Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Few restaurants in the state have generated as much buzz as Bentonville's Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie did when it opened four years ago. Being the new kid on the block with an eclectic nose-to-tail menu served chef Rob Nelson well as an initial selling point, but despite our glowing review from 2012, we approached Tusk & Trotter with a healthy dose of skepticism in 2015. After all, "farm to table" and "Ozark High South Cuisine" have become buzzwords in Arkansas since those initial impressions of the brasserie were formed, and the real question now was to see if the eatery still impressed after some of the new had worn off.
From our recent trip, we can easily say that Tusk & Trotter is as good as ever, and judging by the packed dining room, we aren't the only ones who think so. This is a place that is affordable and innovative — and the simple, fresh menu is just as delicious and compelling now as it ever was.
First things first: Get the Charcuterie & Cheese Board ($15), because this is one of the finest examples of a meat-and-cheese sampler we've found. Of particular note is the peppery duck pastrami served in thick slices — it manages to keep its identity as duck while hitting just the right notes that good pastrami should. The country pate was also a revelation, moist and rich — the perfect companion to the olives and mixed nuts served to the side. A selection of cheeses and a juicy alligator sausage rounded out an experience that would have left us happy with Tusk & Trotter even if we had stopped there.
We're glad we didn't stop there, though, because the rest of our meal left us in a state of sheer bliss.
Want a play on salad that will leave you surprised? The Crispy Pig Ear Salad ($8) is the way to go. Fresh spring greens are lightly tossed with pecans, rosy-red grape tomatoes, cheese and thin strips of crisp-fried pig's ear. Does the idea of eating a pig's ear bother you? Imagine the excellent crunch that a good crouton adds to a salad mixed with the savory, smoky depth of bacon bits — you've got the pig's ear salad. There was nothing about this salad we would have changed; it exceeded our expectations.
Because we arrived on a day when brunch was being served, we decided to go for a breakfast dish, the Fried Egg Tartine ($9). Thick-cut bacon and a delectable fried egg were the superstars here, but it was the flavorful bread and horseradish crema that snuck up on us with such a masterful punch that once we'd taken a bite we had to pause a moment and reflect on what we'd just consumed.
Where Tusk & Trotter really scored points with us was not so much with the tartine (which we expected to be good), but with something as simple as a side of potatoes. Yes, potatoes. We've been disappointed time and again by the various cottage fries, hash browns and roasted potatoes served to us in the name of brunch, but we took a chance on the brasserie's version of potatoes and were so impressed with their crunchy exterior and creamy interior that we suggest to anyone who wants to serve potatoes with brunch, eat these and then emulate them. Not greasy, not slimy, not mush — just good potatoes, lightly seasoned and served hot and fresh.
This solid showing at brunch made us hungry to return to try dishes like hanger steak with eggs, eggs Benedict made with that lovely duck pastrami, and more exotic dishes like lox and a bagel served with fried capers. Unfortunately, by that time we were approaching full and so contented ourselves with cocktails.
Of utmost importance to any brunch is a Bloody Mary, and the version served at Tusk & Trotter was strong without being overwhelmingly boozy and had a nice bite of spice that worked as a civilized wake-me-up but could also function as an effective hair of the dog. And with flavors like pickle, bacon, pizza, ghost chili, chipotle, Tex Mex, tequila lime, sweet & spicy and pastrami Bourbon, there are numerous ways to test the skills of the bar. We admit we did not sample all these drinks, but the thought crossed our minds.
Beyond the brunch menu, Tusk & Trotter's regular dinner and lunch menus are full of wonderful things to love, like crispy pommes frites, pork belly cheese sticks and the house-made pork rinds, an order of which we took to go and enjoyed all afternoon long. These light, fluffy fried pork skins melt down to a savory, unctuous nothing in the mouth and provide a satisfying crunch and clean flavor that only the best pork rinds have.
So yes, Tusk & Trotter is still performing at a high level after the initial buzz has passed, and it's doing it in a way that shows it's not about buzz — it's about good food. Fortunately for the crowded dining room that greets nearly every day of business, they know the business of tasty cuisine well, and their simple, honest flavors are just another example of the way food in Arkansas has been elevated in recent years. It's worth a trip to Bentonville just to eat at the brasserie, although there is plenty to do once you've eaten — that is, if your full stomach allows you to.
Tusk & Trotter caters to both the formal and the casual with a full-service dining room divided from the more laid-back lounge.