From Iceland — The Ten Year Storm: ROK serves small plates in a prime location

The Ten Year Storm: ROK serves small plates in a prime location

Published July 3, 2024

The Ten Year Storm: ROK serves small plates in a prime location
Photo by
Joana Fontinha/The Reykjavík Grapevine

If you live in or are visiting Rekjavík, chances are you have been to Hallgrímskirkja. If you have, then chances are that you have also seen the black, turf roof building across the road. Almost everyone knows ROK by its distinctive architecture, which on the heels of its 10-year anniversary remains quite remarkable (and allows me a bit of a self congratulatory pat on the back, as my studio designed the place back in 2015). The Grapevine first reviewed ROK in 2017, eating our way through the many small plates at what we then described as a “New Nordic and ambiguously Mediterranean menu, that left a meagre impression.”

So, seven years on, how has the restaurant fared? Well, for starters, they are still around — which is no small feat in Rekjavík — and they are still run by the original owner, Hrefna Björk Sverrisdóttir. On our early visit, we observed that perhaps the location and the architecture did the heavy lifting. Could that alone still be the case with its continued popularity?

First Impressions

I’ll admit I slept on ROK for a while. Not because of a conflict of interest, but more because of a menu that hadn’t quite seemed to hit its stride. But a few years of effort seem to have paid off for the team and kitchen. The menu is still vaguely Mediterranean, with no specific loyalty to any particular country. It has also remained largely unchanged since 2019, reflecting a confidence and assurance that has become particularly evident. It simply categorises dishes into Greens, Fish, Meat and Desserts, allowing diners to pick and choose as they please — like many small plate themed restaurants, ROK encourages two to four dishes per person. There are also sides and drinks on the menu to round things out.

Few things really top the feeling of overlooking Hallgrímskirkja as you sip coupe after coupe of champagne.

ROK, like nearby Mat Bar, simply had to do small plates given the limitations of their kitchen sizes and not just as a pocket-friendly strategy to entice customers. Building regulations and health department conditions often leave challenging size and staffing issues for restaurants to navigate — especially those housed in older Icelandic buildings, where wiggle room for extensions and changes are not as flexible as new-built projects.

ROK has certainly taken on those challenges and turned them into opportunities. Choice of dishes range from Icelandic comfort food like Plokkfiskur (2.190 ISK) (though here the traditional fish-potato stew has been gussied up in a bechamel sauce, gratinated with hollandaise and cheese) to bistro staple duck confit (2.590 ISK), lighter fare like the salmon ceviche (2.390 ISK) and vegan black bean burger (2.490 ISK), that all point to a workflow that demands very little cooking a la minute, but is more prep heavy. Then again, if you, unlike me, are seeing this from a purely diner perspective (which you certainly are), then holy guacamole, the prices!

Bang for your buck

Not a single dish at ROK exceeds the 3.500 ISK mark — I repeat, not a single dish at ROK costs more than 3.500 ISK! Heck, it doesn’t even cross 3.400 ISK! The most expensive dishes on the menu are the 150 gm beef tenderloin with chimichurri and the African lamb chops, both priced at 3.390 ISK.

ROK’s food isn’t about high brow cooking or paying homage to the roots of cuisine. The focus is on the most value for money dining experience, in the beautiful ambiance of a true casual setting and with attentive service. Which seems like a simple formula for a successful restaurant, yet is also the most challenging to execute day after day after day.

The kitchen gets it largely right with the food. The vegan burger enjoys quite a bit of popularity even amongst my meat eating friends, although the open faced sandwich vibe for a burger has always made me giggle a bit. A moreish, spiced patty, sometimes with roasted peppers, is served on a well-grilled burger bun, but just one half of the bun. Even as I giggle, I don’t mind it as I find that despite the missing top bun, it allows for a much more enjoyable bread:patty ratio. Still, at 2.490 ISK, it’s a curious assembly of a dish.

Another regular on the menu is the salmon ceviche. The menu describes it as served with passionfruit, garlic chips, cucumber and lime, but sadly the double punch of acidity one expects from the tropical fruits is lost in the (I suspect) pre-sweetened passion fruit puree. It is also served sashimi style and isn’t a true ceviche where the fish is “cooked” in acidic citrus fruit. At dinner recently, I had to quietly send back the dish as the fish was certainly well past its prime for being served raw — a scenario my friends later blamed on me for ordering fish on a Sunday.

A more successful plate that I’ve enjoyed recently was the chicken skewers (2.590 ISK). Served over a punchy garlicky hummus, it is a tasty dish that recalls generic Moorish flavours, but again, isn’t rooted anywhere specific. My own complaints about specificity quieten when confronted with the risotto (1.890 ISK). Cooking shows on TV famously call it the dish that will send you packing home. Here, however, my expectations were low, and what was served was a perfectly acceptable bowl of home-cooked risotto.

Make it rain champagne!

Iceland is notoriously expensive. And that we have some of the highest alcohol prices is well known by now. Cocktails are now being priced at 3.590 ISK — daylight robbery if you ask me. But at ROK, you can make it rain champagne! A bottle of Moet is 8.700 ISK during happy hour. You read that right. They serve it with a dainty platter of ripe cantaloupe and sheets of ribbed liquorice. So popular is this combo that it even enticed Jim Hirsch of Milk Street to pick up this “agitate the bubbles with skewered liquorice” trick on his travels to Iceland.

What seems to be the secret sauce to ROK’s continued success (and its Achilles heel that keeps it from being considered top dog) is that even as it draws from popular imagination and is priced well, it lingers at that middling space where it isn’t bad, but it isn’t mind blowing either. Perhaps, that is indeed its unique selling proposition. It’s simple and it’s mostly delicious, and thanks to its sensitive pricing, it makes one much more forgiving if the dishes fall flat, making it a reliable bet. Plus, if it is a sunny day, few things really top the feeling of overlooking Hallgrímskirkja as you sip coupe after coupe of champagne.

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