Portland, Oregon might be just a few miles from the Pacific coast and even closer to some of the most fish abundant rivers around, along with being half way across the country from the meat and potatoes heartland. Yet, as is the case for numerous other exciting, major food and drink abundant cities ranging far and wide, coffee to pizza, Portland has a particular forte with meat.
Real, bonafide meat in many forms. Steak. Pork belly. Charcuterie. Foie gras. Salty, fatty, tender cuts of meat, usually in servings more for lumberjacks than ballerinas.
Portland, of course, doesn’t strike you as a steakhouse town like Chicago or a stock yards town like Kansas City or Fort Worth. Not being a local, I am unaware of any stockyards around the city, but if they do exist, one can imagine they have to be humanely raised and loved as if everything in a “Portlandia” sketch were reality.
Not that Portland is the only city in the country where chefs commonly view bacon as essential a finishing touch to a dish as pepper. This is not a barbeque capital of the U.S., though the likes of Podnah’s Pit are starting to stake out Portland’s power in the genre.
This is about two very unique steakhouses that are so much more than just a steakhouse, and a charcuterie maker-restaurant that is almost unanimously considered the runaway leader in its oeuvre.
And that’s not even including what might be the city’s most popular lunchtime spot beginning 2013: Lardo. Being Portland, Lardo started serving its cold fried chicken sandwiches and pork meatball banh mí as a food cart.
Like planning for dinner at Apizza Scholl’s or brunch at Tasty n Sons, a dinner at the restaurant of the moment Ox is really two dinners time-wise. Not accepting reservations except for a select few for parties of six or more, an hour plus wait is inevitable unless you arrive at opening time. Even then, most of the restaurant was filled up by people who arrived before the wait time.
What Ox is is far beyond just an Argentine steakhouse experience. As the restaurant states, this is “Argentine inspired Portland food.” In short, beef is emphasized, everything has some hint of Argentina, and some hint of something else. At the parillas I’ve dined at in Mendoza and Buenos Aires, the focus squarely was on the beef. Everything else was the supporting cast. Well, the Malbec also gets marquee billing. But, at these parillas, every cut of the cow to the exceptional blood sausages to glamorous sweetbread possessed unheard of eloquence in meat. Consider them the motivational speakers of butchery.
Unlike my time in Argentina, at Ox you could very well dine a half dozen times and never even touch beef. That would be a shame, but you wouldn’t regret it.
The Ox experience almost always starts with that aforementioned wait, usually less than the stated 90 minutes to two hours. Everyone is herded to the next door Whey Bar run by Ox, where slowly the cocktails are nearing the restaurant’s lofty food level. Whey is cramped and generally uncomfortable, not a place you want to linger over the sublime “Things Done Changed,” a risky, spectacular multi- dimensional take on a Pisco Sour with smoked lemon and jalapeño. Skip the boring “Shipwreck” with Bourbon, rum, lime, and mint, and consider the “Devil in a New Dress” with Tequila, Combier Orange, Mezcal, and red pepper that could be special with higher quantities of the latter two ingredients.
Arguably the most celebrated dish at the slick year old Northeast Portland restaurant is a clam chowder, resonating with spice from green onions and jalapeños. Then a slick of bone marrow’s marrow falls into the broth like you might add butter to a dish. Yes, it would be nice if the chowder actually had a few more clams and if the taste of the marrow wasn’t so diluted. Still, it’s a formidable dish, worth the attention, if for any other reason than what the jalapeno adds to clam chowder.
Far more impressive is a tour de force starter of spicy braised octopus and beef tripe, both as soft as that aforementioned bone marrow. Neither was remotely close to the rubbery tire texture so often seen in tripe and octopus. Mint aioli provides some unique pop and Brussels sprouts leaves complete Ox’s premier non- beef offering. Speaking of Brussels sprouts, the headliner of Ox’s hefty “From the Garden” portion of the menu involves roasted Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, bathing in a robust peanut romesco. In a world where every restaurant now has a variation on Brussels sprouts, this one is near the top, and it doesn’t even involve bacon. I could have spent all night just in this section of the menu.
I think many diners might agree with me that as successful as many starters are, the warm baguette with pungent chimichurri and the amuse-bouche sweet potato bisque may actually be the most lasting memory of the meal’s first half.
There are empanadas of course, either stuffed with beef, green olive, and raisin, or grilled poblano chile, sweet potato, fontina, and chèvre. Neither is a knockout, neither you will regret ordering. The flaky pastry dough outperforms both nondescript fillings. Baked sturgeon dip with a hard egg and pickled endive sounds fascinating, especially with a dollop of caviar. It’s not. Sadly, the refreshing crunch of endive to spread the dip on provides the only noteworthy element of the rare clunker at Ox. It’s a beautiful dish of excellent raw materials that don’t add up to anything of this kitchen’s caliber.
