There will be no hummus at Portland’s most ambitious Middle Eastern restaurant gamble, opening in mid-June on East Burnside. But you will find world-class, organic borlotti beans from Gaston’s esteemed Ayers Creek Farm, pureed and crowned with feta, cumin, and Ayers-grown Turkish chiles. Pita will give way to flatbreads, cooked to order, sporting locally milled whole grains and all kinds of sprouted things. Vegetables will drive the cooking, the cocktails, and yes, the desserts. The body is Middle Eastern, but the soul is clearly Oregon.
At least that’s the thinking of the project’s co-owner and creative director Joshua McFadden, who put vegetable thinking at the center of Ava Gene’s (PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2013) as well as a forthcoming cookbook, due out March 2017. And now, Eat Beat has learned, after months of rumors, chef shuffles, pop-ups and test-driving, the restaurant has a name, a confirmed location, a working menu, and a surprising muse: Fleetwood Mac.
So get ready. At the very least, it’s going to be interesting. Tusk (named for the band’s iconic album) will rise at 2448 E Burnside St., with dinner nightly and a Middle Eastern brunch on weekends. The former Levant space will get a complete facelift to create an indoor-outdoor space that’s light, airy, and plant-intensive. “Beautiful and youthful,” says McFadden, “but not taking ourselves too seriously.” The game plan calls for a marble bar, seating for 46 up front, a hidden (quieter) back dining room, and a covered patio for year-round outdoor eating.
On-board talent includes 34-year-old chef and Tusk partner Sam Smith (formerly chef de cuisine at Ava Gene’s and Philly’s Zahav—considered the benchmark modern Middle Eastern restaurant in America) and Chef Wesley Johnson, who earned our respect for his Middle Eastern brunch at Café Castagna (a noble experiment that never caught on). At the bar: cocktail ace Tyler Stevens, a Teardrop Lounge alum and one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Mixologists” in 2014. The lynchpin might be Nora Antene, who, Eat Beat has learned, will be leaving her lofty pastry chef perch at Le Pigeon in May. Antene is one of Portland’s exciting talents to watch.
A hint of the menu turned up recently at a six-week pop-up series called LaMama. “It was not a preview,” says Smith, “but more an opportunity to start collaborating.” In his vision, the entire cast will shape Tusk’s menu. Antene will contribute to savories, and Johnson, who once made pastries at Zahav, will get in on desserts.
Right now, the work-in-progress menu shows snacks (charred pickles to lamb tartare with turmeric yogurt), fresh Middle Eastern breads and spreads, skewers cooked in Levant’s old hearth, and a large collection of salads that sound like Ava Gene’s gone Fertile Crescent, with options like celery and pickled rhubarb and sprouted barley/carrots/dates. Handmade couscous and tagines will appear as nightly “feasts” serving three or four. Vegetables and grains will also star in Antene’s cakes, soft-serve and baklavas (currently in the works: buckwheat angel food cake frosted with beets and strawberries). Cocktails will also be integrated into the kitchen, sharing ideas and ingredients with the menu.
McFadden still resides as executive chef/partner at Duane Sorenson’s Ava Gene’s and Roman Candle. Tusk, however, is the first project for his new restaurant group, Submarine Hospitality, with Luke Dirks, a New Yorker who helped steer a number of popular West Village eat spots. “I’m not putting on an apron,” says McFadden. “This is Sam’s first opportunity to step out on his own. I’ll be his BFF, helping steer the look, the feel, the direction. What unites us? We’re all in love with hospitality, healthy ingredients, youth culture, and Middle East food. That combination is missing in Portland.”