Tusk is the first restaurant opened by Joshua McFadden and Luke Dirks’s newly minted Submarine Hospitality Group (Ava Gene’s), and it opened the doors with big expectations both from Portlanders and fans around the nation in August 2016. The team was loaded with talent, including two chefs who had helped to open Philadelphia’s acclaimed Israeli- and Middle Eastern-inspired Zahav, Sam Smith and his right-hand man, Wesley Johnson. With Smith taking the reins as Tusk’s executive chef, this prompted instant comparisons.
How’d Tusk handle the pressure?
“We were a restaurant that for better or worse had a lot of hype,” Dirks tells Eater. “We’re not complaining, but it’s a loaded situation, and from a service perspective, it was equally challenging and exciting.”
Indeed, the first restaurant reviews grappled with how to define Tusk, with PoMo’s Karen Brooks naming it one of two Rising Star Restaurants in 2016, in part, for its approach to food, which she described as “spiritually Middle Eastern, freethinking in form.”
Smith and Dirks confirm an early diner complaint was the lack of meat on the menu, something a WWeek restaurant review took issue with. Tusk offered fish and meat skewers, a lamb tartare, and a few other meaty items, but the early menus mostly focused on local fruits and vegetables, without a hefty steak or burger in sight.
“Being a restaurant is about sticking to your guns while listening to feedback,” Smith says.
In response, Smith added a few more meat dishes, and the front-of-house staff began to provide added help navigating the menus with this in mind. The tweaks worked. Food & Wine Magazine named Tusk one of 10 Restaurants of the Year; Bon Appétit designated Tusk one of 50 finalists for Best New Restaurants of America 2017; and just this week, PoMo called Tusk the best brunch in Portland.
Smith says, “One of the biggest compliments is from guests who say, ‘I don’t usually eat this many vegetables, but whoa, I just ate a ton of vegetables and feel really good.’ We hear that at least two times a week.”
Why is the way Smith works with vegetables and fruits standing out? “We’re not a specific cuisine,” says Smith. “We’re an approach.”
The chef uses a lot of sumac — his “culinary crutch” — and cumin, and he rips through so much produce that Tusk has earned a nickname among some local farmers: the vegetable farmer’s blackhole.
Like sister-restaurant Ava Gene’s, Tusk likes to experiment with new ways of working with farms. Smith gives a lot of credit to Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network, who he says fills an important gap in communication between farmers and restaurants. As a result of this communication, “farmers are able to provide exactly what we want, and it tastes better than ever,” says Smith.
And the rewards return to farmers, who gain new clients. Tusk uses huge quantities of vegetables (Smith says it really clicked when he ordered 80 pounds of cauliflower, planning to use it in one week, and it disappeared in one night).
“Middle Eastern cuisine has a ton of influences,” Smith says. “It’s been so much to so many people. I wanted to be considered a Portland restaurant: local. I want Tusk to be a restaurant that only exists in Portland.”
So instead of steak, what is there to look forward to at Tusk? “Tomatoes are for sure best the first week in September,” Smith says, “and peppers and eggplants and other nightshades in September and October.”
Dirks also says Submarine Hospitality is developing a new restaurant, which he describes as a bit of a Tusk spin-off inspired by the Israeli heritage of his wife, Sivan Dirks. It doesn’t have a name yet, but Dirks says the idea actually predates Tusk. Smith will be the chef; the service will be fast-casual; it’ll have a lower price point; and potential dishes include falafel and shawarma.
“My wife will be very happy,” says Dirks.