Kex (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Those that have been following a while know that every year I try to go someplace interesting, somewhat obscure, and rather, well, offbeat for at least one vacation, like La Reunion or Iceland. Well, after a few years’ incubation, this summer we were finally able to work out the details and have a trip to the Faroe Islands (stay tuned for some reviews). But like a good number of the obscure travel destinations I’ve done, one doesn’t simply hop on a plane from Boston to Vagar (the airport of the Faroes). Only a few places (primarily Norway, Scotland, Denmark, and Iceland) even have flights to the Faroe Islands, so it’s necessary to take an intermediate stop. In our case, this meant a return trip to Reykjavik for an extended layover. Since our visit in 2012, the formerly obscure vacation destination of Iceland continues to be more popular, and as a result, Reykjavik’s tourist, and dining, scene, continues to evolve. Back when I wrote up my reviews in 2012, I was pretty much the English-language source of reviews for Iceland (and I still get a lot of traffic), but it’s definitely shown up on the radar for adventurous tourists. With that in mind, that’s how we found ourselves having beers and dining in a converted biscuit factory on the north side of Reykjavik: KEX.

KEX was fairly new on the scene when we visited in 2012, and we hadn’t visited then, but we had heard some rumblings that it was a pretty nice hostel to stay at, and a decent bar to hang out in as well. We didn’t stay there this time (I tried, but it was booked solid), but address and Google Maps in hand, we went off after a day exploring Reykjavik. And walked right by the place twice. Going by the street address, you walk right by what looks like an old, abandoned factory. Doubling back a second time, I noticed a small, subtle “KEX” sign and a buzzer. But walking up the stairs, we soon found ourselves in a surprisingly pleasant bar. (We found out later that there’s a much more pleasant entrance and patio accessible from the back alley.)

The reason for the subtle signage and the factory-like exterior is that, until 1999, this was a factory: the source of Kexverksmiðjan, a hallmark of Icelandic youth (not to be confused with the similar Ikea Kex biscuit, these are actually square biscuits that are basically cookie-like biscuits similar to graham crackers (US) or digestives (UK)). Well, the KEX bakery got bought by a German company, and the factory closed (from what I can tell, the still ever-present Kexverksmiðjan biscuits are now imported). After a few years of dilapidation, the building got turned into a hostel, bar, and restaurant, and is considered one of the more hip places to stay in town.

But after enjoying the pleasant lobby for a few minutes (including a defunct elevator that, while not actually functioning as a lift, does play “elevator music”), we settled down at the bar for a light mid-afternoon meal and a few Icelandic and Norwegian beers. Here was another pleasant surprise. Back in 2012, the “beer revolution” had only started to arrive in Iceland: the beer you were mostly likely to be offered was Gull, although we had a few beers from the new upstart Borg Brugghús, and the craft beer scene in Reykjavik was basically one bar (MicroBar). Well, fast forward a few years and now MicroBar has moved to a much larger space, 3-4 other beer bars have opened up (including part of the Mikkeller empire, Mikkeller and Friends), and there are now several upstart brewers in Iceland. And, and Borg Brugghús has become a seriously good brewer (their Icelandic Stout was one of the best beers of the trip). So, yeah, quite a good variety, and KEX’s bar (technically called the “Sæmundur Gastro Pub”) is one of the better spots, having a mix of their own, local, and Scandinavian beers. I ended up setting on a nice glass of Kex Pilsner (brewed by To Øl in Denmark)

Since we were trying to get a light dinner, we also hit up the food menu. I ended up picking the “Grilled Asian Sausage with Kimchi”, which was notable for two reasons: first, spicy Asian food is quite distinct from the normal Icelandic palate. Second, it was really good: a rich, flavorful, and tender sausage with more than a little star anise and ginger, and served up with basically a side of kimchi and a bowl of nuoc cham for dipping, this was a flavorful dish.

Carol, meanwhile, opted for the Beetroot and Ricotta salad, which turned out to be a salad that was mostly nuts and field greens with a light beet and ricotta dressing, but was pleasing nonetheless.

As we relaxed, gazed out the giant windows across to Mount Esja, which essentially serves as the northern backdrop to Reykjavik, we were pleased to see that Reykjavik continues to be a fun, happening city to visit. I’d love to come back here as a guest. And for my readers that do visit… save yourself some time and confusion and chart a course to the south side of the building.

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