KEX, the new “social hotel,” and its ground floor restaurant Dóttir—both imported to Portland from their birthplace in Reykjavik—seem almost too perfect for our city. Suspiciously perfect. The artfully weathered interior, filled with Nordic furnishings and staffed with young people sporting perfectly manicured facial hair, feels like the creation of an alien species looking to lure humans into a space where their customs can be more easily observed.
Maybe that’s why, during my two visits there, the clientele—a charmingly motley bunch that included a gaggle of kids in their 20s on a ski trip, dudes in dirty overalls, and a woman taking multiple photos of a cocktail—all seemed to approach the space warily. As if at any moment, they’d have a plate of whale meat forced upon them, or be asked to explain their feelings on fracking.
As our restaurant critic Andrea Damewood will tell you, any concerns you might have about the food at Dóttir are unfounded. And so far, no one has quizzed me on environmental issues. Mostly because, as I made clear early on, I was only there for the beer.
In addition to bringing over their Icelandic aesthetic, KEX has also carried a handful of beer recipes with them to Portland. The ultimate goal is to set up their own brewery, but for now, they’re partnering with Ross Island Brewing to put bottles in local shops to keep their own ales on tap inside Dóttir.
The three beers that were available on my trips to KEX were in keeping with most Icelandic brews I’ve had to date: easy drinkers that are low-alcohol and packed with flavor. That’s especially the case with their Steroids to Heaven IPA, a collaboration with Danish microbrewery To Øl ($6). The double dry-hopped ale has an almost Creamsicle-like taste, with crisp citrus notes and a clean finish. It’s a mighty fine option even during these colder months, but it’s going to be positively perfect once the weather warms up and KEX’s promised rooftop bar is open.
The better option to help make this wet winter a little more manageable is their Coffee & Cream Lactose Porter ($6). It’s a newer beer, cooked up seemingly as a gesture of goodwill toward the city KEX has moved into: Each batch of this pitch-black porter is made with a half-barrel of Stumptown Coffee’s cold brew.
The addition of lactose to the mix winds up emphasizing the chocolatey flavors of the beer, akin to a hyper-charged and less sweet version of a Stumptown milk carton. It pours thick, too. The server had to split my pour between their not-quite-a-pint glass and smaller toasting flute. And with an ABV of only 5.5 percent, you can get nice and full from a few glasses without getting absolutely legless.
My favorite of KEX’s in-house beers is the most basic. The Social Pilsner is the platonic ideal of a pale lager: Clean, a touch tangy, and free of any slimy aftertaste. It’s the perfect accompaniment for Dóttir’s ever-evolving menu, particularly their happy hour fare, which includes salt and vinegar fries with skyr yogurt dipping sauce ($5), a perfect plate of beets ($9), and most recently, a smoked beef tongue sandwich that had me swooning with joy ($12). (An additional happy hour bonus: all KEX Brewing taps are only $4 from 3-5 pm.)
As KEX just opened its doors last November, the space is still finding its feet. On my first visit, only two of the four in-house beers were available, as they were still waiting on a shipment of the Social Pilsner and the still-absent Forbidden Fruit Kettle Sour (a collaboration with Mikkeller Brewing, another popular Nordic entity planting roots here in Portland), meaning either Dóttir can’t keep up with demand or they’re still working out the kinks with their Ross Island Brewing partnership.
But the overriding feeling is that more good stuff is on the way, especially once KEX gets its own brewing operation up and running. Plus, there’s sure to be some treats in the works by the time Iceland Beer Day, the celebration of the end of that country’s prohibition, rolls around on March 1. By then, Portlanders will be fully assimilated into the KEX hive mind and ready for more.