The owners of Kex would have me know that they consider it a tavern, not a gastro-pub. I would have you know that Kex most definitely is a London gastro-pub by way of Brooklyn (with a hostel slapped on top for good measure). I would also have you know that it has become one of my favourite places in Reykjavík.
Not that I set out with the best intentions. On my first visit I was so full of preconceived notions that I barely found room for the meal. But what would you think? A place partially owned by former premier leaguers and stories floating around about the hundreds of millions of krónur that have been sunk into remodelling this disused cracker factory. It sounded like another surgical nouveau-riche catastrophe in the making, and I said as much to a friend who was physically dragging me up Hverfisgata to their frankly ludicrously out-of-the way location (how dare they make me walk!). Which is why it was a pleasure to find that they had three quality local microbrews on tap, coming in handy as they did when five minutes in I had to eat my words.
The aforementioned combination of a casually meticulously chic gastro-pub and a backpacker’s hostel is either mad genius or simply mad come the torpid winter tourist season. Supposedly the designers toured the mid-west of the US with a U-Haul stacking up on sundries from the prohibition era, resulting in a blend of traditional Icelandic antiques and hip Americana, with ludicrous details such as working vintage speakers in the men’s bathroom playing what sounded like books on tape played from a phonograph. I didn’t get much of a chance to look at the hostel part of the building, but from what little I saw it looked miles better than any hostel I remember from my Interrail days, and the young couple I spoke with seemed to like it.
So a large part of what I like about the place is the design and general ambiance. The design focus might bring to mind a room filled with the young and terminally hip but no place this size can survive on that clientele alone in a place as small as Iceland, so what you end up with is a comfortably mixed bag of people. And everything works: the chairs are comfortable and the beer isn’t served in teacups (an example of taking the speakeasy recreation too far).
Friðrik Valur Karlsson, of Friðrik V fame, helms the menu at Kex and maintains a monthly rotation of ambitious bar food to full meals. The Brooklyn gastro-pub atmosphere carries through in things like biergarten sausages and artisan sliders, but local fish also features prominently. The selection of drafts was better than the usual miserable state of affairs in Icelandic bar culture, three microbrews on tap may not seem like much to a seasoned beer geek, but for an Icelander that’s worth a small prayer. We ordered the fruity wheat beer Kex Special, and aside from a misjudged foray into Organic Pils (which tasted like a barn), we stuck with it for the rest of the night.
We ordered the Kex platter, which consisted of deep-fried potato skins and sour cream, olives in a lemon brine, salami and prosciutto. A very decent antipasto, although the deep-fried potato skins was a little greasy for a starter.
We followed this with monkfish special and a steak. Both came stripped down to the essentials. A rare steak served on a bed of roasted carrots, onions and red bell peppers, medium quality beef but perfectly cooked with some kind of beurre blanc glaze that didn’t get in the way. The monkfish was similarly Spartan, but suffered slightly from too much butter sauce. Monkfish can get up the stairs on its own.
Clinched it with a Jack Daniels chocolate mousse, served with a dollop of blueberry jam and, interestingly enough, a couple of slivers of bell peppers (no doubt left over from the steak). The texture of the mousse was good, but could have used darker chocolate and I’m surprised to say that the peppers worked.
I have also heard good things about the breakfast buffet and the lunch lamb stew, but people seem a little undecided about Kex’s merits as a weekend bar. The food is good, if not breath-taking, some hit and miss between months, but anyway it’s the atmosphere that will keep me coming back.
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