review by Bret Schulte
Tusk & Trotter takes risks, and it wants you to take risks, too – even if you don’t realize you’re taking them!
I arrived for lunch on a recent Monday, took in the cool country French Bohemian style (see the new Fayetteville Arsaga’s for another interpretation) and absorbed the menu.
Tusk & Trotter on the Bentonville square gets France. We Americans think we know meat, but really we know hamburgers and steaks and chicken that’s processed at the pace of plastic spoons. Good for us. France is a little more, shall we say, worldly. They know gourmet meat. They know how it’s cured and how it works with sauce and with vegetables. They know goat and lamb and pork and rabbit. And the French are quite familiar with all their little bits and pieces, too.
Tusk & Trotter celebrates the world of meat while also tugging on the apron strings of the Ozarks – its peasant farmer roots of yore and the burgeoning slow-growth organic farmers of today. A chalkboard hanging on the wall lists the dozen or so Arkansas farms that supply Tusk & Trotter. It’s downright European, it’s so local. Much of the meat is cured in house. And it’s paired with side dishes that are downhome or downright artisanal, such as frites (you’ll recognize them as French fries) that are cooked in truffle oil, or glazed in a medley of seasonings that include rosemary and thyme.
The menu is a gorgeous celebration of local food and global influence. For example, there’s the “Ozarkuban,” a sandwich that should be sanctioned for its socialist distribution of house-cured pork jowl and smoked pork loin, with remoulade and BBQ sauce. And there’s a duck Pastrami Tartine! And check out the bison burger called Where the Buffalo Roam, as well as a “Teeree” burger made of lamb, and a Charcuterie burger – are these even real words? – which is a house made sausage patty coupled with duck pate and grape cheese.
Paris is looking pretty boring about now, right? Did I mention there’s a pretty good art museum nearby?
In any case, my lunch buddy and I were impressed. We ogled the meat. We watched each other ogling the meat. Finally, Karen spoke.
“They’re really, really into meat.”
Yes. And I was really, really into Tusk & Trotter. “I can tell you what I’m not going to get,” she said, “the veggie burger.” This is why you have lunch with Karen.
The starters were more interesting and more varied than entire menus I’ve seen at other restaurants. Plus, Karen had discovered the house-infused cocktails and was audibly weighing the pros and cons of what those would mean for the rest of her workday. She finally decided against, but only after being turned off by Bloody Marys that came in three distinct flavors: Pickle, Bacon and Pizza.
At least she didn’t lose her appetite.
Our waitress suggested Risotto balls, which are deep friend with sausage and hamburger, for a starter. Normally I would shout YES! But I was distracted by a few other possibilities. One was the Offal – duck and lamb liver, heart and kidney mouse with pickled veggies, which looked about as appealing as a pickle-flavored Bloody Mary. Another was pork belly cheese stix – literally BBQ pork bellies on focaccia with mozzarella and pesto – and a mysterious dish called Ozark Mountain Oysters, described as “lamb fries, corn casserole and remoulade.”
I had a vision of a lamb being shoved through a potato grater into a pile of juicy little meat fries. Delicious. I announced we’d have the pork belly cheese stix and the Ozark Mountain Oysters. The waitress nodded with an air of satisfaction and left.
Then I looked up at Karen and I saw her wide-open eyeballs.
“Wait,” I said. “Did I just order testicles?”
She looked at me like she was embarrassed on my behalf. “Yes. I think so,” she said. I took that in. Karen interjected: “I’m fine eating it. When in Rome …”
Yes, but we were in Bentonville. Lamb testicles might feel a tad more sophisticated with a side of centuries of art, architecture, religion, and civics. But, OK, I decided if Bentonville eats lamb testes, then I’m sure it’ll feel like just Rome. Or Paris. Or, I’ll feel like just another Arkie eating animal testicles and slurping on a Coke – which I was.
The starters arrived swiftly. I can report that the testicles were not ball shaped. They were sliced and fried and served over a bit of corn casserole. The flavor though was dominated by the remoulade, which was strangely citrusy. Karen said it was an odd flavor to combine with corn casserole and give the name Ozark.
“When I think Ozark, I just don’t think citrus. It’s not from this region.”
I agreed. She said she was reminded of crab cakes, and after a few more bites, we realized why. The remoulade tasted like tartar sauce. I picked the testicles apart from the sauce and tried them independently. Salty! They were good – a little gamy but with good texture and nice breading. The flavor was there, but obscured.
Karen preferred the pork belly stix. The focaccia was toasted and good, with bits of pork belly scattered across the top with mozzarella and pesto. I enjoyed them, too. Good basil and balsamic vinaigrette flavor, but I found it a little too bready. I put more “oysters” in my mouth. Karen, at least not audibly, did not judge. That’s reason No. 2 to have lunch with Karen.
As long as we were dining on obscure animal parts, we thought we’d order an in-between dish before entrees: the Crispy Pig Ear Salad. That’s a mix of greens, pecans, feta and fried pig ears.
Maybe, I figured, you get a medal or something for ordering both. No such luck, but we did get a salad that I’ll never forget. I was hoping for a salad that looked something like a face. Sadly, no. The ears were not even shaped like ears – much like the testes weren’t round – but instead looked like a pile of French onions atop the greens. Fried, but with some flavor. The taste was akin to pork skins, real classy pork skins. It was interesting, but the flavor of the pig ears was so inconsequential that the whole thing felt like a gimmick. On the other hand, the salad boasted some of the best feta cheese around.
For entrees, we ordered the bison burger and the Duck Pastrami Tartine. By our count that meant we would have eaten pork (bellies), lamb (testes), pork (ears), bison, and duck. That’s not bad for an hour and a half.
The entrees took a long time – perhaps because the restaurant staff had by this time figured out I was reviewing the place – confronted me about it – and was making sure everything was perfect. And it might have been, except that the food took so long to arrive.
When the entrees did appear, we were happy with what we saw. The presentation was professional but not so artistic you wanted to put them on a shelf. Unfortunately, the duck pastrami, served as an open sandwich with radicchio kraut and remoulade, was a bit bland for our taste. It lacked the pepper and spice normally associated with the meat. Putting a positive spin on the sandwich, Karen said the mild radicchio kraut was a good choice because of the duck’s delicate flavor. Anything more might overpower it.
On the other hand, the bison burger was exquisite – perhaps the best bison burger we’ve ever had. I ordered it with a bit of wariness – most bison burger is dry and without much flavor. I had asked the waitress to cook it medium rare for that reason, but she assured me the chef knew how to cook it medium with great results. She was right. The burger was juicy and flavorful – complemented with excellent flavor from the Swiss and cheddar cheese, sautéed mushroom and onion, chipotle aioli, and best of all, a big fat fried egg in the middle.
Yolk oozed all across it, and it was glorious. The French lifestyle is often celebrated, but sometimes I wonder if those folks really get enough credit. Think of the genius it takes to realize that one of life’s great pleasures is an egg – oozing down just about anything.
We also tried the herb du Provence glazed fries and the truffle oil fries. The herb fries were my favorite. The waitress said they smelled like flowers. They did, and they tasted even better. They were perfectly done, with tender white meat in the middle and a good crunchy exterior. The taste of the truffle fries was subtler, but preferred by Karen.
The waitress asked if we had room for dessert. We looked at the menu. It contained such delicacies as triple chocolate almond tart, crème brûlée, and French chocolate chiffon cake.
All that translates into something pretty simple: No meat. So we declined.