From Iceland — True Beauty Behind A Graffitied Door: A Visit To Óx

True Beauty Behind A Graffitied Door: A Visit To Óx

Published December 5, 2023

True Beauty Behind A Graffitied Door: A Visit To Óx
Photo by
Supplied by Óx
Catharine Fulton

Óx dazzles from start to finish

I don’t know if it’s the scary and uncertain few years we’ve all been living through or my own personal stressors of the past 12 months that I was seeking out opportunities to momentarily forget, but I made a conscious decision at the outset of 2023 to partake of more big memorable experiences. Things I had always wanted to do – for myself, for my family – but had shied away from or put off for one reason or another. In addition to adding a number of massive moments to the family memory bank this year, 2023 also somehow became my year of Michelin dining.

To be abundantly clear, lest I come across wildly out of touch, “year of Michelin dining” does not mean I’ve been indulging weekly at awarded restaurants. I dined solo at an establishment in London and felt like I was truly pampering myself, taking my time, enjoying every bite and sip, quietly absorbing the ambience. I celebrated my birthday at another starred establishment in France, where my kids’ gift to me was promising to try everything and to say something thoughtful about it, even if it was “that bite wasn’t my favourite” – the refrain we agreed upon instead of “eww” or “I don’t like that.” Yes, I brought my kids to a Michelin restaurant, after confirming ahead of making the reservation that it was allowed.

So when the opportunity to lunch at the acclaimed Óx presented itself by way of an invitation from restaurant manager and head sommelier Manuel Schembri, I giddily accepted.

Óx was awarded a Michelin star in 2022, becoming the second Icelandic restaurant to receive the prestigious distinction. Dill was the first and Moss at the Blue Lagoon received theirs this year to become the third.

A theatrical arrival

Óx has been a legend in Reykjavík since chef/owner Þráinn Freyr Vigfusson first set up the kitchen fixtures inherited from his grandmother in the back room of his restaurant Sumac on Laugavegur. There, he presided over a chef’s table experience for 11 diners. It has since moved a short walk down the street, where the slightly expanded 17-seater culinary experience is hidden behind a graffitied door identified only by a doorbell labelled AMMA DON.

It’s at that door that the experience really begins. Pressing the doorbell sets into motion a three-hour experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

Manuel’s voice comes gently through the speaker of the doorbell – “come on through” – and the electric lock of the door clicks faintly, indicating it’s time to enter. Over the threshold, the long dark hallway stretching ahead continues to lend the arrival a sense of mystery. Walking toward the literal light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t know what to expect next. I find myself in an exterior metal stairwell, but Manuel’s voice draws my attention to where to go next. “Welcome, Catharine,” he calls from one floor down where he’s standing in the doorway of a shuttered greenhouse … inside a building, but also outside again and downstairs. Where am I?

Welcome to Amma Don

This isn’t the entry into Óx proper, but rather to Amma Don, the speakeasy bar that fronts the restaurant. Named for Chef Þráinn’s other grandmother – here’s to strong women! – Amma Don is the living room of every grandparent, with low seating around a coffee table, an old television set playing, tapestries hanging on the wall, an embroidered table runner and a crystal bowl of potpourri. The washrooms have threadbare hand towels and old housecoats hanging on the back of the door.

I was directed to a space on the sofa with a purple cushion, beside a couple from Manchester who are visiting Iceland for a birthday celebration, and a handful of Icelandic diners. Only seven of us would be enjoying lunch that day, and it began around that coffee table in Amma Don’s sitting room.

A floral teacup is the vessel for the first taste: a delightfully rich and deeply flavoured kjöt súpa, or meat soup. There are no tough hunks of stewed lamb here, just a beautifully smooth purée that I sighed over the memory of while writing this article.

There’s no quick-fire succession of plates here. The pace is in line with the pace of life in any grandmother’s living room. Manuel casually lowers himself to sit on the hearth of the fireplace to explain each small course. A whipped rapeseed oil dusted with rutabaga is impossibly light to the point of floating atop the thin potato chip provided as the tool with which to enjoy it. A small bite that follows – a concoction of chicken liver and sugar fermented beet – is christmas in a single mouthful. We’re instructed to eat the choux pastry that comes next, piled high with caviar and stuffed with duck egg, in a single bite or very carefully in two.

Tricks up their sleeves

It’s at this point in the lunch service that the time arrives to actually go to Óx.

Manuel guides the small group of diners toward a bookshelf at the back of Amma Don and pauses. Knowing returning guests have their phones ready and recording. Then, tilting one of the books just so, the entire bookshelf swings open to reveal the expansive wrap-around dining table with Chef Þráinn’s inherited kitchen at the centre. That repeat guest says that reveal never gets old and I believe it wholeheartedly.

What came next was, as I typed into Notes on my phone, “a revelation.” The couple from Manchester, who earlier shared that they’d gone on their first date to a Michelin restaurant and have since enjoyed dozens together in their travels, gushed that this was the best they’d experienced.

More than a meal

It goes without saying that the dishes served by Chef Þráinn and his team were impeccable.

A tomato consomme with shrimp and habanero was so bright and fresh I held myself back from drinking every last drop directly from the bowl. The salmon was so delicately smoked it melted on the tongue. The lamb, smoked for two hours before resting beneath its cloche with arctic thyme and dried birch, parted at the sight of a knife. The dessert incorporating locally-grown wasabi was an herbaceous and not-too-sweet bridge away from the savoury courses and toward the chocolate cake and toffee that ended the meal.

But what really stands out at Óx, just as much as the 18 courses, is the sheer talent of every individual there. Watching them operate first in Amma Don and then in the theatre that is Óx was like witnessing a master painter at work. It is a remarkable and inspirational experience to witness the unique abilities of a group of truly gifted people. What they do is so intricately thought out and carefully planned – heck, a mussel stock being grated over one dish starts as eight litres of liquid before being painstakingly reduced to a single 40 gram flavour bomb – you can’t help but feel you are tasting art. Each dish was an expression of their collective genius. The level of care and service is a marvel.

Sated and slightly tipsy, I made my way back through the greenhouse that is both indoors and out, up the metal stairs and back down the long dark hallway to exit through the graffitied door that I had entered three hours earlier. In my year of seeking out memorable experiences, my year of Michelin dining, this was something else.

Óx is something else entirely.

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