It took me a long time to figure out Tusk. Like others, I got hung up on comparisons to familiar Mediterranean fare, had trouble navigating a menu with so little meat and found the flavors too subtle in places where I wanted some pop. I'd derided it as Instagram food; more pretty than tasty, seemingly composed for the feed instead of feeding.
I was wrong.
Yes, the gorgeous white-on-white room on East Burnside Street has made some changes to the broad Middle Eastern menu, adding more options for the insistently carnivorous and punching up the flavor on dishes like the the sprouted barley, which on our most recent visit benefited from brightening nectarines and spicy Aleppo that replaced the flat flavors of carrots and argan oil. Also, the tasty new classic hummus has tahini and cumin, whereas the old version tried to fly by with fancy olive oil. And, sure, the pita is now served hot out of the oven and puffy, whereas it was previously flat and cold.
But the biggest difference between Tusk now and a year ago isn't any of the tweaks, it's the city around it. Tusk's light, veggie-focused menu has proven wildly influential, with its plates that blend fresh fruit, squash, nuts and earthy Mediterranean spices spreading like wildfire. The second restaurant from Ava Gene's Joshua McFadden is that rare restaurant that bends tastemakers to its will. We should have known from the name: Like the Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk was a hotly anticipated offering that met polarizing opinions upon release, before its charms finally emerged.
I tend to order the way I do at other Mediterranean restaurants, ordering the mezza, hummus and dukkah dipping sauce, followed by a few vegetable dishes and one larger protein plate. But I'm increasingly convinced the way to go is to order the $50 omakase-style chef's tasting menu, now called the "Deluxe Edition." The best item I've had, a crazy craveable green sauce called tehina, is a sesame paste which on our visit was herbed with sesame, parsley, cilantro, basil and mint.
Just over a year in, Tusk has earned the right to be itself by demonstrating a clear vision and an ability to change the conversation. If it continues to innovate and evolve, there's no telling what it could become.
Pro Tip: It's really, really difficult to get a table at Tusk. If you haven't made a reservation, and there's not a huge snowstorm, you should be prepared to find a bar and wait it out. Holman's on Southeast 28th Avenue is a friendly dive with a legendary patio, and the cart pod at Southeast 28th Avenue and Ankeny Street is one big patio with good, cheap beer. Once you get in the door, order the mezza platter ($16 small, $27 large) while you look over the rest of the menu.