Restaurant Caruso, Reykjavik, Iceland: Review, Italian Comfort Food
Restaurant Caruso: Reykjavik's Downtown Italian Comfort Food
Restaurant Caruso, Austurstræti 22, 101 Reykjavík. 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert and 1 bottle red wine (excluding service): ISK 21,150 (US$156, £119, €132). tel. +354 562 7335. website: http://www.caruso.is
Written by EatGoSee
Restaurant Caruso offers home-style Italian food and cozy dining in chilly Reykjavík. The food is simple and the service is warm but Restaurant Caruso could benefit from a little 'less is more' on the plate.
A soothing and cosy space
The service is friendly and knowledgeable about the menu
Beautifully fresh trout, grilled perfectly (catch of the day menu)
Bread so good, you’ll come here just for it
Heavy-handed cooking at times that lacks attention to detail
Restaurant Caruso: The Long Road to Reykjavik
It was a monster of a journey. 19 hours travelling through a trio of airports (Dubai, Amsterdam Schiphol and Reykjavik Keflavik) followed by a 45-minute journey to our hotel and towards uncertain times. You see we are travelling only 6 months into the COVID pandemic. Mrs EatGoSee and I travel-weary having not slept since Wednesday morning and now, on a Friday night, we stagger around drunk on jet lag looking for a quick dinner. Mrs EatGoSee turns to therapeutic Italian food in times like these. “I just want pasta”, she insists.
Our Hotel Borg in Downtown Reykjavik shares a building with the relic of a Jamie’s Italian (RIP). The sign remains on the door only as a signal of restaurants that expand too quickly and lose relevance. I endured a few meals at Jamie’s Italian over the years. The only true loss is for those people who depended on it for a living.
This is the point where I will also apologize for poorly lit photos taken from an iPhone and edited right up to the point of credulity. It was a long day and I was not carting a DSLR around.
Restaurant Caruso is in the heart of Reykjavik’s downtown area sitting adjacent to a dozen other large restaurants tucked inside a cul-de-sac of eateries. It includes the well-known Grillmarka∂urinn. Fascinatingly, Google Maps instructs me that Restaurant Caruso is a mere “2-minute walk from the Icelandic Phallological Museum”. Nothing works up an appetite for saucy gnocchi like a casual afternoon of academic phallus studies. I can only assume Google’s algorithm found an intriguing correlation and wanted me to know that “people who eat here also enjoy mammal dicks”.
Restaurant Caruso: Arrival and First Impressions
Much to our relief, our host confirms there is space for two at the inn notwithstanding our lack of reservation. We nearly collapse into his arms in gratitude.
Restaurant Caruso is immediately homely, cosy and casual. The toasty smell of wood matches the sort of heavy curtains you just want to wrap yourself in. Cloth-shaded lamps glow amber. We are escorted upstairs into an attic space rich with solid pine wooden beams, shadows and mood. Distressed wooden floors relieve the formality of white table cloths. Mrs EatGoSee and I sit under some thin-framed old maps of Iceland at a table dressed with a single rose and candles. There is something (very) dated about Restaurant Caruso but it wears old-world charm in such as way that, after a few weary days of mask-wearing travel, I recognize and admire it like an old friend.
The clientele personify the vibe. Mid-aged couples enjoy dinner together after a long week. Families come together in large groups sharing mains and bread (more on this later). A younger group of girlfriends adjacent to us share a Graciosa pizza with tomatoes, onions and blue cheese (ISK 2890, US$21, £16, €18) and spaghetti carbonara tumbled in a creamy puddle of bacon-laced cream and parmesan (ISK 2990, US$22, £17, €19). They laugh and slurp reassuringly
Restaurant Caruso's menu and, importantly, the wine menu
Caruso’s menu starts with a three-course set menu that draws upon some well-sourced local produce cooked occasionally in an Italian style for ISK 8790 (US$65, £49, €55). Caruso offers appetisers, pizza, plates of pasta, mains divided into fish and meat and, of course, desserts. There is a children’s menu available for those with young kids. I am pleased to see a vegetarian menu is available offering vegan or vegetarian alternatives to existing menu options. A wine list sources from old and new world offering red, white, rose and sparkling all by the bottle and the glass. I am deeply satisfied to see that ½ litre carafes are available. Welcome back to Europe; how I miss a value for money carafe. This is a shrewd move as drinking in the Nordics is an expensive business not for the faint of heart and light of wallet. The wine starts at around ISK 1590 per glass (US$12, £9, €10), carafes are ISK 3100 (US$23, £17, €19) and bottles finally start at ISK 6100 (US$44, £34, €38).
