Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Golda Meir, all came together in Philadelphia in 2008.
The opening of Zahav spurred stodgy Middle Eastern food forward into the new millennium, morphed into the now-settled niche termed "modern Israeli" cuisine. Zahav chef Michael Solomonov's cooking made eating vegetables cool even for carnivores, especially with his "salatim" of many small, exuberantly seasoned vegetable dishes among other meat-free offerings. It's proved enduring; Solomonov's book Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking received the 2016 James Beard Award.
Naturally, Zahav has spawned all sorts of imitators. Which takes us to Tusk, the bright-white, stylish spot on East Burnside Street that opened in August. The advance press on Tusk—which seemed to take forever to open—christened it the "most anticipated" restaurant of 2016. Nominally helmed by former Ava Gene's chef Joshua McFadden, Tusk has been touted as Portland's answer to Zahav, and no one in the Tusk camp has resisted that comparison. In fact, two of the key kitchen hands at Tusk, chefs Sam Smith and Wesley Johnson, spent years working with Solomonov. Comparisons were inevitable, high expectations understandable.
Why, then, has Tusk been such a disappointment so far?
It's not for lack of good looks, even if the outsized photograph of Keith Richards floating on his back in a swimming pool is a design flourish we could all do without. Neither is it the service, which has proved to be polished and professional.
No, the problems here rest squarely on bad execution and an unambitious menu, which is, in the main, a senselessly homogenous list of uninspired but pretty salads. I thought this might be limited to Tusk's opening few weeks, but the menu's fundamental structure and contents have remained the same.
Among the "small" items, the feta and haloumi starters ($8 and $10, respectively) feature small, though flavorful, chunks of cheese gratuitously buried under a shower of verdure and flower petals.
The main section of the menu ("fruits, vegetables, grains") is nothing but salads. Over the course of multiple visits, I've tried them all, most more than once. There was nothing offensive here, but nothing revelatory either. The underlying problem is that the kitchen has chosen to eschew the benefits of fire and assertive seasonings. With no cooking, components such as corn kernels are more starchy and less sweet, and the abundant raw vegetables are singularly crunchy without any contrasting textures for balance.
The "herb" dish combined a lot of leaves on a plate without much more. Barely softened "green wheat" can't escape jaw-wearying monotony even with a changing cast of "aggressively seasonal" supporting ingredients. The Middle East offers more than its fair share of pungent flavors, some of which are even mentioned on the menu. I can't figure out why the Tusk crew won't let them out to play.
As part of a more comprehensive menu, a list of six or seven salads in two sizes ($9/$14) might be a pretty good idea, as it is at Zahav. But there is virtually nothing else of substance to order at Tusk. There are four skewers of meat and fish, but they are portioned parsimoniously and feel like an afterthought. Early offerings included a chicken skewer ($6) overcooked to bone-dry stringiness, and an albacore iteration ($7) likewise cooked to Chicken of the Sea doneness.
Quality has improved over time. More recently, a ground beef and lamb skewer arrived well-browned outside, a beautiful reddish midrare within, and fully flavored from a paste of cumin, garlic and chili. Portents, perhaps, of good things to come.
Besides the skewers, the lamb tartare ($14) is a misrepresentation of a meat dish. The lamb—measurable in grams—is dwarfed by a relative abundance of diced root vegetable (kohlrabi on one visit, trendy celtuce on another), a spill of yogurt, vegetable chips and three tiny lettuce leaf cups that fill out the small serving bowl in which the dish arrives. It's photogenic, if nothing else.
Lauded pastry chef Nora Antene's desserts also have yet to find their footing, perhaps due a lack of familiarity with Middle Eastern ingredients. Pistachio pudding has been bland, and cakes relying on vegetables (initially eggplant, currently delicata squash) unremarkable. Antene has also had difficulty mastering the quirks of finicky phyllo dough.
In short, Tusk has been a disappointment because it's no Zahav. Not hardly. If Zahav is a boisterous playground of vegetarian tastes and textures, Tusk has gone straight back to study hall. Where Zahav is worthy of unstinting praise for offering an innovative take on an ancient cuisine, Tusk is superficial modernity, food built to look pretty on Instagram.
EAT: Tusk, 2448 E Burnside St., 503-894-8082, tuskpdx.com. 5 pm-midnight Monday-Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday, 10 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.