Dispatch from Portland: If That Ain't Love, then Tell Me What is

There's a song by Loretta Lynn and Jack White called Portland, Oregon. It's about cocktails and love, and the second I left for a recent business trip in Portland, it was on a continuous loop in my head. I didn't mind a bit.

I also didn't mind planning a group dinner for our team while we were there, and chose Ox Restaurant, thinking an Aregntinian meat fest would suit our male-dominated party just fine. Luckily, this hunch led to a spectacular home run.

Ox, just a short jaunt up the street from the Portland Convention Center, is a smallish place, so they ask larger parties to chose a family style menu in advance. The experience I had setting our menu up, and the welcome we received upon arrival, was the warmest we received in PDX (though we had one other personnel experience worth covering, and I intend to do so next week).

Before our first course came an amuse bouche for all, served in demitasse cups presented en masse on trays: luxurious, unctuous, earthy creamed mushroom soup. It was deep, dark, rich - mushroom duxelles cooked slowly in butter with aromatics, puréed, and enriched with enough cream to create soup but not so much as to blot out the umami flavor of the fungi. Simply fabulous in three quick gulps.

Even as colleagues around the table were still smacking their lips (literally!), the first course began to hit the table. It was a bounty the lies of which few had tasted before.

Dungeness crab bruschetta was a great way to start this trio of deliciousness. Dungeness is less sweet than blue crabs, with a more fresh, saline, oceanic flavor. Watery cucumber and creamy avocado, plus peppery radish were splendid foils, and with bracingly tart shiso and earthy, crusty, charred bread, each bite was filled with texture and flavor.

Flaky empanadas were filled with well seasoned ground beef and the genius combo of green olive and raisins, a sweet/salty pairing that played differently on the palate with each bite, grounded by the spice and fat of the beef. These were tasty treats.

And our favorite of the trio: baked house made ricotta cheese topped with button mushrooms slow cooked with tomatoes and doused in balsamic brown butter, to heap onto more charred country bread. This is something I'll be trying to replicate at home, and you should too, if you like gigantic mouthfuls of creamy, concentrated, warm ricotta with tiny mushrooms coated in sweet, rich butter tinged with reduced balsamic vinegar piled on top of thick, crunchy toast.

And we barely had time to rave about course one and pour more wine when course two began to arrive, plate after plate. Some mumbled that they were already full, but grabbed serving spoons anyway. First up: endive salad with fresh figs, crispy rendered chorizo sausage, creamy, sweet chèvre cheese and sherry vinaigrette. This was a bracing salad, due to the bitterness of the endive and ample acid in the dressing, but the sweetness of the figs, fat in the chorizo and cream in the cheese balanced out the astringency in a particularly successful harmony. It was a really beautiful salad.

Small plates of ridiculously good, house made chorizo a,so touched down around this time. It was more tender and more loosely packed than commercial chorizos I've purchased, and almost luxuriously fatty. That's not to say it was greasy, but the word decadent comes to mind when I think of each bite. The casings were crisped up perfectly, but the inside of each fat sausage were finely ground and not quite as redolent with paprika as I expected - spicy, but not hot.

Next: marinated skirt steak cooked to medium rare over Ox's open flames, sliced thinly and dressed with the restaurant's robust, herbaceous chimichurri sauce. This green sauce had also come alongside  great crusty loaves of bread at the start of the evening, and everyone was pre-primed to adore the slightly spicy mix of parsley, cilantro, chiles and olive oil. This steak was the favorite of some members of our party, and it was hard not to just shovel slice after tender slice into my gaping maw with abandon.

Rather large bowls of roasted potatoes, exposed surfaces bronzed in the open oven and then blanketed with spoonfuls of sharp, garlicky horseradish aoli and fresh dill were next. I wanted to eat more of these and of yummy, grilled onions with blue cheese, but the ribeye kind of ruined that plan.

At this point in such a feast, one has to start making important decisions; strategic decisions about the malleability of one's pants and such. There is no room for for error in such calculations. Beef wins. The bone-in ribeye is a specialty at Ox, and this ruby red, juicy, thick-cut steak was absolutely unparalleled in flavor and texture. 

Dessert was an option presented by our waiters, but there wasn't a chance I could have stopped eating that steak in order to save space. A girl's stomach is only so hungry, my pets! But you knows, even sans a sweet ending, this meal was one for the record books. Ox isn't as famous as some of its PDX compatriots, but it should be. There's a reason the chefs here, a husband and wife team, have been nominated for James Beard awards. The secret's in the juicy burst of the chorizo, the bursting brightness of the chimichurri, the earthy richness of the mushroom soup, and the sweet umami of the baked ricotta - these two understand their taste profile and how to echo it throughout a meal without ever serving sameness or repetition. 

I give Ox a 10 on the BHS scale, and will remember this meal fondly. If you're in the land of mustaches and flannel, put it on your list, and for God's sake, wear stretchy pants!! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!