Clam Chowder at Ox
2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 284-3366, oxpdx.com.
Until recently, our port town's seafood didn't stray much from the trout and salmon caught in nearby rivers. Even with the coast just two hours away, oyster options didn't go much farther afield than Dan & Louis or Jake's, and other than a pilgrimage to Mo's at the coast, Portland had no clam chowder tradition to speak of.
Well, Ox built Portland's chowder scene single-handedly in 2012, with a bowl spiced with jalapeño and fortified with bone marrow. It became instantly famous in town as soon as it arrived. It's a long, contented sigh of umami with bright and salty spice, infused with the delicacy of fresh clams still in their shells.
As told by chef Greg Denton…
"This version of my clam chowder I started to develop at a restaurant when I was in Napa Valley—the chef Hiro Sone put me in charge of certain things, and soup was one. Then I brought it to Metrovino, and it became seafood chowder to be able to use fish scraps. But we made it with flour, so it was really heavy—it was hard to eat anything after it.
When I left Metrovino, there were certain recipes the owner wanted to keep. So I said, 'I'll make a better chowder.' I started by thinking, what were the negatives of that chowder? The heaviness. By removing the flour, we made it lighter, even though it's still milk and cream. That milky broth allows us to open up clams inside that chowder, so there's a fresh burst of seafood flavor. And they're freshly opened, which makes everything better.
So we had this chowder—and we needed something to replace that floury richness. We thought, hey, let's throw a canoe-cut marrow bone in there. We'll smoke it first, and then we'll warm it up and put that on top. You have fattiness you'd get from bacon, and smokiness you'd get from bacon. And then there's still bacon in there.
To balance this thing with fat and smoke and fat and smoke, you have to balance it with something extreme. That's where the raw, sliced jalapeño came in. By adding fresh-cut spring onions and parsley with jalapeños, it balances it.
When we were opening the restaurant, we were so tired, working so many hours, up until 4 am. I got the first taste, and it was an emotional response. I can't tell you what emotion—fear, anxiety, happiness and sadness all mixed together. I knew right away it would be a special dish.
Now we sell more chowders on the hottest days of the year than the coldest days. I don't know why. But we sell it all year-round. We had a gentleman, he'd come in and order two chowders and get a skirt steak. Then he'd get a chowder to go."
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