You can get all sorts of fascinating vegetarian dishes, perhaps a Tuscan kale risotto with mascarpone and Parmigiano Reggiano that might be considered Argentinean since Buenos Aires boasts the highest population of Italian expats of any city in the world.
There are numerous vegetable heavy dishes that don’t shy away from the meat, including heirloom hominy with cilantro and chiles that share the plate with an olive oil-poached duck egg and braised pork, and a sautéed mushrooms and spinach number spiked with foie gras. There are two braises or roasts each night, showing the kitchen’s range with roasted sea scallops in a shellfish nage, accompanied by an Absinthe sabayon, fennel, and Cara Cara oranges.
However, the raîson d’être of Ox is the center of the menu: “Asados/ From the Grill.” The grill is the centerpiece of the restaurant, both decor-speaking and culinary-wise. Beef ribeye from the U.S. or Uruguay arrive at many tables, as do the skirt steak and the magnificent beef ribs slathered with a smoked apple jalapeño BBQ sauce. Others stick to the grill, but veer away from beef for a massive 16 oz. maple-brined pork loin chop, or the house chorizo. Unfortunately a grilled Maitake mushroom proved banal and watery, while the too crumbly house morcilla (blood sausage) boasted neither the spice or the smooth texture of its brother at the famed Cabaña las Lilas in Buenos Aires.
Ox is the result of two very innovative and passionate chefs, Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñonez, formerly of Metrovino in the Pearl. Now, they’re across the Willamette, exuding a bold, whimsical style to cooking that makes jaded diners believers in dining out again. As chaotic as the two roomed restaurant can be with a prominent open kitchen and one room outside except “inside” a heated tent, and with several unhappy customers waiting for hours if they refuse to go to Whey, service is incredibly helpful and friendly, though wait times between courses can get lengthy. Fortunately, not as lengthy as the average wait for a table.
Dessert can be hit or miss. A warm hazelnut brown butter torte wasn’t noteworthy like the scoop of honey-chamomile ice cream with it was. Somehow, someway, dulce de leche needs to make an appearance here. Or, you can order the “Asado Argentino for 2,” with a $60 parade of beef in myriad forms from grilled short rib and house chorizo to morcilla sausages, sweetbreads, and skirt steak. Add on the fried potato and green salad, and you won’t even think of ordering dessert or breakfast tomorrow.
Much like Pok Pok on SE Division, it’s just so bizarre to find such a distinct, accomplished restaurant on such a random stretch of real estate. That’s the reward for seeking out the most creative chefs and restaurateurs.
In many ways, Laurelhurst Market, further south on the eastside of Portland from Ox, along Burnside Street (the main east-west artery in town), is like a completely grown up, yet pared down Ox. There is no Argentine flare. It’s one large, bustling brasserie. Reservations are, yes, accepted. But, as the prominent cow parts etching over the kitchen suggests, we know what the star of this show is.
It’s the mussels and fries. Well, o.k., they’re fine mussels and above average, crisp fries, but the trio of moules frites offerings certainly won’t be the basis of a restaurant. I wanted more excitement to the Green chorizo sausage-butternut squash laden white wine broth for one of three mussels and fries versions. Still, the entire vast, yet approachable menu tempts. Stick to seafood if you so choose with the mussels, fries, and cipollini onions in a roasted apple and hard cider broth, and Dungeness crab- endive cocktail brightened with citrus, a sunchoke sauce, and Prosecco vinaigrette.
Being a resident of the foie gras black hole known as California, I had to sample Larelhurst’s foie gras torchon. Low and behold, it’s a breathtaking mix of smooth, salty liver accented by a ravishing orange cardamom gastrique, aided by fig preserves and salted hazelnuts, all to be spread on toasted brioche. It’s a Jack Nicholson dish– outspoken and a bit outlandish, yet so nuanced to still be personable.
Beef can come in many forms- raw in a terrific, classic shallot heavy tartare preparation with a salt cured egg yolk, or the marrow bones with a terrific miniature toasted soft pretzel. Unfortunately, the marrow bones didn’t contain much in the way of marrow meat.
Beef can be a superb bacon cheese burger with house cured bacon and also a traditional steak frites with Piedmontese Bavette steak, or hefty Niman Ranch ribeye topped with bleu cheese butter and fried sweet onion rings.
Where Laurelhurst differs from the traditional steakhouse is the presence of the more unsung cuts of beef and that each cut comes with its own preparation, instead of sauces and sides à la carte. A round of applause for taking that extra step. Another round of applause for listing at the bottom of the menu clearly how they define meat temperatures. “Medium rare” is red with a warm center. End of discussion.
Raise your hand if you had heard of the “Teres Major” cut before? I was guessing not. It’s a terrific, tender shoulder cut, not far from a New York steak in texture. Unfortunately, the Bearnaise sauce covers up the excellent meat and I didn’t even realize the anonymous root vegetable strada existed until my last bite of the taste-less side.
