The chef looks pissed. Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton has her hands on her hips in the narrow walkway leading from Ox's enclosed main kitchen to the restaurant's 50-seat dining room. Sweat trickles down her forehead. Quietly but sharply, she admonishes two cooks tending the wood-fired grill. Satisfied, she retreats to her lair.
After two fruitful years as hired guns at Pearl District wine bar Metrovino, Quiñónez Denton and her husband and co-chef, Greg Denton, are charting their own course on a stretch of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard once better known for dive bars and Ethiopian restaurants. Channeling Latin America, the restaurant is aimed at Portlanders who demand unfussy but sophisticated dishes served in a come-as-you-are atmosphere. Ox opened in May, describing itself fittingly as "Argentine inspired Portland food."
Running a tight ship from opening day, the Dentons have already succeeded beyond the most optimistic expectations, except perhaps their own. Indeed, it is no breathless blogger hyperbole to say that Ox is one of the most impressive restaurants to open in Portland in the last several years. It's a trifecta of delicious dishes, superb service and an alluring atmosphere.
The first impression is meaty, as the centerpiece of this splendid restaurant is the beef, lamb and pork coming off the elaborate wood-fired stainless-steel grill, which is raised and lowered by hand. For all the seeming complexity of this apparatus, meat cooked on it consistently arrives at the proper temperature, buttery tender and seasoned assertively but not excessively.
Most of the asados, or roasted meats, come in two sizes. The beef ribeye ($35/$65) leads the list, and is a tailor-made for cautious diners. The plate of sliced beef skirt steak ($19/$36) is a simpler pleasure and a great value.
On first visit, hungry duos should try the Asado Argentino for two ($60), a small pile of skirt steak with samples of short rib, sweetbreads and two varieties of housemade sausage (blood-rich morcilla and punchy chorizo). The dish also comes with fried potatoes and a wonderful chimichurri, the Argentine condiment staple made here with a gardenful of chopped herbs, minced garlic and onion in a lush olive-oil immersion.
The meats are transcendent, but the rest of the menu is what makes Ox more than a steakhouse with a sexy Spanish accent. Bone-in halibut ($23/$36) and maitake mushroom ($12/$20), both grilled, are no mere sop to the meat-averse. The generously portioned oceanscapes of Ox's "five chilled seafood preparations" (market price, usually about $30) are a high-water mark.
From Metrovino, the Dentons have re-created their clam chowder ($12) of whole steamer clams rendering their liquor into a jalapeño-heightened broth fortified with smoked bone marrow.
Along the menu's sizable greenbelt, the salads with grilled radicchio, arugula and chevre ($10/$16), and gem lettuces, fried chickpeas and feta ($9/$15) take top honors. For small appetites or budgets, try the thinly sliced beef tongue ($12) with horseradish and luscious "sweetbread croutons." It's one of my favorite dishes of the year.
A well-trained service staff enhances meals. Ox servers know the menu and avoid the "everything is great" fail-safe. They are pleasant without excess familiarity and efficient without rushing you toward the door.
It's not all sweetness and light at Ox—at least not yet. A thin list of South American wines does not hold up to the food's standard. The tables along the banquette occupying one side of the room are packed tight and loud, so forget about a romantic encounter. And no reservations for parties of fewer than six is a non-starter for diners on deadline.
Though the Dentons sometimes circulate around their grill-smoke-scented, brick-walled dining room, they hew more closely to a shut-up-and-cook leadership style. That's a benefit to Ox diners, if not an error-prone grill cook.
EAT: Ox, 2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 284-3366, oxpdx.com. 5 pm-close Tuesday-Sunday. $$$ Expensive.