Bring More Flavor to Grilled Meat With an Argentine-Style Grill

The chefs behind Portland’s Ox restaurant deliver a grilling feast and teach us about a different kind of ‘black gold’

By Alex Testere

Published on November 5, 2016

Coal-roasted ribeye gets a vibrant topping of Ox restaurant's signature chimichurri sauce

I smelled them before I saw them. Huddled together in a row in front of the woodfire grill, glistening, blackened ribeye fat caps sat soaking up the aroma from the smoke. "The ribeyes will be good," says Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, half of the husband-and-wife chef team behind Portland's Ox restaurant, "but those fat caps are the real treat." She is standing opposite the grill, arranging grilled shiitake mushroom tops on a serving tray while her husband and co-chef Greg Denton unwinds a flame-charred head of red cabbage into tantalizing ribbons.

Ox chef Greg Denton pulls apart char-grilled red cabbages to be tossed with chestnut cream and persimmons.

Fire is the driving force behind Ox, and the duo's aptly named new cookbook Around the Fire (Ten Speed Press 2016, with Stacy Adimando) is an ode to the element. The book is a true reflection of the couple and their restaurant, bringing Argentine-inspired open flame grilling to the urban outlet of Portland, and giving local ingredients, which includes a surprising number of vegetables as well as sustainably farmed meats, an asado-style spin.

In Editor-in-Chief Adam Sachs' Brooklyn kitchen for last night's SAVEUR Supper, Gabi and Greg are delighted to find a near-replica of the grill back at their restaurant in Portland. It's made by Grillworks and is inspired by the traditional Argentine parrilla style, which means that the slats of the grill grate are actually V-shaped channels, which collect rendered fat and juices so they don't drip into the fire and cause flare-ups. Angled slightly downward, the juices drip into a tray, eliminating most of the perils of grilling over an open flame. If it seems ingenious, that's because it is—the gauchos in the Andean highlands have had centuries to perfect the technique.

Ox sous chef Kyle Burgess lathers the ribeyes with "black gold," the infused fat that the grill collects as the meat cooks.

But the innovation doesn’t end there: The real key to the exceptional flavor behind Gabi and Greg’s grilling lies in what’s being siphoned away. “We figured if we’ve got these delicious, meaty, smoky juices and fats just draining into the tray,” Gabi tells me, “why not freshen them up with lemon, garlic, and some fresh herbs, and put it right back on the meat?”

There at the grill, I see this process in action. The ribeyes have now hit the grate and sous chef Kyle Burgess is dipping his basting brush into the vat of juices and rendered beef fats at the front of the grill, where whole heads of garlic, sprigs of thyme, and lemon halves have been sitting for hours, just soaking it all up. The juices come off, infuse slowly over the fire, and get brushed back on. Were one not standing in the middle of a bustling kitchen, one might pause for a moment of reflection, stare into the mesmerizing flames and ponder this juicy, fatty circle of life.

The tray of drippings is filled with fresh herbs, lemon halves, and heads of garlic to infuse the juices with aromatics before it's basted back onto the meat.

That little tray of rendered fat is something Greg and Gabi call "black gold." "You'll never get a steak anywhere else that tastes like Ox," says Greg, "because on our grill, we've got the steaks, yes, but also the chorizo, and the morcilla (blood sausage), and any other meats we're grilling, and all those juices mingle together with the aromatics. It's our own unique umami bomb." They'll even take the fats and juices from the end of the night, strain out the aromatics, and reuse it to start the next day's batch, building the depth of flavor onto itself in perpetuity.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us for whom the closest we can get to a parrilla on a daily basis is a well-seasoned grill pan on the stove? "You can definitely make a version of black gold at home with any kind of fat, even olive oil or butter," says Gabi, but she's got a hack for sneaking that smoky flavor into it too: "Bacon. Render some bacon fat and infuse it with some aromatics before you start. You can sear indoors on a grill pan in the middle of winter, and as long as you sop a little of that on your steak, it'll taste like it came off a wood fire grill." And for the supremely dedicated, Grillworks sells a smaller (but still quite large) home version of their parilla-style grill complete with wheel-adjusted suspended grates to fully customize your cooking. So there is hope for us after all.

See more scenes from our supper below.

SAVEUR test kitchen director Stacy Adimando co-wrote Around the Fire with Ox chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton.
"The Oxblood" is one of Ox's signature cocktails, featuring bourbon and blood-red beet juice with a sprig of tarragon as garnish.
The meal kicks off with appetizers from Greg and Gabi's other restaurant, Superbite, like this beef tongue with sweetbread croutons.
From left, All'Onda chef Chris Jaeckle, Speedy Romeo chef Justin Bazdarich, SAVEUR Editor-in-Chief Adam Sachs, and Chopped's Ted Allen enjoy a drink before dinner.
Dungeness crab tacos are passed around the table, with a "tortilla" made from thinly sliced celery root, gently charred on the woodfire grill.
Aldea chef George Mendes and his guest chat with their friend, Ox chef Greg Denton.
Chopped's Ted Allen and Knife Fight's Ilan Hall pose for a selfie during dinner prep.
Here, Gabi and Greg combine duck liver mousse with soft scrambled eggs and American sturgeon caviar for an impeccable small bite.
Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Peter Meehan, his wife Hannah Clark, and writer David Tanis enjoy a glass of wine with their friends in SAVEUR editor-in-chief Adam Sachs' home kitchen.
Charred red cabbage leaves are tossed with vibrant persimmons and a silky chestnut cream for part of the family-style main course.
From left: Grillworks owner Ben Eisendrath, Knife Fight's Ilan Hall, Ox chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, Aldea chef George Mendes, and Gramercy Tavern chef Mike Anthony have a laugh by the woodfire grill.
The first course had us dreaming of smoky marrow bones all night; a rich clam chowder studded with whole clams and jalepeños, topped off with a giant smoked beef bone.
Gramercy Tavern chef Mike Anthony, photographer Evan Sung (who photographed "Around the Fire"), and his wife Jeanna.
The family-style meal commences, and everyone does their best to snag a corner of the countertop to start chowing down, featuring plates from Williams Sonoma.
A Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from Banshee wines rounds out the grilled feast.
At the end of the meal, tres leches cakes topped with dulce de leche, grilles apples, and a green apple meringue hits the table. The forks are flying.

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