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Við Tjörnina: slightly dusty and a notch above average

Við Tjörnina, literally translated, means “By Tjörnin” – Tjörnin being a Reykjavík landmark that, depending on who you talk to, is either a pond or a lake. [Personally I think it’s too large to be the former and too small to be the latter – so for lack of a better word we’ll call it a ‘poke’.] Hence it should come as no surprise that the Við Tjörnina restaurant is located – you guessed it – by the poke.

In the 15 or so years it’s been open [anybody, feel free to correct me], Við Tjörnina has become somewhat of a Reykjavík institution. Primarily known for its fish dishes and its comfy old décor, it’s the sort of place where Nicelanders tend to take tourists for dinner. I’m going to avoid at all costs the description “just like your granny’s living room” because that’s how every tourist brochure tends to describe it, but, well, you get the picture. Old stuff. Old telephones, old sofas, old ornaments. And tableware that doesn’t match, on purpose.

About 12 years ago, when I first went there, the ‘old’ thing was all gleaming and shiny, particularly the glansmyndir – glossy pictures – that were stuck up on the walls. Unfortunately now the ‘old’ is, well, a little old. It just doesn’t enchant in the same way it used to. It’s a bit like a grey veneer of complacency has sort of descended on everything including, sadly, the food.

Anyway. Back to our evening last Saturday. We all met up in the lounge [granny’s living room] for an aperitif. I ordered a Kir Royale – my tipple of choice when I was about, oh, [mumblemuble] back in the disco era, and which I hadn’t tasted in almost as long. To their credit, they make an excellent Kir Royale at Við Tjörnina. In fact, if your grandmother drank Kir Royale, that is probably exactly how she would make it.

While there, we checked out the menu and a delightful waitress took our order. A few moments later we were ushered to our table. A waiter came with our wine [Pouilly Fuisse – wonderful] and did everything by the book, opening it at the table [you’d be surprised how many supposedly classy restaurants here just plonk the bottle down on the table already opened], holding the bottle so that the label was displayed while the tasting was done, etc. The only thing he missed was that he didn’t fill the glasses of the ladies before filling those of the men [having worked in some very fine establishments myself, I’m a stickler for these things] but we’ll forgive him for that because after all, here in Iceland, the women are men.*

Next came our starters. I’d ordered “Sauted [sic] scallops w/tomato and garlic” because I absolutely love a good, tender, melt-in-your-mouth scallop. Sadly, the consistency of these reminded me more of a fish ball from a can than a tender miym scallop, although it did have the same delicate, gorgeous taste. EPI, his father and brother all ordered “Pickled herring & fermented shark w/schnapps” [jawol!] wheras my sister-in-law had “Hot smoked lamb’s heart w/applesalad and horseradishcream”.** Nobody complained.

For a main course I ordered what I ordered the last time I was there [about three years ago] because it was so fabulous back then: “Sauteed plaice w/blue cheese and banana”. As expected, the fish was very fresh and on the whole the dish was tasty – but it wasn’t very hot. In fact, it was only lukewarm. Due probably in no small part to the fact that the plates were cold. Which brings me to another point: I fail to understand why restaurants here in Iceland just cannot keep their plates warm. Sheesh! An essential part of serving a good meal is serving it hot and in my book, serving it hot is mutually exclusive with loading it onto a cold plate. What the hell are they teaching in Cooking 101 these days!?

For dessert EPI and I decided to split a French chocolate cake because once upon a time the French chocolate cake at Við Tjörnina was famous and there was even one occasion when we made a point of going there just for the cake because we were having a craving. Alas, we failed to remember that these days French chocolate cake is no longer such a novelty and in fact even EPI and I make a perfectly good French chocolate cake now in our very own kitchen. And so, like the old-style décor, the cake had somehow lost its lustre, in spite of the sculpted dollop of cream they stuck on the top.

Yeah, so anyway, I’m aware that I’m sounding pretty damn bleh about the whole thing, which is unfortunate because in fact I had a lovely time on Saturday night. In fact, I was having such a lovely time that I really didn’t have the inclination to be underwhelmed about the food whilst there, nor to consider the fact that the waiter kept reaching his arm over me to pick up or deliver plates so that I virtually had my face in his armpit. Water off a duck’s back, as they say, thanks in no small part to the lovely company I was in.

Final verdict: Við Tjörnina is an okay place for dinner that can remember its dandelion more beautiful*** and that appears to have become somewhat complacent over the years. Food: a tiny notch above average [quite unacceptable considering the prices they charge.] Service: friendly and amiable but could have done without all the armpit-gazing or [cough] smelling. Ambiance: relaxed but a tad dusty in the metaphorical sense.

WEATHER: It’s been mild and calm today with rain. Wind is picking up now. 3°C [46F], sunrise was at 9:15 am and sunset at 6:09 pm.

* i.e. somewhere, some committee decided that the masculine pronoun should be used to refer to both men and women.
** Sadly, I always feel it reflects badly on a place when they can’t have their menus properly translated.
*** Nicelandic idiom meaning ‘it used to be better’.

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