THE DINING REPORT – RETURN TO OX

What Do You Mean Your Invitation Didn’t Arrive? 

 

IMG_3706This has been a weird summer. Usually what happens during the vacation season is I can barely find enough bodies to have dinners, and this summer I’ve had two in a row where I could not send out an RSVP, because all the places were filled as soon as I made the reservation. I guess it all depends on the venue. Next summer I need to remember, great venues are the secret (although why I had such a good crowd for Marquee Bistro, I’ll never understand).

Anyway, sorry to all you folks I had to leave out for our August 2nd dinner at Ox. The people at this one were basically the group members who begged me to have another dinner at Ox after our 2012 dinner there.IMG_3690 Luckily I made the reservation a loooooooooong way in advance, since during the very next week the Oregonian was proclaiming Ox their restaurant of the year, exacerbating the already hoarding masses. Because of their relatively modestly sized space, their immense popularity, and their no reservations under six people policy, Ox is always one of the hardest places to get in that we have here in Portland. At least now they have their cool looking Whey Bar next door, which when the weather is nice includes pleasant outdoor seating. This certainly makes a two hour wait more “endurable”.

As it’s probably close to the best reviewed restaurant to open in Portland over the last couple of years (Roe and Tasty N Alder are up there too) I don’t have to heap additional praise on Ox, everyone knows it’s wonderful. Last time there were a couple of staff issues that put me somewhat on edge during the reservation making and the end of meal service, but this time everything went as near to perfect as can probably happen when you have a group of 10 all wanting what they want. There was a tiny little snafu with the original bill that made us perspire a bit, but aside from that, everything was great. What can I say, Ox is swell.

One interesting thing about Ox, and the preconceived notion people have that it’s this big heavy slab of meat place, is the fact that two of the people who were most anxious to join us at this dinner are vegetarians. IMG_3692Ox basically does wonderful things with everything they touch, and everything they put in their oven, and some of the best things on their menu are mushrooms, artichokes, cauliflower, and salads. Gina and Heidi, both non-animal eaters, were the two people who most wanted me to have another dinner at Ox, having missed the first go round, not conceiving at that time they would have a wide assortment of non-meat items to select from at a place called Ox. With the exception of Heidi, Julian, and Gina, everyone else joining us this evening was from our first Ox dinner, so we returnees knew we would be in for a fine feast, of vegetables, fish, and Argentine style grilled meats.

It was a lovely, sunny day, so since most of us were early, we sat around the front of the adjacent Whey Bar, some people having drinks, and many of us just hanging out. When I read late last year that Ox was turning a connected previously empty space into a bar for the multitude of people always waiting to eat, I envisioned a little makeshift space with a few tables and a bar.IMG_3695 It turns out, Whey Bar is a chic looking, modern place, and it probably would be okay to have to spend a couple of hours here, although perhaps a bit less kick back and enjoy yourself when it’s winter and you are enclosed in the actual building, where certainly you would probably feel it is necessary to order a drink of some kind (I was waiting until I could sit down at our real table). Unfortunately, for those in an income bracket similar to mine, you can’t really knock back $20 or $30 dollars worth of cocktails before you plunk down $80 for a tasty dinner. Well, you can, but you would probably have to dine and dash. Maybe not too good an idea for someone who has a blog discussing the dinners.

One thing much different about this dinner was where we sat. Last time I spent all dinner facing a brick wall, so I didn’t realize Ox had a long, skinny dining area behind the bar. (I don’t think this was part of the restaurant when this space was Echo, and looks like perhaps it’s an enclosed alley made into a dining area, especially as it’s at a different level).IMG_3694 Although this dining room is on the narrow side, and people sitting on the opposite side of the table, against the wall, weren’t certain they could comfortably fit behind the table, many in our group of 10 were happy we were seated in here, as it was much quieter, and the dining room in Ox is loud. I felt a little isolated from the lively vibe of the main dining area, and seeing the cooks performing at their sizzling wood grill. but the back space is pleasant and we had plenty of customer service hovering around us all evening, so it probably was the best place we could have been.