The masterpiece comes in the form of a 12 hour smoked Wagyu brisket, smothered in a foot of cinnamon- heavy Ozark BBQ sauce. The luscious, somewhat fatty meat beams with character. It’s everything Texas BBQ aspires to be. The presentation is no more artistic than at Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Texas. Hot dog though as Jimmy Stewart would say, this is BBQ done right if I may say so myself.
It’s very inviting to veer away from the steaks when a kitchen of this caliber tackles the always daunting classic cassoulet, here with smoked pork ribs, confit duck leg, and Butifarra sausage. Chicken gets roasted under a brick as is common these days, with all the supporting cast buzz words of the hot kitchens also these days: fried polenta, cauliflower purée, Brussels sprouts leaves, and smoked Balsamic vinaigrette.
Good luck to vegetarians here, though there are options besides mac & cheese with a “Tim’s Chip” crust or potato gnocchi baked with cardoons in a creamy calorie fest. Skip the watery and unpleasantly medicinal sautéed wild and Crimini mushrooms with Marchand de vin, and go for the fried cauliflower with pear butter and rosemary.
Service is crisp, very friendly, and uncommonly smooth. This is a professional restaurant, they know what they’re doing here. David Kreifels, Jason Owens and Benjamin Dyer opened Laurelhurst Market in 2010. The trio is also the group behind the Simpatica Dining Hall and the nearby Ate-Oh-Ate Hawaiian Plate Lunch. Kreifels serves as executive chef for the main restaurant.
At night, Laurelhurst Market is a grown-up, terrific restaurant with a heavy emphasis on creative meat dishes. It has to be one of the slickest, most agreeable steak-based restaurants around. At four years old, it feels as smooth as Keens in Manhattan. The place exudes warmth and character, down to the petite French-style water glasses. By day, I need to visit the “market” aspect. Some of the city’s most revered sandwiches are made here from the myriad cuts of meat. And, you can of course always buy some Wagyu Denver steak or pancetta for the road from the butcher counter greeting visitors by the front door at all hours.
Dessert has to be the brown butter walnut pie. Can anything trump a sterling pecan pie? Yes, switch in the earthy walnuts and add the bitter, contrasting dimension of buttermilk ice cream. It works wonders.
The prominent marquee inside Olympic Provisions Southeast is the first clue of what the real deal is here: “Meat.”
O.k., fish and salad time everybody!
Olympic Provisions is possibly the leading charcuterie maker in any state, a champion for artisanal cured meats with forgotten old world and enticing new spice and technique twists. Olympic Provisions also is two exceptional restaurants, one in a beautiful renovated warehouse in the industrial SE and another in the NW that feels more like an alpine tavern. Both fit the mold of restaurants for all times of day and all matters of dining. You can graze at either over some charcuterie and cheese, or go for the full-on three course experience. Former Clyde Common sous chef Alex Yoder runs the exciting kitchen of the SE location, where you can’t help but feel like you’re with the chefs in the open kitchen.
Charcuterie boards are, shockingly, the highlights here. You can opt for a Spanish, French, or Italian board, or make your own, or let the chef choose. It’s all exceptional. Perhaps some chorizo Navarre paired with the Spanish cow milk cheese Mahón Menorca? That perfectly zesty chorizo Navarre is the signature of the house, laced with cayenne and smoked paprika. It was my favorite too in Portland, until I recently met the Olympic Provisions crew at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco. There, I couldn’t get enough of the Greek-style loukanika, with cumin, garlic, and orange zest, and the winner at the Awards, an elegant prosciutto called “lomo di parma.”
At the restaurant, night and day the choucroute garnie is as close to a must-order as it gets. Seriously, at a charcuterie abundant restaurant?
However, dinner might use that chorizo Navarre in a white-chili broth with petrale sole and clams, and at lunch, the pork frankfurter beckons as does a Belgian endive salad with apples, buttermilk bleu cheese, and Oregon’s reliable finest produce– hazelnuts. Recently I enjoyed arguably the most impressive sandwich of any I tried in 2012, where ciabatta bread and an exceptional olive tapénade served as the base for, count with me, mortadella, capicola, finocchiona, provolone cheese, and pickled carrots. With some braised cardoons and thumb-sized corona beans sharing a bowl with a beautiful oregano heavy vinaigrette and shavings of grana padano, Olympic Provisions clearly could get by on cured meats and sandwiches alone, but shows it’s also one of the finest restaurants in this brilliant restaurant town.
And a terrific bar, too. Brunch delivers a spectacular “Olympic Mary,” with Monopolowa Vodka, house tomato mix, a salt-pepper rim, Calabrian chili for no shortage of a kick, a pickled egg, and of course, a salami swizzle stick. Count me in.
Steakhouse? Charcuterie maker? None of these terrific three fall into any tried and true genre. If this creative vision is where steakhouses are heading, we should all be excited. Meat me in Portland for dinner.