At this Portland eatery, California cuisine meets the flavors of the Mediterranean
Chef Sam Smith takes us behind the scenes of Tusk, named one of Food & Wine's restaurants of the year.
A handful of blocks from the east bank of Portland’s Willamette River, tucked in along a semi-residential street, you’ll find a perennially bright spot among the shifting Pacific Northwest clouds. Tusk, named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Restaurants of the Year, serves up locally sourced dishes inspired by the flavors of Israel and the surrounding Mediterranean area.
The menu at Tusk – the name comes from the Fleetwood Mac album – is 100% ingredient driven and changes every day depending on what’s available that morning. But you will always find a few staples like Tusk's hummus served with house made flatbread. It was recently accompanied by calcot onions, chickpeas, hazelnuts and Aleppo peppers. The dishes are very vegetable-forward, and there are a lot of colorful salads, but it’s not a vegetarian restaurant. You’ll find plenty of meat dishes too, including kibbe naya, a Levantine dish that the chef makes with green wheat and raw lamb, skewers of grilled meat or potatoes and lamb shoulder stew.
Executive Chef Sam Smith is not the man you might imagine behind this array of brightly colored plates drowning in organic olive oil (sourced exclusively from the Katz Farm in Northern California and a close friend’s family olive farm near Marrakesh). The tall, pale-skinned, baseball-cap wearing Smith got an English Literature degree before he even considered cooking as a career. But a childhood that included birthday dinners at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and the flavors of the Mediterranean wafting across the lawn from the neighbors gave the former Zahav sous chef a good foundation in food.
“My next-door neighbors were Persian. Growing up I spent a ton of time in their home, eating, drinking and hanging out,” Smith told From the Grapevine. An internship at Oliveto, a popular Italian restaurant in Oakland frequented by his parents, sealed the deal.
He went to culinary school at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia and then met James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov when he was still at Marigold Kitchen. “Michael was doing something at the time that no one else was doing and I really wanted to work with him,” said Smith.
Before Zahav opened, Solomonov took the team – which included Smith and Wesley Johnson, now chef de cuisine at Tusk – on a two-week tasting trip to Israel. They stayed with family members and learned how to make old family recipes eating up to five meals per day.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever gone on a serious eating extravaganza, when you wake up in the morning and you’re still full from the night before, and then you have three breakfasts lined up in a row. It’s exhausting, but also really inspiring,” recalled Smith.
Among their many memorable meals, he included learning to cook a Yemenite soup at the home of the Zahav building contractor’s mother. “We ate like five bowls of soup. She kept serving it to us until we were about to burst.” The manager’s mother introduced them to her homemade hot sauces, one with fresh Serrano chilies, parsley and cilantro – and another with dried red chilies, garlic and cumin.
“It was really cool seeing how different parts of the country were. You could just take a car and half a day later be experiencing a completely different kind of food.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Smith is in charge of his own kitchen, creating new dishes from a plethora of flavors inspired by the whole Mediterranean region, and showing his guests the same hospitality he experienced in Israel.
“Because I’m not attached to the idea of recreating traditional dishes, it gives me a lot of creative liberty. I’ll look to see what a farmer brings us and then I’ll see how I want to prepare it and how I can make that my own. Sometimes the end result is a dish that has nothing to do with tradition at all but I’ll be using some of the flavors,” said Smith.
One of those flavors comes from the spice mix za’atar, sprinkled often and generously, especially on French fries. They recently introduced a late night menu featuring the Young Turk (a flatbread sandwich with herb tahini, pickles, onions, vegetables, romaine and your choice of meat, fish or halloumi) and there’s brunch on Saturday and Sunday – think sesame halvah babkah, gooey pistachio butter cake and rice porridge with curry, chicken, ginger and egg.
“One thing that Michael really taught me is that Israeli cuisine is not one thing. It’s people who have come from all over the world to live there. It’s an expression of so many different cultures and so many different points of view.”
Finding it too hard to choose? You can take the Magic Carpet Ride – a chef’s choice of daily dishes served as sharing plates. The first round may have 10 plates, and it continues on from there. “The Magic Carpet Ride best embodies the kind of soul and feeling that we’re going for in the restaurant – this feeling of over-abundance. That was something I took away more than anything else, when you go in to somebody’s home and they take really good care of you and you’re definitely going to be fed past the point of being full,” Smith told us.
If all of that that doesn’t work up a thirst, the menu of signature cocktails will. There’s the Pink Ferrari with El Massaya arak, grapefruit and sumac salt, the Eastern Maid with Beefeater gin, hazelnut, lemon, celery seed, rose water and yogurt or the Tusk Old Fashioned, which is, frankly, anything but old-fashioned: Banks 5-Island rum, Aria gin, cascara chicory tea, bitters and cane.
In her review of Tusk, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Nilou Motamed said, “ Israeli cuisine is having a serious moment right now, and Sam Smith approaches it with an outsider's perspective.”
When he’s not cooking at Tusk, Smith likes to make all varieties of pancakes. Sometimes it’s big, fluffy diner-style pancakes; other times he whips up a batch with one of the local grains they’re using at Tusk. “I’ll take some of those flours, like spelt or hard red wheat or this new variety called Edison wheat. Pancakes are a great way to experiment with all of those grains.”
As Tusk approaches its first anniversary in August, there has been a ton of press and recognition for the restaurant. Smith and his business partners are already thinking about a fast casual spinoff, with a menu inspired by Israel and Morocco. But the really rewarding thing has been figuring out ways to use all the attention to give back to the community. If you follow Tusk on Instagram (fair warning: you may start drooling), you’ll notice a portion of the proceeds from various dishes or cocktails goes to benefit local charities.
“I’ve realized we’re really in a position to affect positive change, locally and even beyond that. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have so much success, and one thing that’s been most satisfying to me has been finding ways to give back,” Smith said.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:
Related Topics: Chefs & Restaurants