Best Restaurants 2016: Mideast Remix

Portland Monthly’s Rising Star Restaurant of 2016: Tusk

With a beautiful room and beautiful food, a Mideast-meets-Portland restaurant turns heads with the most unlikely of stars: salads.

By Karen Brooks October 10, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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A spread of olives, seasonal salads, and rose-petal-covered feta and flax crackers at Tusk

A friend who lives for cats and indie rock buttonholed me recently. She had found the perfect food date, at last: “I l-o-v-e-d Tusk. It feels like the Hollywood Hills, but I wore the crap I was hiking in. I could live in that room.”

Point of story: Tusk blasted into Portland in August like a shot of vitamin D, a breezy, glass-walled, feel-good-rocking California dream even a shaggy-sweatered Portlander could embrace. Flavors are serious, but Tusk has come to play. The mode is spiritually Middle Eastern, freethinking in form, and deep in Oregon farm connections. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are the stars. Yes, we’re eating groovy salads, for dinner: mandolined celery—celery!—chunked with almonds, apricots, two kinds of juicy-tart grapes, delicate feta, and the full-on scream of caraway seeds.

Pink rules. The rosy hue is everywhere, even in the cocktails. Hanging over the bar, the restaurant’s muse says it all: a Speedo-clad Keith Richards, back-floating in a pool. 

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Clockwise from left: Tusk's yogurty Eastern Maid cocktail; meat skewers, hummus, and flat bread; chef Sam Smith (at right)

Tusk’s menu is the love-child cuisine of co-owners Joshua McFadden, who made a national name as Ava Gene’s vegetable-whispering chef, and Sam Smith, once of Philly’s modern Israeli game changer, Zahav. They met in 2011 flipping burgers at Spirit of ’77, scheming their next move. In 2012, McFadden recruited Smith to Ava Gene’s, where they reinvented salads as textural adventures. With Tusk, Smith drives the kitchen, with McFadden and front-of-house partner Luke Dirks as sounding boards.

The kitchen’s daily-changing salads, lamb tartares, and rose-petaled feta plates reveal the antidote to Portland’s usual blood sausage/mac and cheese gout aesthetic: healthy, visual, super-fresh, and super-local. Hummus is shockingly light, like garbanzo whipped cream. Oven-fresh whole-grain pita tastes like the missing link between buttered wheat toast and pizza char. Pig? It’s relegated to a mere three inches of a hibachi skewer. At Tusk, meat is but a nibble, a garnish. 

Smith is exciting, his thinking modern but free of deconstructions and foams, powered by shockwaves of whole spices. Nostrils flare. Chakras open upon impact. But his menu is still unfolding. So far, the meat skewers are weak and desserts are a bust, seemingly from another restaurant altogether. Today’s favorites may disappear soon—the nature and the beast of intense seasonality.

Can Tusk keep the vibe rolling? It could take six months to form a full picture of the kitchen here. Winter is coming. I asked Smith on the phone recently, and he seemed injured even at the suggestion. “I think winter is so easy,” he insists. “It’s just a different season.” Somehow, I think he’s got this.

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