque slices of scallops (3300 ISK) from the cold waters around the Westfjords, are gently marinated in lemon juice, served raw, with fresh halves of tomatoes. A mound of noodled cucumber is dotted with black garlic puree, chunks of cured pollack (3100 ISK) peeking through.
Both the scallop and pollack are almost always shy of a few grains of salt, but that is not the case with the spunky octopus (3100 ISK). Its grilled tentacles are supple enough to swoosh through the salsa roja, the sauce a bright foil to the smoky char.
Don’t skate over the skata
Utter that word in a room full of Icelanders and you can easily separate the lovers from the haters. For the uninitiated, skata or skate, is stingray fermented in its own uric juices. As unappetising as it may sound to some, it is an anticipated festive food in Iceland.
Every December 23, on Þorláksmessa, families will cook the cartilage rich slabs of the bony fish outdoors — in specially erected tents or a garage, as the ammonia-rich smell clings to every fibre around it and is notoriously hard to get rid off, prompting the “burn your clothes” jokes. You’ll likely see clothing hanging out to air over Christmas for this reason. Like many traditional dishes, it is boiled and served simply with butter, potatoes and rutabagas.
The skate (5400 ISK) at Brút, however, is served fresh. The fickle fish starts putrefying almost immediately, so there is but a narrow window where its freshness holds steady over the whisper of the ammonia sharpness. Drenched in butter and capers, the simplicity of the cooking is a testimony of the kitchen’s confidence. This is a dish that would appeal to both the die-hard skata enthusiast and the reluctant alike. Fresh skate is a delectable dance of textures — only the wings of the fish are edible and here the striated, open-fan web of cartilage and pearly white meat yield with a sigh. Delicate and sweet, its flavour is reminiscent of fresh scallops.
Like with the skate, I happily noted that the menu isn’t just championing a variety of seafood, it is also showcasing different cuts and techniques in breaking down the protein. So while there are bone free cuts of filleted fish, most are served whole, or on the bone.
I recently tried the plaice “T-Bone” (5600 ISK). I have fond memories of the bone-in plaice at Leifur Kolbeinsson’s precursor to a revived La Primavera, and wondered how this one would compare. It is a beautifully dressed piece of fish, reminiscent of a cartoon chop. With fish this fresh, the shallot cream feels wholly unwarranted. Just the quick pickled tomatoes would do.
Something for everyone
For a seafood restaurant, Brút delivers strongly on its vegetarian fare. Pillowy bolsters of buttery spuds (I’m partial to their first iteration of the Parisienne gnocchi, studded with mushrooms rather than the pesto heavy number they are serving now). The grilled cabbage is weighed down by the dulse-black garlic sauce, even the vegan caviar not helping it lift beyond the cloying sweetness. The grilled zucchini served as a side recently, holds potential as a main. Still, where they shine with vegetarians is with their weekend brunch.
With an award winning wine list, curated by award winning sommelier Manuel Schembri, the wine book is a fun departure from straitjacketed condescension, with sections like “fluffy and delightful” and “plump and reliable.” Attractively priced by the bottle, this is where I’d encourage you to trust the recommendations and let loose.
In lieu of desserts, an equally fun dessert-cheese cart is promised. While I was conjuring up images of a Tickets-esque interactive affair, reality is a far more staid, yet acceptable aha moment of tawny ports, a few cheese and desserts from Gulli Arnar. There is nothing wrong in outsourcing pastries to a baker off-site (given the logistics of hiring a pastry chef), even one as promising as Gulli, but the singularity of mousse based entremets in a variety of gelee, glazes and flavours is in stark contrast to the rest of the menu, which is otherwise built around careful selection of produce and virtually flawless dishes.
It is hard to build a menu with just hits, but somehow Brút does just that — at least, most of the time. Service is affable and less than ideal instances are dealt with swift competence (like a suspect pollock that was quickly swapped with no fuss). The sides are as spectacular as the mains — it is one of few places where fish and potatoes are more than a sum of their parts.
So much about seafood is centred around the primal pleasure of eating — picking the meat off the bone clean, slurping oysters, peeling shrimp. It is hard not to see that they’re dancing around this sentiment here, one they should, in my opinion, embrace and celebrate with gleeful abandon.
Refreshing in a sea of unimaginative restaurants with sleepwalking menus championed by bored chefs, puppeteered by investors and formulaic restaurateurs, Brút is a breath of fresh air.
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