A few days ago, Snoop were invited to the opening of Sjávargrillið, a new and exciting seafood restaurant on Skólavörðustígur. And what an opening it was – style and grandeur all around, from the minuscule; Lovely little potted Asparagus were placed on tables which we foolishly thought were a nice little souvenir or a permanent feature in the table arrangement. What a surprise it was when the strange people on the next table started to gastronomically enjoy theirs and so did we, and it was delicious!
To the grandiose; Although packed to more than twice it’s capacity, and double staffed you were never made to feel crowded or unserved and aside for a few teetotallers not a single person managed to walk a straight line out the door. We mean this in the nicest possible way as here were people that had been so thoroughly catered for and so enjoyed themselves that we have no doubt that they, like us, will return as soon as humanly possible. But how do you give a new restaurant justice from the opening night? You don’t, pure and simple.
Having prior to the opening been allowed to view the restaurant in its conception, we were in a unique position to see how well the design and the food were unified. This was in the hands of Gústav Axel Gunnlaugsson, Icelandic Chef of the Year 2010, head chef and owner and Lárus Gunnar Jónasson who designed the premises and is himself an award winning chef and one of the people responsible for the Fishcompany, one of Icelands premiere eating establishments.
On the subject of creating, in want of a better word, ambiance Gústaf said; If there isn’t cohesion between the external layout of the restaurant and what is being conjured up in the kitchen, no amount of good food will make you have a good experience, and will therefore not induce one to return.
Is it hard to carve out a niche for a new restaurant in Reykjavík?
Well it’s a thin line that you tread in the restaurant business here, cater to the locals as well as those traveling through in search of something local and authentic. Not becoming too obscure nor being a tourist trap. Also the fact that we juggle running this as a coffee house/bistro in the day and a serious restaurant in the evening.
That and the fact that the restaurant is on three tiers helps. On the groundfoor, by the bar is a coffee house vibe, up the stairs you will find a more serene restaurantesque feel and down in the grotto the driftwood that adorns the walls and the blue light manages to evoke somehow the feeling of being in a wooden area at dusk, hemmed in and in the wild at the same time.
You are braving into a new variation of the Scandinavian kitchen?
To my knowledge, there is only one other Nordic chef that is operating after a similar model as the one we are working by, that is to say grilling, which is a really pure form of cooking. That is how we’re working our main ingredients, when it comes to salads and sides we adhere to what’s been happening in the new Scandinavian kitchen lately, that is going raw or marinating it in local herbs but still working the material to its full potential.
But nothing is really that simple and arriving for lunch we were seated in a lovely place by the window on-looking the street. We ordered the fish of the day and soon our lovely waiter returned with our drinks and a fresh flowerpot of bread.
So far it was normal but accompanying the bread was something wholly different, on the table stood a beautifully oval and sea worn rock on which was mounted a delightful fusion of Icelandic butter (Icelandic butter is a really rich and salty variation) that the waiter informed us is burned on a pan then mixed with Skyr, topped with dried ground Söl and sea salt.
What you are left with, is a wonderfully fluffy texture that attacks your pallet, this has an awkward side effect as you start lathering your next piece of bread half way through your first one. That is but a small wonder as the person next to you is doing exactly the same thing. This silent dining arms-race is only broken by the arrival of the main course, Skötuselur (monkfish), which was every bit as eloquent as the Skyr butter.
Gústav has strong opinions on the ingredient he cooks with. We relentlessly scour the country for products like kvönn and blóðberg, they are but two of the ingredients that we source. Another one is Söl that we receive twice a week fresh from the sea. I have in the past got hold of these in some strange places like rhubarb from my gran’s garden herbs and potatoes from my cabin in the countryside.
Last Saturday we had our first brunch service and the first people in were an Icelandic couple and the feeling you get when you manage to get that jaw dropping expression on a customer isn’t half bad. On the plate were fresh potatoes and everything went upwards from there, that is something that’s not regular here in Iceland.
This is essentially a summer opening, any plans/themes?
In the summer we intend to have, if the weather permits, a chef in the outside seating area making nibbles and small tasters and in the process involving people in the cooking experience itself and allowing them see what our food is all about.
Why do we think Sjávargrillið will be successful? They have an ambition for food bordering on the perverse and the million dollar ingredient; Stellar food at affordable prices. We were just that impressed.
Interview: Guðni Rúnar
Photographs: Nanna Dís