Dina Avila

Gender Chemistry Brings Balance

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By Ellen Koteff September 2013 New Concepts

Greg Denton and his wife, Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, met in a kitchen and earned their culinary chops cooking in restaurants from Napa Valley to Maui, Hawaii, before opening their first restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

Ox, their highly acclaimed collaboration that features wood-fired grilled dishes in the tradition of Argentina with Spanish, French, and Italian influences, was named in honor of the animal that pulls the plough, tills the soil, and replenishes the land’s ability to produce fruits, vegetables, and grains.

“An ox is a mature, hard-working animal and neither I nor my wife is a beginner,” says Greg. “The name Ox pays homage to the whole process of putting food on your table.”

With a menu that boasts a wide variety of grilled meats, many customers are surprised to find the restaurant’s ambience and menu is a balance of masculine and feminine influences.

“So many of our guests come in with the idea that we are a steakhouse and then are shocked to find out that neither the menu nor the ambience is masculine,” says Gabrielle. “We are as much known for our fish and vegetarian dishes as we are for our steak.”

“People pick up on the feminine and masculine balance that we have in our dishes,” adds Greg. “Everything is well thought out.”

By necessity, that balance extends to sharing the many responsibilities that come with opening a restaurant, where it’s not uncommon to work 80 hours a week.

“We pretty much both do everything,” says Gabrielle, “but usually I might be the one who executes the recipes and then I pass it back to Greg and he decides on the plating.”

Before a dish is put on the menu both chefs must agree. “We understand how both our paletes work and we don’t put anything on the menu that we don’t agree on,” says Greg.

Best-selling menu items include Asado Argentino for two, which is comprised of grilled short rib, house chorizo and Morcilla sausages, skirt steak, sweetbreads, fried potatoes, and green salad. There is also cocoa-braised lamb shoulder with sautéed spinach, chickpeas, Shiitake mushrooms, and wine-poached prune. Roasted sea scallops are served with lentils in bacon sherry cream, Morels, English peas, turnip, and Dungeness Crab. And another favorite is sautéed snap peas and sweet onion, carrots, Chevre, pistachio, wild fennel frond, and Umbrian truffle.

“We want to achieve a balance between adventurous ingredients—but at the same time if you bring your 90-year-old grandfather, we want him to be able to get a steak with horseradish so he will be a happy camper too,” says Gabrielle.

The dinner-only restaurant is open six days a week, has 65 seats, and does between 170 and 220 covers nightly. Tickets average between $30 and $48, and food costs run between 28 percent and 32 percent.

Dishes are meant to be shared and—in order to maintain a healthy ROI—are balanced with high- and low-priced food items. “We try to be very wise when putting together a dish. If we use something like foi gras we might finish it out with spinach, which can really help the volume and maintain costs,” says Greg.

Ox, which was four years in the planning stages, is located in close proximity to Portland’s City Center.

“We found our location by chance and luck,” explains Greg. “We saw it on Craig’s List and checked it out. There were a couple of people bidding on the space but the landlord liked our business plan and he chose us.”

The restaurant’s instant success was a big surprise but clearly welcome. Ox was a semifinalist for the James Beard 2013 Best New Restaurant award.

“The popularity surprised us both,” Greg continues. “We figured we would grow but it was busy from like day two. We hit some kind of chord with people.”

Despite its early popularity the owners of Ox pay a lot of attention to guests’ comments and react accordingly. Early on when some customers complained about cramped quarters, a brick wall was opened up. “We own a small restaurant but I feel like we are not that cramped,” says Greg. “It’s important to get as many seats as we can without making guests feel uncomfortable.”

In order to maintain the momentum of a successful first year, the Dentons pay close attention to hiring the right people and making sure every guest feels welcome.

“We have a really great general manager who has been integral in putting together a style of service that is not stuffy but very professional,” says Gabrielle. “Everyone who is here has gone through a pretty intense interview process because we want to make sure they are going to be a great fit.”