Mrs EatGoSee and I order starters and mains and then a bottle of Viña Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile (ISK 6100) hoping its soporific effect yields a near-comatose state upon our return to Hotel Borg.
Restaurant Caruso’s food and Service
Let’s start with bread. Bouncy slices of rippled bread dragged through a garlic-laced sauce. Unapologetic slabs of comfort food. You should come to Caruso for the bread and wine. It’s nearly biblical.
The starters of seafood risotto and roasted portobello mushrooms arrive. Mrs EatGoSee’s roasted portobello mushroom is a classic combination stuffed and layered with goat’s cheese, cherry tomatoes, basil and pine nuts (ISK 2590, US$19, £15, €16). My seafood risotto with calamari, lobster, scampi and mussels is a generous starter (ISK 3190, US$24, £18, €20) also with a main course available (ISK 5390, $40, £30, €34). The seafood risotto is crowned with a thicket of crunchy, peppery fresh radish, fennel and mixed leaves. The fresh leaves and crunch contrast nicely with the smooth risotto. The risotto is thick like putty stiffened with fistfuls of parmesan fortified with risotto starch. The main course portion would stick with you for a lifetime. A puddle of lemon oil midway between the tip of my pinky and the first knuckle is left behind. The kitchen is well-advised to lighten the dish by holding back on the cheese. Consider serving a looser risotto that cascades to the edges of the plate. It’s a hefty starter.
Our main courses arrive in quick succession. Mrs EatGoSee receives her lasagna and I meet my catch of the day. The beef bolognese lasagna with bechamel and mozzarella cheese is cooked homestyle in a baking dish generously for one (ISK 3190, US$24, £18, €20). Indeed Caruso leans into the portion sizes. This lasagna could easily feed two for dinner with a light salad. The catch of the day is a fresh trout beautifully grilled skin-side down with potatoes and seasonal vegetables (ISK 4390). A glistening fillet of trout with a hint of smokiness from the grill. It would also be perfect but for an overly reduced red wine sauce that is salt first and red wine sauce later. A gremolata, caper salsa or some acid-first sauce would pair better to compete with the trout. This would also be a more Italian approach.
Indeed this is the broad narrative at Caruso. It is home-style cooking for the home cook who, overall, knows what they are doing but also needs to know when to hold back. There are some technical achievements like grilling fish perfectly, knowing that added crunchy textures improves risotto and making diet-bustingly good bread. The highs are savoured but the detractors stand out in equal measure.
Restaurant Caruso, and then there was dessert
We find deep inner strength and order a dessert. A palate-cleansing trio of sorbet lands (ISK 1690, $13, £10, €11). It is refreshing and enjoyable; a trick is missed, however, where locally-sourced fruit could be used instead (cherries, raspberries etc).
We pay the bill with the charming service here. They are friendly, smiling and help send us on our way into the still brightly-lit Icelandic night.
Would I Return to Restaurant Caruso?
There is a charm at Restaurant Caruso seldom seen elsewhere. It feels intimate and personal. The staff approach you as if they know you, without being intrusive. The mezzanine attic dining by candlelight surrounded by maps and photos adds to this sends of seclusion. You feel like the only diner in a room of strangers. I enjoyed being here and sitting among it all.
It would not take very much to improve Restaurant Caruso’s food immeasurably. Restaurant Caruso is not trying to be upmarket and succeeds when it does very little at all. Restaurant Caruso seems torn between wanting to be a Northern Italian restaurant (perhaps Venetian) but misses those tell-tale final flourishes signature to Italian food. It stays safely within more wintery notes.
I may come back to Caruso for their impressive-looking pizzas or grill menu items paired with a carafe of juicy red.
Who Should Come to Restaurant Caruso?
Families looking for get-togethers after months of lockdown, couples looking for an easy date night or people who enjoy a homely atmosphere.