Japan has long been Portland’s culinary sister country, with tourists and restaurant branches flying back and forth as fast as our daily non-stop flights to Tokyo can carry them. But as of late, Iceland is coming on strong as an Atlantic contender for our cultural hearts.
Exhibit one: The new KEX hotel and hostel, with its accompanying restaurant, Dóttir, now open on Northeast MLK.
The spot screams vibes: a 3,000-square-foot, 110-seat space that flows from the front entrance of the hotel to an open dining area, and a bar filled with just the kind of “Carhartt beanie (and somehow-flattering-on-them) high-waisted white pants” people you want to watch at the opening of a buzzy new locale.
My first trip was a second stop on a very good Friday night: Dóttir is a great place to show up at 10 pm and sit at the bar, where Aquavit rules the land. The Lady of the Mountain ($12), a full-on Nordic booze bomb with raspberry-infused Reyka vodka, hazelnut orgeat, lemon, and a touch of skyr, the heavenly thick Icelandic yogurt that Greek wishes it could be. Another drink, the Northern Lights ($11), is a fun twist on a hot toddy with pink butterfly pea powder and in the name of all that is extra, drinkable purple sparkles on top.
But we’re mostly here for the food, and KEX delivers in a way that almost no other hotel in town can: conceptual plates at prices that mean Dóttir doesn’t have to be relegated to special occasion-only dining.
Behind the menu is Ólafur Ágústsson, who helped Reykjavík’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Dill, earn its award—but Portland chef Alex Jackson, who spent eight years at San Francisco’s Sons & Daughters, runs the day-to-day kitchen as executive chef.
I’ve had the good fortune of dining at Dill, a pricey prix fixe affair featuring food fresh off the Icelandic fjords (I was warned to watch out for buckshot in my goose), foams, and conceptual plating. Dóttir is far more approachable, blending Oregon bounty with the Nordic approach. Yes, there are pickles and smørrebrød aplenty, but no fermented shark or puffin meat (thank the lord).
Instead, this is the place to order a large plate of lamb and a smattering of sides and starters to share, drink a couple of local natural wines from their on-tap selection, and go to town—starting with that lamb ($36), a triumphant plate with roasted loin, pulled braised shoulder meat, a belly roulade, lamb sausage, spiced lentils, and creamed kale. Icelanders eat a ton of baby sheep, and it’s particularly delicious here, with the leaner loin acting as a foil to the fatty, salty belly. A grilled flatbread on the side needed just a tiny bit less char as it took on a slightly butane taste from the gas grill.
The cod plate ($32) was a massive hunk of skin-on fish, delicately cooked and resting in a buttery fumet (a concentrated fish stock) with baby potatoes, carrots, and pickled onions joining the fray. The flavor reminded me of a small cabbage ball stuffed with cod I had at Dill; this was surely its more rustic relative, handed a plaid shirt and moved to the rugged Pacific Northwest.
Much has already been said of the roasted cabbage plate ($13), two big hunks of brassica, blackened to crispy perfection on the outside and sweet and soft within. It’s got lots of butter and big punch of apple cider vinegar, with breadcrumbs to polish it off. There’s no way this is coming off the menu anytime soon; it’s iconic. (Though someone I dined with who hates sweet and savory flavors spit hers out—so if that’s not your jam, this won’t be either.)
Other dishes are more seasonal, including the razor clams ($19). Served with roasted cauliflower and black trumpet mushrooms, the flavor was fantastic but the lightly-breaded and sautéed preparation of one of our coastal delicacies left the clam meat a touch tough and rubbery. It was a rare misstep, picked up by ingenious touches to classics, like fries made with salt and vinegar with a side of skyr aioli for dipping.
Dessert options include a delightful fried donut dusted with black cardamom sugar (huge in Iceland), with a side of chocoscotch for dipping. It goes well with a $4 shot glass of the housemade peppermint schnapps.
For most restaurants, opening in the winter—Portland’s slow season—may make it tougher. But Iceland is a place defined by its long nights and cold days, making it the perfect accompaniment to Oregon’s drab Februarys. But with a planned rooftop bar set to open in the spring, I also can’t wait to see what sunny days bring.