Iceland's best-known food is hakarl, which is rotted green shark. The shark meat is inedible fresh because it's permeated with unexcreted urine, but according to all but the most optimistic accounts, the cured version from which the toxins have been expelled isn't a lot more inviting than it is raw. Think of it as kind of a Nordic durian, only more disgusting.
Dóttir, the restaurant that occupies the lobby of Kex, the new "social hotel" with roots in Reykjavík at the east end of the Burnside Bridge, thankfully does not serve hakarl. In fact, there is little on its menu that's distinctly Icelandic. Of course, not serving rotting fish flesh is a low bar for success. But so far, it's one of the 2-month-old restaurant's few notable achievements.
Dóttir's angle is that its executive chef is from Iceland, though he has now returned there, presumably to defend a Michelin star. It focuses on hyperlocal and seasonal ingredients, with special attention to smoking, pickling and other preservation techniques—a common theme of Portland menus for at least the past decade.
To this point, inconsistency has been the overarching theme at Dóttir, with the simplest dishes faring the best. The best of the lot is a pork burger, christened "O'Connor's Revenge" ($11), made up of two ground pork patties, alpine-style cheese and Dijon on a sturdy potato bun. It's a bit of a twist on the standard beef burger, with bold flavors that work well together. Add an order of the "salt + vinegar" fries ($7), a good-sized plate of thick, square-cut slabs, prepared so the final frying leaves a thick, crunchy exterior and dense potatoey center. Never mind that the vinegar is MIA—they are well-salted, and the garlicless "skyr aioli," an Icelandic condiment barely distinguishable from crème fraiche, makes for a decent, if superfluous, dunk.
Also on the simple-but-good list are smoked mussel skewers ($8), a fivesome of plump little bivalves that arrive as billed, immersed in a dollop of mild horseradish aioli under a cascade of radish slices, and the charred flatbread ($5), a Frisbee-sized disk grilled to an unmistakable char and served with a ramekin of flavorful cultured butter.
Puzzlingly, the vegetables are the most disappointing. I'm still not sure what happened to the glazed carrots ($10), barely cooked beyond raw with a long strand of root still attached, possibly for show. The mint gremolata noted as an ingredient was either missing altogether or in short enough supply to be unnoticeable, visually and to taste, while the abundant "crispy wheatberries" offered the texture of slightly softened popcorn hulls.
The mushroom soup ($10) is also a letdown. The broth of finely pureed mushrooms needed something, anything, to rescue it from blandness, and the bits of solid mushroom in the soup and a spray of fresh dill on top weren't up to the task. The substantial wedge of roasted cabbage ($13) was decent if you enjoy your cabbage solo.
Platters of protein for two or more anchor the menu. The lamb ($36) epitomized the dining experience. A couple of the components, belly roulade and delectable creamed kale, were wonderful. But the roasted loin, though cooked to rosy perfection, arrived barely warm. The tender shreds of shoulder were underseasoned and also cold, and the sausage needed a fat infusion for texture and a flavor enhancement beyond a singular blast of thyme.
Dóttir, together with Kex, are an interesting addition to Portland's hospitality scene. With the help of the ever-present ChefStable group, they have repurposed a moribund building and are trying to offer a unique room and board option to visitors. No one should fault the effort. It's the execution that needs a boost.
EAT: Dóttir, 100 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 971-346-2996, kexhotels.com/eat-drink/dottir. 7 am-11 pm Sunday-Thursday, 7 am-midnight Friday-Saturday.