After getting his culinary training in Boulder, Colo., and the Provence region of France, Rob Nelson settled about five years ago in Bentonville and, in the summer of 2011, opened Tusk and Trotter, a snout-to-tail restaurant with a focus on charcuterie, the art of curing meats.
"Northwest Arkansas is home, I love it," said Nelson, who grew up in Hope and did his undergrad at the University of Arkansas. The area "was an untapped resource five years ago and now the explosion's happened."
The timing for Nelson couldn't have been better. Bentonville — a once sleepy Ozark town until some guy named Sam opened a five-and-dime there — has recently been getting attention for more than just its status as Walmart Stores Inc. headquarters. With the opening of world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in late 2011, the hospitality industry in downtown Bentonville has boomed. The town has become a cultural destination; the Washington Post highlighted the Bentonville dining scene as its go-to spot on the 2013 "In/Out List" (sorry Charleston, S.C., you're out). The James Beard House in New York, the mecca of good eats, recently hosted a multi-course tasting event featuring only Bentonville chefs, including Nelson.
Nelson had been thinking of his concept for Tusk and Trotter — a French-style brasserie with Ozark flavors, specializing in creative pork dishes — for a while. "My favorite animal in the world is the pig, of course," he said. "We take the entire pig and show its versatility. ... I wanted to do something focused on that, but also local sustainability is also a passion of mine. I've got 25 different [local] purveyors that I use week in and week out." Nelson focuses on getting as much as possible from Arkansas or nearby — everything comes from within 200 miles. "The closer it is, the better the food tastes," he said.
Nelson trained in the art of charcuterie and whole-animal cooking with master chefs in the south of France. It's fitting that he brought this refined training to hog-crazy Arkansas.
"It's been a part of our culture since the beginning," Nelson said. "A lot of people forget — farm to table, the slow food movement — it really isn't something new to the people of Arkansas, who have been farming and ranching for generations. Now we're just trying to refine our cooking and bring it up to the next level, but still try not to stray from ... our roots."
Nelson said he aims to apply the "standards of Old World charcuterie but give it a modern Southern flair."
Nelson and other Bentonville chefs (Matthew McClure at the Hive, Case Dighero at Eleven) have come up with the name "High South" to describe their approach, giving a cultivated touch and creative flourishes to traditional Southern cooking, all with ingredients locally available in Northwest Arkansas.
"It's anything that you can do sticking with the Ozark region," Nelson said. "Lake fish and river fish — trout and walleyes — things that you can get up here. Ducks and pig, of course. All the grass-fed beef. Everything that's indigenous to Northwest Arkansas."
Tusk and Trotter's menu is an extravaganza of carnivorous decadence: pork belly cheese stix, poutine, the Hogzilla sandwich (a wild boar patty with housemade bacon, face bacon jam and boursin cheese), crispy pig ear nachos, pork tongue galette, a charcuterie board featuring alligator sausage and duck pastrami, just to name a few.
"We start with trying to figure out what's a little different, what's unique that the customer hasn't experienced yet," Nelson said. "You can go anywhere and you can get a filet, you can get a ribeye. But have you tried the hanger steak, which is from the diaphragm? Have you tried a pig's ear?"
"We try to take the odds and ends, take the odd bits of the animal and try to elevate it," he said.
The artisanal approach at Tusk and Trotter isn't limited to butchering and preparing meats in house — there are also housemade pickles, jellies and jams, cheeses, sauces and more. Behind the bar, mixologist Scott Baker makes dozens of house-infused liquors for cocktails, including six different Bloody Marys (the bacon-infused version is garnished, of course, with bacon made by Nelson; the ghost-chile infused version is astounding but recommended only for the brave; best of all is the pickle-infused, packed with sharp flavor).
On a recent visit, we sampled the risotto balls, the perfect deep-fried comfort food, and a heaping portion of housemade spicy pork rinds, served piping hot and still crackling from the grease. We also tried the lovely lemon souffle pancakes from the brunch menu and the charcuterie burger, a treat-yourself fantasy sandwich with a sausage patty, duck pate, bacon, pickled vegetables and roasted garlic-red grape cheese — all made in-house — on a perfect brioche bun made by a baker just down the road.
Our only regret was finally running out of room in our bellies. Next time we're eager to try the "lamb four ways" — Nelson uses the loin to make "lamb ham," makes a stock out of the bone for lamb stew, cures a strip of meat from the back to make lamb bacon and finishes off with lamb meatballs.
Sounds like a bravura performance: four ambitiously crafted tastings from the same animal. Of course, the important part isn't just panache and technique, which Nelson has in spades. The real test is simply making delicious food. Based on our recent visit, Nelson has that bit well covered.