As lovers of Japanese flavors probably know very well, Japanese cuisine is not only sushi. The Japanese culinary tradition is very rich and sushi is just a little portion of it. It also varies a lot from region to region, so you can have dishes that are proper only of a specific area, or other dishes that are totally different depending on the provenance of the chef that prepares them. Sushi is actually not that common for Japanese people to eat on regular basis, because even in Japan it is extremely expensive. It’s considered a treat, to be consumed on special occasions. Becoming a sushi chef, a capable one, is not even a profession one can invent for himself in just a few days. It’s a matter of fact that to become a sushi chef in Japan you need a training of seven years. You need to learn all the techniques: just sharpening the knives correctly is a task that requires time to be mastered. Westerners, as it usually happens in these cases, cannot resist the temptation to adjust and reinvent. In the last years, raw fish has become the exclusive synonym of Japan for Western people, culinary-wise. We are not used to the notion of having extremely specialized chefs. In most Japanese restaurants as we know them, the sushi chef is some Asian looking dude not strictly trained to prepare and cut the fish, while any sushi and sashimi connoisseur knows very well that poorly cut fish can spoil the whole final execution, resulting even dangerous for the health of the consumer in a few cases – remember the hilarious Simpsons’ episode with Homer eating the lethal puffer fish? In many cases, like it happens with any other exotic trend taking roots in a very different cultural environment, what counts the most is not the closeness to the original, the accuracy; what counts the most is the hype, the presentation. Nowadays, in big European or American cities you will have Japanese cuisine presented in all kinds of ways. You will have restaurants mixing raw fish vaguely presented in a fancy oriental fashion. Sushi bars, often managed by non-Japanese people – the sushi bar appears to be the Japanese restaurant format more successful outside Japan – will offer to the customers the weirdest and less orthodox variations on the raw fish theme.
This said, it’s not a surprise – but it’s still a bit of a disappointment – that the problem with Japanese cuisine in Iceland is that all Japanese restaurants are very much sushi oriented. If you want to taste ramen or sukiyaki in Reykjavík you’ll probably have to settle for preparing them yourself. On the other hand, if you are more the sushi bar type, the capital area offers quite a few choices to calm your appetite. All quite expensive, mind you, but still acceptable for average sushi bars standards: sushi bars are infamous for being very expensive almost anywhere on this planet.
Sushismiðjan is a sushi place that opened for business in February 2003; its quarters are located in a small renovated shed near Reykjavík’s harbor. The management and the personnel are mainly Portuguese. The restaurant, dimly lit and facing the sea, occupies the greatest portion of the small building; on the back, there is a take away space. When the season permits it, a few tables are positioned on the outside. The dining area is tiny and quite comfortable, very simply and unassumingly furnished, though I didn’t like all those fashion magazines piled near the window, as they kind of ruin the general atmosphere, if you ask me. Anyway, be prepared to resort to your patience, because the service is slow. And I mean really slow. Really. In more than one case I saw people leaving before getting served because they couldn’t bear to wait anymore. The staff is friendly and polite though, so one can’t complain too much. You just have to know you might have a lot of time in your hands to have your order delivered, so I wouldn’t recommend the place if you are in a hurry, if you have some other engagement, or for a last minute meal. The menu is mostly sushi and sashimi oriented. A few additional dishes can be ordered though, like soup or onigiri. Drinks include sodas, local beers and wine – no Japanese beer like the popular Asahi, as I had hoped. We ordered two miso soups (650 ISK each) and a sushi and sashimi tray for two persons (5400 ISK; it says it’s 20 pieces on the menu, but I counted them and they’re a little more than that). Portions, compared to other sushi places I went to, are quite fair. It won’t very likely happen to you to leave with a crater in your stomach to be filled at the closest burger or pizza place. Prices are average for the typology of food offered, and much cheaper than those of other sushi places in Reykjavík. The only thing that may be bothersome for a few people that are used to eating sushi is the fact the kind of sushi and sashimi Sushismiðjan offers is not very orthodox. The cut of the raw fish isn’t great. Some slices, especially for sashimi, are sort of frayed or broken or very irregular in some parts; also, some pieces are served with spicy dressing – hot chili pepper oil, for example – that sort of covers and disguises the subtle taste of fish. But the fish is fresh and its quality is good, and this partly makes up for its not so great preparation.
We haven’t tried the take away, but, according to some, the trays aren’t prepared on the spot; they sit on the shelf all day so it might happen you’re not being offered fresh sushi if you go at some hours of the day, not any fresher than the kind of sushi you can find in local supermarkets anyway. As I said, I haven’t tried it, so I cannot really give an opinion on the matter. If you are interested you can take a look at Sushismiðjan‘s website, where there are price listings and you can get a better idea.
Overall, if you’re not picky when it comes to sushi and sashimi, Sushismiðjan is a pretty decent choice, especially if you take into account the competitive prices, comparing them to other sushi places in Reykjavík. The location is also very nice and the kind of earnest and not too forcibly sophisticated atmosphere will make you feel quite at ease, which is always a good point when it comes to eating, in my opinion. On the other hand, if you are a die-hard fanatic of genuinely prepared sushi or if you want a taste of more traditional Japanese flavors, maybe you’ll experience some kind of disappointment.
Sushismiðjan is located in Geirsgata 3, and it’s open Monday to Saturday, from 11:30 to 22:00. Phone:517 3366.