With Tusk opening this Monday, August 22, Eater caught up with executive chef Sam Smith to discuss the menu (see below). Smith helped open Zahav, the restaurant that defines Israeli cuisine in the United States, and conquered palates as the chef de cuisine at Ava Gene's, where he worked beneath executive chef Joshua McFadden and put his stamp on the restaurant's vegetable dishes. Now at Tusk, backed by McFadden's new restaurant group, Submarine Hospitality, Smith says he'll combine his love for Middle Eastern flavors with an intimate approach to working with farmers.
"I had a typical suburban upbringing," says Smith, "so the Middle Eastern flavors and style of dining at Zahav were new and surprising. I fell in love with the cuisine and its dining culture. When you see people sitting around a table in a dialogue with both each other and with the food, you know they're having fun."
"I'm not technique-heavy," he says. "Josh and I think our cooking is about holding sourcing and traceability as the highest thing. The produce we're working with is some of the very best in the nation."
Besides working with Oregon's established farmers, Smith says he's working with a new breed of small farmer—one excited to collaborate especially closely with chefs. "With so much feedback on all sides, we're able to grow together, to test out new farming techniques and new varieties of produce and get it to the consumer."
At Tusk, this will come through in dishes like a tomato and pluot salad, with shiso, pistachios, and green peppercorns. "It's not necessarily Middle Eastern," says Smith, "but when served with house-made, one-hundred-percent whole grain flatbread and lamb skewers, it makes sense."
I want Tusk to be known as a Portland restaurant.
Rather than a Middle Eastern-influenced restaurant, Smith says he wants Tusk to be known as a Portland restaurant. But he acknowledges that no matter how much you plan, a restaurant will always take on its own life. The one thing he really wants to offer is a menu that diners won't find challenging.
"We aren't using obscure language on the menus, and no matter how you order off the menu, you can't order wrong. The dishes are fluid, and if you feel like ordering another vegetable dish after Chinook salmon, there's no reason not to."
Backed by a dream team of supporting staff, Smith will open Tusk for dinner nightly starting this Monday. Late night will be offered Monday through Saturday, running from 10 p.m. to midnight, with some dishes exclusive to the late-night menu. When asked how much influence McFadden had on the food at Tusk, Smith says McFadden is hands-off. "At Ava Gene's, Josh saw his vision come to fruition. Now it's time for mine."
Here's the latest sample menu from Tusk (note some dishes are still evolving):