First Look: Duy Pham, along with Michael Degenhart, are behind the line at Epernay, opening tonight

For the last several months, Duy Pham, who solidified his cooking prowess years ago at the long-departed, French-inspired Tante Louise, has been working on opening Epernay, a splashy new downtown restaurant and Champagne lounge near the Denver Center for the Performing Arts -- a restaurant with a small kitchen, and no hood or fryer. Instead, the experimental chef, whose last restaurant was in Pueblo, is taking advantage, he says, of new technologies.

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"There's no one word to describe what I'm doing here -- I'm doing things I've learned in my career and things that I haven't -- but I am taking advantage of new technologies, like sous-vide, a smoke gun and induction burners," explains Pham, adding that the "best way to describe my food is simplistic and healthy with classic flavors. It's Tante Louise in present time."

But fish -- much of it is sushi and rolls -- is front and center on Pham's menu. "I'm obsessed with fish, and I love working with it," says Pham, whose staff includes Pho Bounmaphouxay, formerly of Sushi Sasa, along with sous chef Michael Degenhart, a legendary name in the Denver food world; Degenhart was the executive chef of Tante Louise in its heyday, while Pham was his right-hand man. "I can't imagine having a better sous chef than Michael," says Pham. "He's my dream sous, and we've worked together a bunch before, and we get along incredibly well."

It's a dynamic team, which also includes Andy Ly, who cooked at Opal -- and whom Pham calls "an amazing sushi chef who also makes incredible Chinese food." And down the line, reveals Pham, his menu may grow to include Chinese cuisine, but for the moment, it's a tight, focused tribute to raw fish, coupled with a handful of starters and main dishes that are all about allowing the ingredients on the plate -- and there are just a few -- to dazzle in their unmasked glory. I don't believe in covering up flavors," says Pham, who insists that sous-viding as much as he can ensures that his ingredients retain their integrity. "This is the first job where I've ever used sous-vide, and it makes all the difference in the world. Lamb tastes like lamb, mushrooms taste like mushrooms and everything else on the plate tastes just as pure."

But if Pham's food is what he calls "simplistic" (his artful presentations will make you think otherwise), the decor is anything but. Designed by Dave Schaich of Shike Design (he also did the Corner House), the long, narrow space is boldly appointed with a "bottle" room furbished with sleek, curved ebony booths coupled with creamy white booths that glow underneath a gigantic fishbowl chandelier. A long bar that seats twenty separates the "bottle" room from an exposed raw bar, where Pham and his cohorts slice and dice raw fish against the backdrop of turquoise clay tiles that mimic fish scales. And the main dining room and lounge is bedecked with a mural of seaweed -- a photograph that was taken underwater -- banquettes, tables and a gathering area strewn with glass tables and straight-back chairs inscribed with Chinese lettering.

There's a lot of eye candy to behold -- and there's a lot to drink, as well, thanks to an impressive roster of sake, wine, Champagne and sparking wines. Bar manager Oran Feild's list trumpets more than forty Champagnes and sparking wines -- several available by the glass -- and while the producers are big names, he says he's working on adding some small growers.

Epernay, which is named for the capital of France's Champagne region, opens to the public tonight at 10 p.m., following a private event, and while those hours will continue throughout the weekend, the restaurant will open next Tuesday for its normal hours, beginning at 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. I was given an exclusive first peek at the space (I also had the chance to sample some of Pham's dishes), and brought back a photo gallery to give you a taste of what you can expect.

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