Animal House

Ox restaurant ignites a new steak experience: brazen, barbecued, and beautiful.

By Karen Brooks December 14, 2012 Published in the December 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

At Ox, clam chowder’s make-over arrives with smoked marrow bone, jalapeños, and wicked decadence.

Image: Leah Nash

Nearly everything about Ox can be found elsewhere in Portland’s foodscape: wood-fired cooking, farm-connected ingredients, hourlong waits, dingy neighborhood location, hard chairs, cocktails brimming with strong medicine. Generic rock hogs the sound system. Votives cast soft light over worn bricks, clustered black tables, and a teeny bar custom-built for flirting. The room is friendly, and a bit polished by Portland’s patch-it-together standards—but hardly a looker.

And yet, this boisterous storefront on NE MLK Jr. Boulevard stands apart from and above the current fashions. At the entrance, the flames of a hand-cranked grill greet you like the burning bush. Ox has a message: follow us into a land where risk, reach, and familiarity can live together. Call it the next iteration of the steak house, twisted with moments of food mania and haute sorcery to match an Argentine barbecue aesthetic and a wine list heavy with meaty reds. Or perhaps it’s the fresh face of fine dining in Portland—the new night on the town, with its own set of casual mix-and-match rituals.  

An evening moves easily from audacity to primitivism to elegance. One minute you’re engulfed in the euphoria of a smoked beef tongue salad, plucking up paper-thin shingles of shockingly delicate meat, heady snorts of horseradish, the salty tingle of a caper vinaigrette, creamy-firm bites of potato salad, and, not least, wonderfully weird “croutons” forged from fried sweetbreads of all things. The moment segues to a Neanderthal dream as slabs of steak, pure and simple, char to perfection over a fire hot enough to blow glass, erupting right before your eyes. The final hour turns to a modernist statement: a hazelnut torte and honey-chamomile ice cream impaled with a sculpture of honeycomb candy. This is food as medical marijuana.

Greg Denton, driven daredevil and fine-dining pro, is the king of disconnected pleasures. Ever since he fell hard for an Easy-Bake Oven at age 4, Denton has never looked back. His path snaked from family-run food chains to tony eateries in Vermont and the Napa Valley. Along the way, he snagged a culinary diploma with honors; bailed from food god Thomas Keller’s Bouchon; cooked for the Dalai Lama; survived the sinking of Portland’s Titanic (Lucier, the doomed luxury restaurant that lured him here in 2008); built a cult following for hedonistic burgers and fantastical charcuterie at Metrovino; and earned a reputation as the city’s Next Big Talent. At 36, Denton is his own man at last, backed by both ubiquitous local restaurant talent scout ChefStable and his chef-wife, longtime kitchen sidekick Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton.

Clockwise from above: chef-owners Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton; Ox’s grill; lamb shoulder chops with smoking rosemary

Image: Leah Nash

Six nights a week, Denton sweats out his new life over a customized Argentine grill, commanding racks to rise or plunge over punishing heat at the turn of the wheels. At any moment, 60 items—and seemingly every quirk in Portland’s food nation—might be in play. 

Prime real estate goes to a parade of chops, rib eyes, and chorizo glazed in “black gold”—Denton’s secret weapon of juiced-up drippings. The grill’s pescetarian section houses a beastly cut of wild halibut on the bone, surfing the flames like a buff T-bone. It’s an impressive idea, eventually overcome by olive oil and fried garlic. Meanwhile, anything with nuts is banished to the grill’s outer edges. That includes Ox’s devilishly good morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), kicked up with ground walnuts. Lest vegans feel excluded, Denton gets giddy with vegetables in the pit’s red-hot basement, the best of them a blackened spaghetti squash smelling of garlic and ashen coals. 

The attention to detail pays off. Ox has been crushed since day one last spring. Any place that can draw your dad, ingredient-phobic friends, and serious eaters is doing something right. 

For a night of good eating, meats are the building blocks. The skirt steak delivers nothing short of a pure beef explosion, and the grunt-worthy, maple-brined pork chop arrives like an homage to bestial glory: naked on a plate, excruciatingly tender, and boasting pockets of beauty hard to imagine in a brick-size chunk of meat. Order both.  

Boldly beautiful tres leches cake

Image: Leah Nash

 As good as the protein is, look to the starters to tap Denton’s particular brand of evil genius—addictive flavors that make followers see chakra colors. My ideal Ox meal begins with these heady surprises: wood-fired ricotta, a warm cloud of cream, crust, and heaven; fried short-rib terrine, a “holy cow” moment of shredded beef, oxtail, and parmesan bound and sizzled in ultra-crisp crumbs; clam chowder as you’ve never tasted it, courtesy of smoked bone marrow and ear-warming chiles jutting bravely from its creamy depths; and a tripe and tomato stew reborn with braised octopus and a blaze of mint aioli. It’s the stuff of culinary lore: rustic, sensuous, bright, and fierce. Tripe made sexy? Trust me, you can’t stop eating it. 

Still, nirvana is not guaranteed. Empanadas are surprisingly blank. Sides, braises, and desserts can overdose on obvious ideas hit with a heavy hammer of ingredients. Ash-roasted onions seem delivered from another restaurant, crowded with beets, blue cheese, walnuts, and frantic swirls of balsamic. Sided by upright alfajor cookies and swatches of caramel, the tres leches cake is boldly beautiful—but few desserts hit that focused, Dentonesque “eureka” note. Sorbets cloaked in baseballs of “chocolate magic shells,” further elucidated with nuts and fruits, can leave you longing for an apple.  

As they roar ahead, the Dentons need look only to their own gutsy, point-of-view cooking: the crazy things and simple things. Let both the fears and the formulas go. Ox’s blend of boeuf, bravado, and brains is already a formidable beast. 

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