Since I’ve already documented much of the food at Ox when I wrote about the last dinner, and a large percentage  of the menu is stable (not messing with a good thing) I’m basically going to list what we had this time, and intersperse some comments …

Empanada – Grilled Corn, Poblanos, Gruyere and Fontina

Baked House Ricotta, Button Mushroom Confit, Balsamic Brown Butter, Grilled Bread  – I had this, and it was good, rich, and hearty.

Fresh Clam Chowder, Smoked Marrow Bone, Willamette Sweet Onion, Jalapeno – This is one of the dishes you hear the most about at Ox, so David decided he and Shuhong had to try it.IMG_3697 As it happens, David, and Cora as well, seeing the term chowder assumed this would be a really thick soup, like you’d get in a can in the grocery aisle (silly folk). I am more of the modern school of food, where you can call things anything you feel like, providing they contain some of the ingredients. For all I care, they could call this clams on crack, as long as they put some clams in there. Anyway, this was a little thinner than David was planning on, more like clam soup, and it had a big marrow bone in the center. Nonetheless, although it was lighter, David said it was still good, just different than expected. As for everyone complaining about the name, GET WITH IT PEOPLE! Just read the description. That’s what came in the bowl. No one mentioned the Gorton’s fisherman!

Belgian Endive & Arugula, Fourme-d’ambert Blue, Cherries, Radish, Toasted Pecan, Dijon Vinaigrette

Gem Lettuces, Mozzarella Milanesa, Anchovy Vinaigrette, Macona Almond, Mama Lil’s Peppers, Avocado – I didn’t taste this, but everyone was absolutely freaking out over how good it was. I heard a couple of people say it was the best thing they tasted all night. It had a crusty mozzarella ball perched in the center, almost like a giant Arancini. For a meat place, this place really know its salads.

Rainbow Chard & Roasted Beets, Orange Hollandaise, Smoken Salmon Roe, Chives

Sauteed Mushrooms, Foie Gras, Willamette Sweet Onion, Wilted Spinach

Roasted Cauliflower, Spicy Golden Raisin Vinaigrette, Toasted Sesame Seed, Mint – More high praise! Incidently, this seems like a big trend in P-Town restaurants these days, roasted cauliflower. Is there a big cauliflower farm located somewhere around here?

Fried Russet Potatoes, Horseradish Aioli, Dill

IMG_3704Coal-Roasted Artichoke, Espelette Mayo – Just like last time, people said it was delicious. Not as pretty though, as they seem to have run out of edible flowers this time out. Presentation means a lot with a dish like this, but I suppose taste is the deciding factor

Roasted Sea Scallops, Sweet Corn in Bacon Sherry Cream, Tomato, Escarole, Dungeness Crab – Cora totally loved this, and it was quite ample for a scallop dish (of course, there was so much food being sampled at this dinner, a single scallop might seem like food overload). I tasted it, and it was amazingly complex, the sauce absolutely delicious.

Beef Ribeye – Excellent, once again. Two dinners worth of food, when paired with the horseradish potatoes above.

Grass-Fed Uruguayan Beef Ribeye

Lamb Shoulder Chop – Shuhong said this was good, but didn’t like at as much a David’s steak, and Cora’s scallops.

Maple-Brined Pork Loin Chop – Completely gigantic, but Julian took care of all of it.

Wild Alaskan Halibut, on the bone, Toasted Garlic & Lemon – Another of Ox’s most acclaimed preparations, a giant slab of fish lightly charred, buried in fresh chopped herbs and flavor.

IMG_3715Halibut collar, neck, or tail , when available, small plate size – as many people know, fish collars are another of those” in” things these days, supposedly for their flavor and degree of tenderness. Cora was so excited by this she tried to call and order one in advance, but Ox said no way, you had to order it in person. Luckily, there was still one at Ox with Cora’s name on it (our reservation was at 5:30 after all, our only choice except for 8:30) and as it happened, Gina got one too. They both loved it.

