Breathing in the brawny, smoky aroma when walking into Ox almost feels nourishing: It's as if vaporized meat molecules have fused with oxygen and the air itself begins to satisfy carnivorous urges. Which works out well, since the restaurant doesn't take reservations for less than six people and waits can stretch to over an hour. Greg Denton and his wife, Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, have cooked in a kaleidoscope of restaurants across the country together and separately. For their own venture, which opened in April 2012, they nailed an approach that Portlanders immediately endorsed: the multicultural steakhouse.
Taking cues from Argentine grilling traditions and Gabrielle's Ecuadoran roots, the restaurant's centerpiece is a fire-breathing hearth fitted with crank wheels that can raise or lower two grills to regulate heat. Cooks plant themselves in front of the thermal blast, basting grass-fed Uruguayan beef ribeye, robust skirt steak, supple beef short ribs, and lamb shoulder chops with seasoned meat drippings. To sample of the full measure of the grill's power, share the Asado Argentino for two or more. It includes short rib, skirt steak, and chorizo but also throws in sweetbreads, grilled so the exteriors are golden with char but the interior remains creamy, and a version of blood sausage made to convert the doubters: The addition of grown walnuts along with rice ameliorates the pudding-like texture that can be unsettling, and nutmeg and cumin infuse it with flavor at once familiar and exotic.
One can start with a shareable spread of seafood preparations (shrimp ceviche, Dungeness crab, octopus poke), but this is really a place to reach beyond variations on classic chophouse tropes. Go bold, instead, with surf-and-turf mindbenders like clam chowder revved by smoked marrow bone or a cauldron of beef tripe and octopus cut with mint aioli. Ease up on the calories when choosing substantial sides —caramelized cauliflower in a bright, clever vinaigrette spiked with golden raisins, mint, and peanuts stands out — and then double back to decadence with sweets like cream cheese panna cotta offset with hot apple fritters.
The less adventurous can nibble on empanadas filled with Gruyere and sweet potatoes or avocado-crab toast before the beefy blitz. But what has made Ox a national destination in short order is the uncanny symmetry that the Dentons achieve: the primal savor of grilled meats bracketed by brainy, ballsy, dare-you-to-try them dishes with serious payoff.
"This sounds strange," said my Portlander friend, referring to a pasta dish that incorporated strawberry, turnip, and parmesan. "We should order it." Strange often equals exceptional in the world of chef-owner Gabriel Rucker, who revamped a flailing bistro into Le Pigeon in 2006 and became one of Portland's most lionized chefs. True to form, the "Pigeon noodles" improbably wowed: The strawberries and turnips merged into a brain-jangling chutney that mellowed the fruit's sour-sweetness and vegetable's grassy-earthiness. Black pepper and scallions helped push the flavors in a savory direction. Parmesan smoothed the flavors. And in place of the breadcrumbs that Italians might use for crunch, the kitchen subbed in — boom! — crumbled instant ramen noodles punched up with seasonings from a barbecue flavor packet.
Not every act of imagination sent from Rucker's stoves involved such high-low zingers, but the cooking certainly held our attention the whole night. A velvety saffron sauce worked crowd hypnosis over sashimi-grade fluke, cantaloupe, and avocado, drawing them together with its enigmatic perfume. The French classic sole Veronique received an autumnal makeover, with snowy medallions of steamed fish surrounded by herbed brown butter and punctuated by black-skinned Venus grapes and dots of celery root puree. Chicken rubbed with a peppery Montreal smoked meat spice blend was draped over oxtail meat, semolina gnocchi formed into a rectangle and fried, and a few green beans. The kicker on this entree? A gloss of melted taleggio, which gave the whole thing a wacky, retro-fun vibe that recalled 1990s experimentations.
Le Pigeon is a snug restaurant, and the tone of the food encourages communication between tables (though the best seats in the house are at the bar built around the open kitchen). The couple next to us noticed our baroque foie gras appetizer — two lobes of terrine spiced with vadouvan curry decorated with drizzles of marjoram honey and "ratatouille escabeche" (vegetables like zucchini and eggplant cooked and then pickled) — and requested their own. They shot looks of concern when liver reappeared at dessert time in the signature profiteroles with foie gras ice cream. Half the parties in the restaurant seemed to have ordered the restaurant's other trademark, beef cheek Bourguignon over sour cream and chive mashed potatoes. (The dish leaned salty.) That the dining room was filled with customers embracing offal and barbecue-flavored ramen noodles for garnish said as much about Portland's exceptionally progressive attitude toward food as it did about Rucker's nervy brilliance.
Maurice — prim in its tiny, bridal-shop white interior — is the antithesis of Ox but just as magnetic in its own eccentric way. Pastry chef Kristen Murray structured her storefront to serve the community in many guises, including as a lunch-hour hideaway, a stopover for fika (the Swedish notion of a leisurely coffee break), a happy hour hangout with an edifying selection of vermouth, and an all-day source for meticulous desserts.
I scanned the handwritten menu, looked at the antique coffee pots and other country-home tchotchkes on shelves, and wondered if this all might be a tad too precious. Then the food started arriving. Lefse, a Norwegian potato flatbread based on a recipe from Murray's grandmother, had the texture of a thick crepe. A line of gravlax, salmon roe, crème fraîche, and dill fronds stretched over its mottled surface. It was precise and delicious. Hunks of pale but juicy melon and last-of-the-season tomatoes topped with shaved aged goat cheese played off of each other without any one ingredient upstaging. A cloud of polenta clafoutis (so smart to turn the French baked pancake savory) floated down to earth with its accompanying sauté of meaty mushrooms. Smorrebrod, the Scandinavian open-faced sandwich, came piled with shrimp salad, shaved cucumber, and avocado. Its freshness and exacting assembly hoisted it above standard bridge club fare.
The food's lightness leaves plenty of mental and physical space for dessert. I came in for a late lunch and kept jumping up to examine the pastry case, asking our server to set aside the last orders of beauties like black pepper cheesecake set on a honey rye graham cookie and topped with a gooseberry anchored by fig preserves. Lemon souffle pudding cake arrived in a haze of powdered sugar, teetering between solid and custard, sugary and citrusy.
Too few pastry chefs get the chance to build their own stage and show off the breadth of their culinary strengths. Murray is an articulate cook with both sweets and savories. It's gratifying to see her gentle sensibility find such a willing audience.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison