Chef Tristen Epps wants to change the way we view comfort food. Epps moved to Denver from Brooklyn earlier this year to take the executive chef job at Mister Tuna (3033 Brighton Boulevard), where he just rolled out a new spring menu. A glance through the list reveals unusual ingredients — sambal pickled radish, zhug (the Yemeni equivalent of chimichurri), octopus paired with merguez sausage — that hardly seem the stuff of childhood memories.
But a bite of hamachi crudo from a plate the chef is planning to roll out for a nightly special elicits an immediate response: "Peanut butter and jelly!"
That may seem like a goofy flavor combo to pick up from a plate of raw fish, but the sprinkling of crushed peanuts and the segments of pickled green strawberries nestled up against the hamachi are an intentional choice by Epps. The taste memory is augmented by a smear of strawberry gochujang romesco sauce, furthering the subtle berry-nut-salt notes. "That's the seasoning you can't buy: nostalgia," he explains.
What might seem a little weird works because Epps focuses on the basic building blocks of good food; each dish he creates starts with the idea of balancing fat, salt, acidity and sweetness, so that even if the ingredients are unfamiliar, the result seems somehow evocative of the things we crave. And the attention to balance is what ultimately makes a harmonious dish from thin-sliced amberjack (as hamachi is known outside of Japan), strawberries, peanuts and Korean chile paste.
A shared plate Epps calls "bison tongue fancy toast" comes across as a scaled down Reuben sandwich, but with each element bolder than the deli standard. A petite grilled cheese sandwich forms the base, where housemade sourdough bread and fontina cheese stand in for rye and Swiss. Thin, pink shavings of cured, slow-cooked bison tongue (much like corned beef) tangle with curls of pickled radish, hinting at Southeast Asia with a touch of spicy sambal in the pickle, while still evoking sauerkraut.
"We need to break the cycle of comfort," the chef states, adding that comfort and eating the same thing over and over are not the same thing.
Epps has come by his fondness for international ingredients from traveling extensively in northern Europe, the Caribbean, Argentina and Southeast Asia, as well as from time spent working for celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, whose famous style comes from his Ethiopian roots, Scandinavian upbringing and exploration of the myriad influences that have shaped American food.
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In addition to learning under a celebrity chef, Epps has had brushes with fame himself. He won an episode of Chopped on the Food Network and has also appeared on The Taste and The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Epps's style fits in well with what chef/restaurateur Troy Guard has been aiming for with Mister Tuna since it opened in 2016. After all, Guard is as obsessed with the flavors of his own childhood — fried pickles, Green Goddess dressing, Pop Rocks — as he is with ultra-fresh Pacific Rim seafood. So Epps's creations blend seamlessly with Mister Tuna standards like duck confit roti tacos, roasted Pueblo yams with coriander yogurt and guajillos, and rotisserie pork collar that recalls backyard cookouts despite the uncommon cut of meat.
Fusion doesn't seem to be quite the right word for what's going on here. Disparate ingredients don't just bump up against each other on a plate; instead they integrate to form something that's equal parts intriguing and familiar. Barbecue octopus doesn't taste like either Southern barbecue or Korean barbecue, despite the use of gochujang in the jet-black sauce, which gets its color from squid ink. But a lightly charred crust on the octopus, a scattering of al dente turnips and a hit of vinegar in the sauce brings to mind Carolina cookouts. And the addition of merguez sausage is straight out of traditional Mediterranean cooking, where folks there figured out how well seafood and sausage go together centuries ago.
For a little extra attention from the kitchen, Epps suggests a seat at the eight-stool chef's counter to try out the newest items on the menu and maybe score some samples of whatever's on the grill that night. Call 303-831-8862 or visit Mister Tuna's website for details and reservations.