Ox Restaurant wants to celebrate the meat loving appetites that Portland has and combines it with Argentinean execution technique and the fact that the meats in South America are also quite celebrated (see any churrascaria, and also that famed Argentina beef raised on grass on the pampas since the 1800s and are considered as some of the best in the world). Why hasn’t this happened before!?
A dinner experience at Ox on a Friday evening started out when we arrived about a quarter after 6pm and were told there was a 60-90 minute wait for our party of two (they only take reservations for parties of more than six guests). They have a separate bar space behind the restaurant that actually involves walking out the front door of the restaurant and back away from the street to reach it (Whey Bar- debuted a few months after the restaurant itself opened earlier this year in the spring). But once you arrive it has the hidden vibe than the loud busyness of the trendy dining space- although depending on how many people are waiting and how long you are waiting, I can see that it can also feel like purgatory. We had asked for first available seating, which 45 minutes later after putting our name on the list, ended up being at the counter bartop area right before the wood fire grill, watching them masterfully turned the crank to raise and lower the grill from the fiery heat and track and flip the various simultaneous dishes all grilling away.
Over the course of the evening, I had the opportunity to try a few cocktails. My favorite by far was called “Things Done Changed” created with Pisco, Smoked Lemon, Jalapeño, and Egg White- the drink went down so smoothly but through every sip and even lingering after the sip was the subtle smokiness. I suppose it is only right that the star of the cocktails I had is a South American one (based off Pisco Sour).
The others, in order of enjoyment in my opinion, were Devil in a New Dress with Tequila, Red Pepper, Combier Orange, Lime, Mezcal; Falling Leaves with Jameson Irish Whiskey, Apple Cider, Maple, Lemon.
Our dinner service started with complimentary bread with butter and chimichurri sauce. We also enjoyed some extremely creamy amuse bouche of butternut squash soup. Next came the starters of Empanadas, one each of Beef, Green Olive and Raisin, the other with Grilled Poblano Chile, Sweet Potato, Fontina & Chèvre. The vegetarian one was slight sweet but mostly understated, while the beef green olive was a nice mix of salty savoryness, but didn’t need the fried empanada shell. I appreciated them being on the menu as they are very typical Argentina offerings, but it didn’t offer a wow factor at all- they were nice, but something you could find just as good or better elsewhere.
Unlike, for instance, the Wood-Fired House Ricotta, Button Mushroom Confit, Balsamic Brown Butter, Grilled Bread. I could have just eaten that straight without the bread, it was wonderful with the light creaminess of the ricotta floating and melting on your palate like a cloud but enhanced with a dark and sex smokey-ness, and then the buttery juicy mushrooms… you will not be able to stop your spoon from visiting until it is all gone. You must get this dish.
Most of the meats and the salads/sides portions comes in small and large portions to choose from, so you can mix together your dinner experience from various menu offerings. We decided to share a meat dish since they seemed pretty large (8 oz being the smallest we saw… well the meat anyway. The shellfish came smallest in 6oz and the maitake mushroom in 4oz). We went with the Grass-Fed Uruguayan Beef Ribeye, which came in 12 oz, medium rare. The sides we selected were a bit of acid and bitter counter with a salad of Belgian Endive, Bosc Pear, Arugula, Dijon Vinaigrette, Aged Farmstead Gruyère, Toasted Pecan, and also a creamy luscious side of Tuscan Kale Risotto with Parmigiano Reggiano, Mascarpone, and Herb Butter.
The meat was so incredible. Simply prepared but expertly and perfectly done in the flames to the right temperature and perfect tenderness. It offered an outside crispy char to show how it was so loved by the fire but not so much that you can’t savor the drippings that still came from the meat and the flavor of the meat itself. Ox respects the ingredient and nature to resonate memories we didn’t know we have and appeal directly to our primal pleasure cells and- and oh they so do. They so do.
The dessert menu was too enticing to just pick one to share, so we went with three. Of the three, our favorite by far was the Torte, with a Warm Hazelnut Brown Butter Torte, Honey-Chamomile Ice Cream, and Honeycomb Candy. The torte was so warm and gooey and comforting, while the ice cream wasn’t too tea-y with the chamomile and the honeycomb gave good crunchy texture to the soft dessert dish. The Cake, composed of Vanilla Bean Tres Leches Cake, Roasted Banana Pudding, Dulce de Leche Alfajor Cookie was very sweet- it should be enjoyed with coffee or a dessert drink that can balance it out. We also had a dessert dish named “Magic” which offered Roasted Pear Sorbet, Bittersweet Chocolate Magic Shell, Bosc Pear and Marcona Almond Salad didn’t quite live up to the magic in its name in my opinion. Maybe if the pears had more strength in flavor and the chocolate had more bittersweetness rather than reminding me of the same chocolate in Dairy Queen- there for texture but not much else. Definitely choose the Torte.
I will definitely be back. I want to try their clam chowder with the marrow bone that they have brought perhaps as a callback from their Metrovino days, and more items from their wood oven fired sections like the skirt steak and lamb shoulder and I didn’t try any charcuterie… Don’t mistake Ox for a typical Portland restaurant though- Ox’s prices are a bit spendy but is typical in terms of as you would see from a steakhouse, so if you keep that in mind you won’t have sticker shock. If this was any other large city, these prices and the wait would be expected. But still, at these prices, despite the buzz of this restaurant, I wish they could move to a reservation system that is not just big groups, even if for only part of the space- maybe they need time to figure it out. I can’t imagine that as time passes at these prices, that guests would continue to be ok with a long wait with little considerations. Even though Whey was a good start it’s pretty small space best left at two dozen people or less, and given Portland’s long dark rainy days coming up now, and not many other options for waiting/getting the call in the area, patience will wear thin. It seems like they have some outside space- if they could tent it and add some outdoor heaters, it could give some respite and expand Whey during the winter for waiting guests instead of only during the summer.
Ox has the benefit of also being very Portland-y in vibe and in unique and bold combinations in what they offer on the menu to demonstrate that Ox has a viewpoint that is worth trying and supporting, and they are definitely up and comers. I observed the Dentons that night working the evening with determination to execute well and consistently do so, and did so in an organized manner while also being hands on and in the trenches with the rest of their staff. You can tell this is their dream come true and they are passionate and willing to about making this work.
Combining the fine dining style they had helped lead at Metrovino while still having a modernist, forward style instead of a traditional steak menu and enhancing with the earthy core of grill cooking and bold South American flavors is a great idea given all the amazing quality of meats available here. I think Ox will still be hopping for quite a while. Even if not everything was a hit out of the ballpark, there were enough impressive home runs that I want to try more and see how they grow- after all, they haven’t even had their 1 year anniversary yet. I’m sure there will be another wait before I can actually be seated to dine thanks to the buzz- good thing there were still a few drinks on the menu at Whey that I want to try. But, I would also return in a similar small party or close to when it just opens for dinner service to make the experience with the wait bearable because they mostly have two-tops. Really the best seats in the house are really at the countertop bar by the fire anyway- just wear layers so you can shed them as needed as you feel that radiant heat and become perfumed by that smoky wood.