It’s a cloudy morning in North Portland. Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton sit over steaming cups of coffee at the dining room table of their Craftsman bungalow and talk through the day’s menu for Ox, their award-winning restaurant in Northeast Portland. A Neapolitan Mastiff named Mabel sprawls at their feet, snoring, while Niko, a large Mastiff mix, paces the room in nervous anticipation of a w-a-l-k. In the background, the dishwasher swishes through a cycle and a light rain spatters the windows.
This quiet scene will be a stark contrast later in the day to the nonstop motion as things ramp up at Ox for the evening. But for the owners of one of Portland’s most sought-after restaurants, this daily routine undergirds a years-long partnership in and out of the kitchen.
“We feel very lucky that we always have somebody else that we can bounce ideas off of,” Gabrielle says. “That really helps us attain the balance that we are always looking for when it comes to cooking.”
The pair met in 1998 working at Terra Restaurant in Napa Valley at the pantry station. “The lowest station,” Greg says with a laugh. They moved up through the ranks together, eventually with Greg as chef de cuisine and Gabrielle as sous chef. And what was there from the beginning, Gabrielle says, was a mutual desire to improve their skills. She says they would go out after work and rehash the entire evening. “We were always hungry to be better,” she says.
Their careers took them from California to Hawaii, where each headed up separate kitchens but often worked for each other as well. They landed in Portland in 2008, married in 2010, and opened Ox in 2012 after a three-year stint at Metrovino in the Pearl District.
Inspiration for Ox’s menu came from Gabrielle’s South American roots. She grew up in Los Angeles eating South American food at home and in restaurants. “We wanted a kind of family-style feast of lesser-known cuts of meat — like offal, sweetbread and sausage — with the Latin American ingredients I grew up knowing and loving,” she says. They also knew they wanted an Argentine-style wood-fired grill at the heart of the restaurant. The menu might best be described as Argentine at its foundation and designed to appeal to the Pacific Northwest palate.
Ox offers a compelling range of plate sizes — from entradas (starters) and fiambres (charcuterie) to asados (from the grill). And while it’s firmly rooted in the Argentine steakhouse tradition, the menu includes a long list del huerto — from the garden.
As for the name, it’s a nod to this couple’s years of methodical, consistent labor. “An ox is a mature, hardworking animal,” Greg says. “I’m not a 24-year-old opening a restaurant for the first time. I’m a 38-year-old opening a restaurant for the first time.” And oxen, as the restaurant’s signature navy and orange T-shirt illustrates, work well in teams, just like this pair, who have enjoyed a joint success that some might say is unusual in a male-dominated industry. In 2015 Gabrielle and Greg made the finalist list for the James Beard Awards, and in 2014 were named Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. Following Feast Portland 2014, food writer Ruth Reichl raved on her blog, “This is the most amiable restaurant I’ve been to in quite a while. It’s not just that the food is straight-up delicious, the service sweet and the room casually comfortable. Somehow an aura of happiness permeates the place; I can’t imagine anyone going there and not having a good time.”
Inside the Ox
By midafternoon, the day’s pace has ratcheted up as the chefs prepare for evening service. Cargo trucks zip in and out of the parking lot delivering fresh meat, seafood and produce. The staff at the adjacent Whey Bar roll up the garage door to the patio and crank up the stereo as they set up. Inside Ox, a constant stream of bodies moves up and down the narrow staircase between the prep area and the dining room, which is dominated by a gleaming 4-by-2-foot, stainless-steel, wood-fired oven that is lit early in the afternoon and will soon heat up to 1,200 degrees to accommodate the grilled portion of the menu. Greg sequesters himself in the prep area to painstakingly debone fish for the evening menu. Gabrielle, working on the computer in the dining room, directs a steady rhythm of staff questions and deliveries.
In late afternoon, the employees gather for a meal and a meeting in the dining room. The exposed brick walls are lit up by sunlight streaming in the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the sound of the crackling fire punctuates the conversation.
Ox only takes reservations for parties of six or larger at the 60-seat restaurant, so by 4:30 p.m., a line has formed in the parking lot as people put their names on the waiting list and wander over to Whey Bar for a drink. Dinner service starts promptly at 5 p.m., and on this evening, with a tiny cup of creamy heirloom tomato soup with chive oil. A fresh baguette is accompanied by a salted cube of butter and savory chimichurri sauce.
As for the main menu, there are adventurous eaters and then there are eaters who trust the chef. At Ox, you can be either: smoked beef tongue en vinagreta with sweetbread croutons. A petal-strewn oxtail terrine with lemon aioli. Then there’s the clam chowder served with a smoked marrowbone (scraping the marrow into the broth is highly recommended) and fresh jalapeño peppers. From the grill, a tender beef skirt steak and wild halibut on the bone; a grilled sweet onion with roasted beets and sharp blue cheese, followed by oyster mushrooms with smoked sea salt. There’s a wine list with vintages of Argentina, Spain and Oregon, as well as a respectable cocktail menu. Dessert seems unwise but irresistible — a soft sphere of bittersweet-chocolate olive oil cake topped with fudge sauce and a scoop of peppermint ice cream in a pool of molasses anglaise.
As the evening draws to a close, one can only begin to plan a return visit to Ox with family and friends, and look forward to checking out Greg and Gabrielle’s cookbook, “Around the Fire: Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting from Ox Restaurant.”
Despite the new cookbook and the recent flurry of attention that has followed their recent awards, the pair stays focused on the work. “We try to keep this in perspective. It is about the restaurant,” Greg says. “It is our job that people are going to have a good experience.”