Restaurant Review

From Za’atar to Berries, Tusk Cracks Open Portland’s Best Brunch

And that pistachio gooey butter cake? Swoon.

By Karen Brooks August 14, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Brunch at Tusk, from not-so-humble yogurt to flatbread with dukka, baked eggs with halloumi, and the LaMama  Moroccan feast

Who cares about yogurt, anyway? Apparently, Tusk does.

At first glance, not even the Baby Driver soundtrack could make anyone gun it for this dish, which lives at the very end of Tusk’s weekend-only brunch menu. After all, it’s just called “YOGURT.” But whatever it takes, get there. Order it.

The whole thing (and it is a thing) looks like gym-ripped Rice Krispies exploding out of a whipped cream cloud. The dish hides a carpet of apricot preserves beneath decadent Ellenos Greek yogurt, a brand worshipped like Kurt Cobain in its hometown of Seattle. Crackle comes from whatever grains the house is puffing—perhaps wild rice, sorghum, and farro—three kinds at a time, each a different shape and size, squiggles to pebbles. Dates provide a fervid, sticky sweetness. The crowning touch: a pelting of orange and blue flower petals. In a spoon’s swoop, Tusk wipes out an entire family tree of pro forma yogurt parfaits. As a song from house muse Fleetwood Mac goes: “I’m never going back again.”

As it turns out, everything gets the YOGURT treatment at Tusk. Every dish is different, yet the approach is the same: fresh, light, eat-with-your-eyes food delivered with Middle Eastern spice and joie de vivre, plus a slavish “farmers are the new bands” credo. Last fall, Tusk quickly grabbed Portland Monthly’s “Rising Star Restaurant 2016” tag. At the time, dinner was the only option. But brunch followed, gambling on fresh ideas while the masses kept lining up for mirage-size plates of chicken and waffles across the street at Screen Door. This summer, Tusk’s weekend mornings found their footing as the city’s most compelling brunch, backed by a tight crew of servers, choice seats (indoors or out), and good Heart coffee.

The menu cracks open a highly appealing new way to brunch. It taps our urge to share meals, eat beautiful salads for breakfast, and swoop up spicy eggs with steam-puffing flatbread. Owner Joshua McFadden and chef Sam Smith, vegetable lovers to the core, care about the kind of details rarely appreciated in the blurry, hangover hours: the color of plates, the beauty of a handmade mug.

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Adventurous pastry chef Nora Antene, master of the pistachio gooey butter cake

The “LaMama Moroccan Breakfast” best expresses this spirit in a parade of saucers: fruit, cracked olives, dates, coffee-scented eggs, tangy labneh cheese, and terrific house-made nut butter for the table. It’s simple and perfect (minus the “crispy bread” oily enough to service your car). The kitchen’s ingredient-love even runs through the ideas that need work. A Dutch baby adds beautiful berries but misses the crêpe-y, popover texture. Meanwhile, the “Grain Bowl” is denser than a mule, with enough sprouted barley to humiliate the Oregon Country Fair. My hard-core veg friends loved it.

But what cinched the brunch deal for me? The baking. Promising young pastry chef Nora Antene, a Le Pigeon alum, seemed lost in Tusk’s early months, searching for her voice and putting ingredients where they didn’t belong—like heirloom popcorn in baklava. But now, Antene has her hands on some of Tusk’s best moments: her za’atar biscuits vie for Portland’s best, falling somewhere between sumac-zinged buttermilk beauts and a rich cream scone. She makes flax seed crackers as fragile as butterfly wings. And here’s an ingenious idea: adding spelt and pounding pistachios into classic “Gooey Butter Cake” while still nailing the treat’s requisite oddball texture—part yeasty brioche, part sweet squoosh. In short: she owns this St. Louis coffee cake icon.

Who hires a pastry chef who bothers to make nigella seed candy to sprinkle on a bowl called YOGURT?

Apparently, Tusk does.

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