Published May 31, 2018
In a city like Reykjavík where it is now the norm for new restaurants to mushroom on almost every street corner, it’s almost a relief when one such entrant is determined to thrive on its small, secret dining USP.
Óx is the brainchild and long-time dream project of Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon. It’s an intimate dining experience where the walls between the chef and diner are dissolved over a leisurely tasting menu.
The restaurant is housed in the far end of Sumac, Þráinn’s other venture, and is designed to feel like an Icelandic timber cabin. Two chefs host eleven guests each night. The high bar seats overlook an old kitchen cabinet that has been in Þráinn’s family for decades, and is now enjoying its second lease of life as a fine-dining kitchenette. We watch the chefs plate up dainty, velvety mounds of goose liver mousse, sipping everything from a chocolatey beer to a fruity wine.
Oddly comforting discomfort
Icelanders are notorious for not being fond of small-talk, and a preference for plenty of personal space. This played on my mind before my first dinner at Óx. But I needn’t have worried—Þráinn is a very warm host, encouraging us to mingle and chat during the meal.
Dinner starts promptly at 7pm, getting off to a memorable start with Jerusalem artichoke jackets topped with coral-hued trout roe. I can’t help but wonder though why Þráinn wanted to create this particular experience. “I had the idea ten years ago,” he explains. “Sumac came after. It’s kind of like a black and white thing since they are so different.”
While Sumac leans on its Moroccan-Lebanese inspiration, Óx looks closer home. The rose gold menus are little pieces of take-home art, while the delicate hors-d’oeuvres are delicate morsels from the land and sea. A particular stand-out was the whole grilled monkfish, with succulent, buttery meat and theatrical presentation.
“Initially I thought of it as just being one chef, the guests, and maybe a waiter,” says Þráinn. “But the idea evolved. It’s a challenging idea to do, but it’s gone well so far.”
By the third course, aided by the free-flowing wine, the eleven diners are no longer strangers—we’re discussing politics, tourism, and of course, food. The chefs hold back at times, or gently encourage a shy diner; feedback is robust and immediate. We debate the wine pairings and the nuances of saucing.
“That is probably our biggest responsibility in the kitchen,” Þráinn says. “It’s not about putting a guest on the spot when they don’t like something.” He pauses. “We recently had a last minute request for a no-seafood meal. So that was a true live theatre situation, with the kitchen reacting and improvising on the spot.”
Þráinn says that one night in the kitchen at Óx is like two in a regular restaurant kitchen. “Mentally, it’s so much harder,” he says. “But it was my idea, so I have to stick to it.”
Óx manages to effectively translate this modesty into its central concept. The portions are appropriate, the drink pairings unconventional, and the guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner experience feels fresh. Given that we often choose to dine at familiar favourites, it’s refreshing that no two meals at Óx will ever be the same. Dining with strangers is exhilarating—a familiarity bridges the social divide, leaving us bound by this communal experience. And that alone warrants a visit.
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