Tusk is the restaurant embodiment of several women I follow on Instagram (they mostly live in New York) who bring me simultaneous feelings of aspiration and stomach-twisting jealousy.
Tusk—named after a goddamn awesome, but kinda obscure Fleetwood Mac album—is the girl whose house is always immaculate and original, with details that never feel forced. Of course Tusk has the pink-edged variegated rubber plant I’ve coveted for months. The walls and tables are white, with pops of teal and pink accessories. Over the bar hangs a massive black-and-white print of a Speedo-wearing Keith Richards lazily floating in a pool. Tusk is that girl who loves dessert, but still looks banging in a crop top. I don’t know if I want to be her friend or punch her.
Though my visits over the last several weeks—Tusk will hit its three-month mark at the end of November—my feelings have oscillated from wanting to reject Tusk because it’s too cool, to having the best brunch with a girlfriend I’ve had in a long time, to finally tucking into the corner seat at the bar and dining alone under the watchful groin of Mr. Richards, reading Shrill by Lindy West and getting my cocchi digestif comped by the female bartender as a present for me on my solo lady date.
Tusk was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year, from Ava Gene’s executive chef Josh McFadden’s new Submarine Hospitality group, featuring the work of Sam Smith (former chef de cuisine at Ava Gene’s and Zahav, Philly’s temple of modern Middle Eastern cooking), and Wesley Johnson (Café Castagna and Zahav). Reviews came early and mixed: Within weeks of opening, Willamette Week’s middle-aged guy critic panned it, and Portland Monthly’s middle-aged lady critic named it a “rising star.”
Though most of the minds behind Tusk are male (save dessert chef Nora Antene), Tusk has feminine vibes—a sensibility that veers toward understatement, ample use of edible flowers and tempered indulgence. While nominally Middle Eastern—there is za’atar and flatbread—don’t expect a mezza platter. Dinner, in particular, is a paean to Oregon vegetables, and salads take the spot of honor in the center of the menu. You’ll get your best tour with the $45-per-person chef’s choice “magic carpet ride,” but I had more fun picking and choosing myself.
You’ll be remiss to not start with a cocktails and a large order of the impossibly creamy hummus and whole wheat flatbread ($14). All the cocktails we tried were winners, but the Eastern Maid ($12) has become Tusk’s early signature, a pleasing citrusy-tart concoction that’s so satisfying to look at, with vodka, rose water, lemon turned a milky white by an infusion of yogurt, and given a pop of petals and a cucumber on top.
Salads are an ever-rotating wonder of texture and flavor. Recent standouts include the foraged meatiness of chanterelles over cool thin-sliced pears, with fermented chiles, crispy rice, and peanuts for entertainment ($9/$16), and a green wheat bowl with pluots, fenugreek, cashews, and fresh sheep cheese ($9/$15), a swirl of sweet, chew, and crunch, punctuated by creamy and salty dollops of dairy. As winter unfolds, I hope to see some roasted or braised elements to add complexity and warmth to the inevitable root vegetables.
If you’re a dedicated omnivore with a good-sized appetite, dinner can be slightly frustrating, since there’s very little meat and not many filling plates. Skewers are small and need some help—overdone salmon and unremarkable chicken sidle up to the much better cumin and hot pepper-spiked ground lamb and beef meatball. If you’re hungry, choose the curry chicken with fried bread ($12); the satisfying crispy outside of the bread giving way to a chewy inside, supporting a dollop of a stew-like yellow curry of chicken thigh is homey and a perfect pairing to a salad.
The issue of near parsimony at dinner makes brunch at Tusk all the more revelatory. On weekends from 10 am to 2 pm, the kitchen puts out dishes at prices, flavors, and heartiness that the night crew could learn a thing or two from. The hummus makes an appearance, this time with an egg that could teach a graduate class in how to be medium boiled—just enough runny yolk to matter.
I haven’t fully signed on to Antene’s mostly vegetable-based desserts, which have been made of eggplant, sunchoke, and squash as of late, but ordering a babka and other small sweets to share is the right move in the morning. Heart coffee is endlessly refilled, and after a starter, each person can easily fill up on one dish. The Cypriot plate ($14) is a serious undertaking—thick, salty grilled halloumi cheese, a lamb skewer, fried eggs, with pickled peppers and an herb salad. A bowl of barley with roasted vegetables, avocado, preserved lemon, dukka, and another perfect egg ($14) blends the love of health and vegetables so apparent at dinner with depth of flavor that makes those ingredients shine.
More than any other restaurant of late, I’ve enjoyed just being at Tusk. Service is welcoming, and the brunch, drinks and gorgeous space are spot on. Turns out that social media-cool chick is pretty chill in real life. Once you get to know her, she isn’t perfect—and that makes her even more relatable.
Mon-Fri 5 pm to midnight; Sat 10 am to 2 pm and 5 pm to midnight; Sun 10 am to 2 pm and 5 pm to 10 pm. Reservations accepted.