From Iceland — Restaurant Review: Óx

Restaurant Review: Óx

Words by
Photo by
Heiðdís Guðbjörg

Published August 31, 2022

What we think
Price for 2 (no drinks)

“No, no, no, you can’t go in there yet!,” a harried waitress stops me in my tracks as I approach the doors to Óx. I must be early, I think to myself, now seated at the bar at Sumac. I’m amused by the intense reception, a far cry from my first visit to Óx five years ago when the restaurant was only whispered about in hardcore food-loving circles and the welcome a lot more laidback.

Your first taste of things to come at Óx might be their website that—like many fine dining restaurants—doesn’t really reveal a menu, but sets the tone for what to expect. An other-worldly, whimsical site full of magical creatures that seem to belong to land, sea and sky all at once, scamper and disappear along the moss-green landing page. References are made to adventures, travels and leaving the familiar behind.

Since its opening, the restaurant has risen from quiet obscurity—nestled as it is at the back of Sumac, chef/owner Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon’s other venture, in a black timber house. Replete with a salvaged kitchenette that Þráinn’s grandfather built, Óx is the clear realisation of a long held dream. Now, it boasts of being the Nordic White Guide’s only Global Master restaurant in Iceland, and a recently awarded Michelin star at the 2022 Nordic awards furthers its glocal standing.

Who’s coming to dinner?

You walk into Óx through Sumac, and the bustling market-like hubbub of the latter is drowned out as the black door opens and chef Þráinn Freyr warmly welcomes you into his truly humble abode. A high, omakase style bar wraps around an old, lovingly restored kitchen, and just 11 seats await expectant diners. To complete that picture of homely nicety, the chefs in their crisp white jackets stand smiling, like the genial hosts they are.

Once seated, you have a perfect view of the entire room. Multiple mise en place abound on the countertops below—there are hand-carved walnut platters cradling secret ingredients, whisper-thin blown glass bowls by Carissa Baktay that mysteriously merge with Icelandic lava stone, and creamy ceramic cups and plates. Wines are cooling in their ice-baths and sauces and other potions bubble away on the tiny hotplate behind. Just how an indulgent tasting menu comes together in this summer-cabin like space, might be the greatest magic of all.

Dinner begins promptly at 6.30 pm, and the conversations begin to flow just as freely as the bubbles in our Jean Laurent Blanc de Blancs champagne. On this occasion, my dining companions are travellers from across the world and a few locals; we swap travel tips over whipped butter with a thin lavash-like cracker. Smoked lamb tartlets, a fun play on the “amma made hangikjöt tartalettur”, arrive as dainty hors d’oeuvre of nickel-sized discs of intensely smoked lamb. They pair wonderfully with the champagne, and also set the tone for the evening—updated Icelandic culinary traditions, without being too New Nordic-y.

Hits and highlights

Unlike a traditional restaurant setting, the omakase style theatre allows the chefs to truly engage with the room, as if we are in their home, and dinner progresses as it might in our own kitchens. Head chef Rúnar Pierre Herivaux and sous chef Agne Petkeviciute are particularly adept at introducing dishes interspersed with fun behind-the-scenes nuggets and easy to understand technical know-how.

Over 16 courses, and with drinks to match several dishes, the progression at Óx is expertly tempered. Small, flavour-packed dishes lead to generous bites that allow for breathing room to take in the expanse of culinary alchemy in front of you. One particular favourite on this occasion is a fennel pollen speckled fabric of beet, draped over cubes of grown-up gummy-bear-like rehydrated chewy beets, beet paté and house-smoked Tindur cheese with crowberry. The veritable explosion of texture in every bite has the whole room sighing with pleasure.

Dishes that don’t quite hit the high notes are the ones where the kitchen reaches beyond Iceland for inspiration and then bafflingly abandons the original spirit in favour of dainty plating. Like the chawanmushi topped with caviar: what could’ve been a decadent act of plunging into wobbly, barely-set, warm savoury egg custard is somewhat lost due to the thin serving, with even the caviar a poor cover-up.

Where Óx triumphs are its ode to the island dishes, like the hand harvested princess scallops from the Westfjords, served simply sliced with a wasabi cream and dotted with freshly grated locally grown wasabi. Rarely seen local shrimp with a beautifully clarified tomato consomme could be their staple star. Cod makes an appearance one way or another, and this current iteration with cod collars, cabbage both sweet and fermented over a wasabi-lemon custard and warm shrimp bisque was made more memorable by the Mystery de Rose Beaujolais that’d convert even the most non-gamay lover.

Two dishes have remained steadfast on the menu since Óx opened. The rutabaga gnocchi—buttery pillows of gobsmacking richness and lightness, paired with green apple kombucha—feel like the kind of warm embrace that only comfort food can provide. The other is the steamed rye bread that is delivered from Laugarvatn everyday. Chef Þráinn introduces it much like Simba, the brick of cake-like bread held aloft, the room ooh-ing and aah-ing as the malty rugbrauð scent wafts across the room. Served with salty butter and dung-smoked trout floss, it is truly a simple yet satisfying bite.

Old spirit, new location

Honest theatre of this kind is a recurring theme at Óx. The wine flows freely, the conversation ebbs and flows course after course, and the chefs prepping and plating the dishes adds another layer of action.

Getting a table at Óx has always been tricky, given their 11-seat constraint. Chef Þráinn reveals his plans for a new location, a stone’s throw away from Sumac, for an Óx 2.0 that will seat 18. In the spirit of keeping things personal yet exclusive, the new Óx will be fronted by a bar—Ammadon, named after the chef’s grandmother, that will serve both classic and experimental cocktails. I was lucky enough to be shown around the new property, and I’m happy to share that the new location will echo that walk-and-find Óx experience.

More than a chef’s table

The chef’s table definition is nowhere near an honest description of the rambunctious dining experience one finds at Óx. You walk in expecting it to be a staid, fine-dining affair, but you walk out exhilarated by the conversations and the cross-section of people you just met, with everything held together by the dishes that span the lands and waters of Iceland. Óx manages to walk that fine line of daring with its who’s-coming-to-dinner mystery vibe, mixed with the easy conviviality of an intimate dinner party at home. It is worth dining here for that alone, Michelin star notwithstanding.

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