Right before the Thanksgiving, my wife Jun and I made a quick trip to Iceland for a five-day trip. Iceland’s breathtaking scenery, from the waterfalls to the glacier, was as astoundingly beautiful as advertised, and we have a fabulous time together. One thing I heard from people around me who had visited the country before is the food in Iceland is not very good and quite expensive, even in the capital city of Reykjavik which is where we stayed during most of our trip. A couple of days before I departed, I learned that my boss had visited Iceland before and asked her for an itinerary. My boss, who admitted she is not a foodie, highly recommended that I try this restaurant called Óx, which is hidden inside another restaurant, saying while the price for the experience with her husband was ridiculously expensive, she had a wonderful time and if I’m interested in foodie experience I will absolutely love it. I checked the restaurant’s website thereafter rand saw that there was an opening for two people on the first evening we have in Reykjavik. While the price tag (at 32,500 Iceland Krona, or roughly $270 per person) initially gave me a pause, I also saw that the full beverage pairing is included (which, compared to tasting menu restaurants in New York City, is actually a bargain assuming the food is good) so I booked a spot for Jun and I. As I will further note in another review of a restaurant in Iceland, our culinary experience in the country had been pretty underwhelming, but I’m not afraid to say that the dinner at Óx was tied for the best we’ve had this year (our spring dinner at Atomix being the other https://kenscale.com/2019/04/30/atomix-revisit-spring-2019/, and unquestionably the best outside of NYC this year.
Óx is really just a single counter hidden at the far end of Sumac, a Middle Eastern restaurant run by the same chef Þráinn (pronounced Thrain) Freyr Vigfússon. Chef Þráinn, a tall Iceland with glasses and shy demeanor, was already preparing some dishes by the time we arrived at the counter. Soon we were greeted with a series of snacks. Already on the second snack, a wonderful bite of duck liver with red stone bramble jelly, I realized that this was not an ordinary tasting menu. Unlike Sumac, chef Þráinn explained that the entire concept of Óx is around using exclusively Iceland-based ingredients. I certainly didn’t realize that wasabi is grown in Iceland, or that its leaf (its stem is used for the condiment that we commonly see in sushi) can be actually used for food, so a snack of shrimp-based paste inside wasabi leaf from the kitchen was a pleasant surprise. I don’t actively seek cucumber, but if every cucumber I eat is something wonderful like the one (with pine and coriander on top) from Óx, I might change my dietary habit drastically.
The larger dishes starting coming in, and they were all stand-out dishes as well. The combination of scallop, blueberries and parsnip in the first dish was outstanding, as was the following dish using skyr (a type of Icelandic dairy), potatoes and smoked egg that worked fantastically with a pour of white Sancerre (more on the beverage selections from the restaurant later). Then chef Þráinn put out a wrapped object that turned out to rye bread baked under geothermal ground by a friend of his. The dark brown bread was marvelously delicious and I snapped up whatever Jun didn’t finish eating. Then came the highlight of the meal; after getting a bite of cod with tomato broth underneath, Jun exclaimed, “This is just amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish this good.” and started throwing all kinds of praise at the chef. I couldn’t agree more; the soft texture of the cod, along with the aromatic flavor of tomatoes, made this dish a sure-fire inductee into KenScale’s best dishes of the year pantheon.
The only mild disappointment was in the last savory course. It would later become more obvious to us throughout the trip, but the seafood is generally better than the meats in Iceland, and that was also true at Óx, where the duck lagged behind the cod significantly in the texture department (as anyone who has followed my reviews would know, Jun is quite an enthusiast in duck meat and demands the very best of this poultry), although the seasoning itself was balanced. A side of rutabaga, porcini and black garlic helped soften the blow a bit, and by the time the desserts started arriving, our mood brightened again, as we had a pleasant palate cleanser using brown cheese, crème fraiche and red beet granita, followed by a decadent combination of milk ice cream and fennel cake. The kitchen was even brewing coffee with lab-like equipment so I also sipped it a little as well. After a few complementary sweet bites the meal finally ended and we couldn’t just stop raving about the wonderful meal we just had to the chef.
The counter at Óx only contains 10-11 people at a time, and there is only a single meal per night starting around 7 p.m. (and it’s closed Sunday through Tuesday). If you can get a seat at the table while you are in Reykjavik, trust me and book this. Yes, the experience will set you back financially but when you have this life-changing meal plus full beverage pairings (the restaurant half a dozen throughout the meal, with several natural and/or biodynamic white wines that worked beautifully with the seafood, one Icelandic beer and an Italian red for the duck meat) that were also quite thoughtfully planned, I don’t see how this is not a great bargain. After the meal, chef Þráinn struck around to chat with the diners (other than Jun and I and another couple from England, everyone else was from Iceland) and it quickly turned into a mini-party. Jun couldn’t stop imploring the chef to come visit New York City and do a collaboration somewhere (I think a pop-up event with a restaurant like Atomix or Aska would be quite wonderful), and the chef who was initially shy started to open up more and more over time. Óx is the type of dining destination that makes traveling with Jun so fun and rewarding. I would really love to have an opportunity to see chef Þráinn and experience his profound culinary philosophy again soon.
KenScale: 9.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 9.25/10)
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 9.5/10
- Ingredients: 9.5/10
- Flavor: 10.0/10
- Texture: 9.0/10
- Value: 9.0/10
Address: Laugavegur 28, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland