One of my close friends is vegan. I’m not. In any other city, we may have had to bid one another adieu as restaurant dining companions, but Portland makes it pretty easy to find plant-based foods outside your home kitchen. Yet even here, it can sometimes feel like a challenge to find vegan foods that feel celebratory rather than utilitarian. Grain bowls are great, but sometimes, you just want to be wowed.
In that spirit, on one of the last warm afternoons of summer, my vegan friend and I snagged the corner table on Tusk’s planter-lined outdoor patio by showing up at exactly 5 p.m., just as they were unlocking the doors. Make sure your smartphone lens is squeaky-clean before you make your reservation here, because this is a restaurant made for Instagram. Bright white tables, two full walls of windows, handmade ceramics and edible flowers deployed with the verve and generosity of an impressionist painter mean you can’t take a bad picture in this dining room.
The wine list is heavy on currently hip regions and styles — think Riesling, the Jura and a whole section titled “non-traditional.” “We tend to lean a little towards lighter style reds and heavier whites, because they work with a broad spectrum of flavors,” says Tony Contreras, Tusk’s bar manager. “We don’t have a lot of strongly tannic, overbearing wines. We’re not a Cab-and-slab restaurant. Ninety percent of what you’re eating at Tusk is vegetables in one form or another.”
A snappy Alsatian blend was a nice companion to the vegetarian mezza, including airy flaxseed crackers, warmed olives and a satisfyingly dense wheat pita served with deeply creamy hummus. Three vegetable salads brought some of Tusk’s signature garden-gate vibrancy to the table: roasted beets with plums, broccoli with crispy puffed cereals and carrots with pistachios and herbs. Each followed the proven vegetable+herb+crunchy+creamy formula honed at sister restaurant Ava Gene’s — why mess with what works? A side order of French fries were startlingly good, crispy and aggressively salted, and served with a gently spicy dip.
Faced with a momentary meatless panic, I also snuck in an order of lamb kibbe naya, a raw lamb dish served with freekeh (a kind of parched green wheat with a smoky flavor), a swoop of bright-yellow turmeric yogurt, vegetable chips and a variety of crunchy bits for scooping. The textural experience — crisp lettuce, soft lamb, chewy freekeh — was delightful, but oddly, the vegetable dishes actually offered more richness and intensity of flavor.
Why do the vegetables taste so good at Tusk? It’s because they pick their farmers carefully, and then trust them enough to buy whatever crop they say is at its peak. That means menu items rotate constantly, including the bar menu. Contreras says Tusk has served at least 100 different cocktails since it opened its doors in August 2016, and some only remain on the menu for a few days.
One item on the bar menu that has stuck around is the rotating Generous Pour cocktail, a program shared with Ava Gene’s. Each month, Tusk donates $1 for each Generous Pour served. When we visited, it was a reposado tequila and watermelon cocktail benefiting victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Tusk’s kitchen is firing on all cylinders, its style practically defines Portland’s current moment, and the space has the magical ability to make you feel as if you stepped off East Burnside and straight into Los Angeles (well, even more so than the rest of the new things on Burnside). But for me, what Tusk does better than any other Portland restaurant is make being vegan seem like a party.