Maitake Mushroom, Smoked Sea Salt – Incredibly meaty and flavorful, for that veg-head who wants to pretend they are indulging in protein.

Last time we were at Ox, they only had two or three desserts (who makes it to dessert here?) but this time they had five or six. On our last visit, the Brown Butter Cake had an amazing contrast of textures and flavors, and it was hard not to order it, but something about the components in this one made me want it more … Dark Chocolate Cake, Malted Milk Chocolate Mousse, Toasted Peanut Anglaise, Malbec Marshmallow.IMG_3717 I guess because of the old folk era I’m from, I have a hard time resisting anything with chocolate malt in it (although I don’t do malted milk balls). Disappointingly, I was the only person piggie enough to want dessert, everyone else was food flummoxed, so I decided I would order one for the road (and one for me too, as the road looked pretty dirty to be eating off of). You must keep in mind, I did only eat half of my dinner (and lots of parts of other people’s dinners) and save the rest for the next evening, as I would be going on a hike and wanted easy food for after my exertion. The dessert was really pretty, with sprinkled chocolate and a poof of mauve marshmallow on top. It was good, but the two hours between when I ordered  it and when I ate it might have made it less texturally exciting than it was when it was fresh from the kitchen. If I was to do it again, I would go for the Brown Butter Cake (although who knows how that comes across two hours later).

Service was excellent this time, and we were given as much time as we wanted with our table. In fact, as a general rule I found everyone at Ox much friendlier than the first time out. Towards the end of our meal head honcho Greg Denton came to our table to say hello, and see how we liked our food and the room. Last winter I had recorded a podcast for MysteryMeet (http://mysterymeet.org/find-dining-podcast/podcast-episode-21-ox-in-portland-oregon/)where I had featured Ox as my Portland restaurant, and I had sent co-head honcho Gabrielle Quinonez-Denton the link, and she had emailed me to thank me then, and tell me to say hello next time we came in. As it happens, Friday is her night off, but she dutifully sent hubby Greg in her place, so that was great, and made our group feel hoity-toity.IMG_3703 The only thing close to a service snafu came at the end of our dinner. Sometimes, especially with the larger groups, the bill can end up a bit off, usually short, not because someone is filching, but mostly because people forget to write things down on their Dine Don’t Dash slips, especially extra drinks. This evening, Heidi and Julian had already left to get home to Hank, leaving their wad of cash behind, and no matter how I counted the money, we were $50 short, the worst ever (of course the bill was over $700). We counted, and counted, and recounted, still $50 short. We knew it couldn’t be anyone giving a spindly tip, as that was included on the bill, being a large group. Finally, someone or other tossed in a buck (hey, it’s better than nothing) Tracy discovered she had forgotten Peter’s wine, and then upon closer examination, Gina or Cora noticed we had been charged for four Halibut Collars, not the two we really had. Once this was pointed out to the waitress, and the two small plates were removed, and the mandatory tip corrected, our bill came out exactly right, to the dollar. So much better than $50 short. It also proves, despite the occasional memory lapses, that my little dining slips do suit their purpose.

This was a great dinner, and everyone was really happy with all their food, I really heard almost no complaints (except for not liking “clam soup” being called “clam chowder”). I guess the closest to a complaint came from me. Last dinner several people had ordered the “Dirty Grandma Agnes” pickle martini and loved it.IMG_3698 I had felt left out, so had to have one too this time. As it happens, people weren’t in such a festive drinking mood this time, so only Peter and I had Dirty Grandma Agnes. Peter loved his again, but I actually did not care for mine, too salty from the brine. I guess this is what happens when someone who doesn’t really like pickles and doesn’t like martinis orders a pickle martini. I kept trying to pass it around the table to get people to slurp it up for me, but while Gina and Heidi both tried it, no luck. I had Dirty Grandma Agnes all to myself. I can assure you, when it came to the food at Ox, however, people were totally ready to sample, all evening long.

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