Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mister Tuna is an unfortunate name, suggestive of a cartoon mascot in a canned-tuna commercial. Saying it aloud makes you feel silly. But Mister Tuna — the institution, not the moniker — is nothing to laugh at. Instead, it’s the restaurant that Troy Guard was born to create.
In 2009, after 25 years in other kitchens, Guard went out on his own, a fire in his belly and ready to make a name for himself. He succeeded at Larimer Square's TAG, putting out fresh, audacious dishes that showcased his Hawaiian upbringing and his time under Roy Yamaguchi, granddaddy of Hawaiian fusion cuisine. But as time went on, Guard fell into the trap of so many serial chefs, expanding his portfolio with burgers, tacos, desserts, healthy bowls, a steakhouse and Chinese food. He was evolving, yes, but in a way that made you ask why: Why would Troy Guard open that?
This time, there’s no need to ask. For a man who often dips into the personal — Grace of Guard and Grace is his daughter, TAG is both his dog and his initials — this restaurant veers into the realm of autobiography, and you get the sense that Guard wants to make people proud. “Mister Tuna” was his dad’s nickname.
Family photos hang in the hallway. That drop-dead mural of a woman’s face, hair waving suggestively over her eyes, was inspired by a ’70s-era photo of his mom. (Freudian, perhaps, but dynamite all the same.) These touches, propelled by a menu that flows organically from Guard’s kitchen experience, make Mister Tuna the restaurant that Denver didn’t know it needed until it appeared in RiNo’s Industry building this summer. It’s been a tough place to nab a seat ever since.
While its name might be funny, the restaurant is definitely fun — but not in the default-casual way that’s become so popular over the past few years, with free-flowing craft beer, wings and cornhole on the lawn. Here the best tables are inside, not out; the patio along Brighton Boulevard can be hot and noisy. Besides, the room comes into its own as night falls. Under the cover of darkness, the long, narrow space becomes increasingly grown-up, with a black-and-gold color scheme that totters between sexy and elegant: sexy from that black-and-white mural, elegant from black banquettes, a dark floor with gold ornamentation, and tufted black barstools with gold legs. Start your night at the bar, if you can; bartenders make wise and gregarious companions, capable of steering you through both beverages and food.
Whether at the bar, on a low-slung sofa in the lounge or in the dining room, music blares at nightclub levels, adding to the sexy feel. A thousand sweet-nothings could be uttered and guests on either side of you, women in black undergarments visible through sheer white tops, men in smart dress shirts, would never overhear. Some patrons might be put off by the decibels. If so, you know what they say: If it’s too loud, you’re too old. I think the music has another purpose: to signal that the restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously. It easily could, with artistically arranged plates delivered by servers doing the things that servers are trained to do, replacing utensils after every course and speaking in phrases such as, “May I guide your hand a little?” Credit this behavior to Jason Borders, operations director for TAG Restaurant Group, the man behind the polish at Guard and Grace. But Mister Tuna would rather tilt fun than fine, and glimmers such as racy graffiti in the bathrooms (“get down make love”) and a map of Hawaii hidden inside the mural prove the point.
Divided into categories of raw bar, appetizers and entrees, the menu straddles the same fun-fine line, with international inspirations and just enough Colorado accents — Palisade cherries, Pueblo yams — to feel right at home. Given the preposterous number of influences, from Hawaiian to Vietnamese to Italian to Korean to Indian (whew!), the menu could seem contrived or worse, hubristic. But Guard and executive sous-chef Adam Vero put out a roster that feels refreshingly smart.
It’s a relief to be somewhere without a single Brussels sprout or kale leaf, without even a de rigueur roast chicken. Instead you find Guard playing to his experience and to the home crowd with a roti taco that swaps carne asada for duck confit fragrant with star anise, fennel and cinnamon, and corn tortillas for naan made flaky from ghee-laden dough. Agnolotti arrive seared, not supple — more like pot stickers than traditional Italian pasta, with a vibrant sprinkling of carrot tops, cilantro, mint and Thai basil. Carrot purée serves as both a filling and a cushion, with just enough nutty brown butter to save the vegetable from its own sweet self. If fusion had always been done so seamlessly, it never would’ve fallen from grace. (Don’t forget that Guard has had years of practice, having also been opening chef at Zengo, Richard Sandoval’s spot for Latin-Asian fusion.)
A focal point if you’re sitting at the chef’s counter, the oak-fired rotisserie turns out terrific lamb for the grilled pizza, slathered with romesco and Fontina and crisscrossed with raw spinach. It also puts out very good pork collar, its richness balanced by whole-grain-mustard sauce and a heavy-hitting salad of mizuna, pickled onions and jalapeños. On a menu designed for sharing, with so many tempting appetizers that main courses seem nearly irrelevant, this entree — a generous sixteen ounces — is worth a commitment. Both the lamb and the pork showcase the kitchen’s judicious use of greens and fresh herbs to make potentially heavy dishes feel surprisingly light.
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Still, you’re in Guard’s house, so the most memorable fare involves the sea. Ahi poke becomes an appetizing lesson in geometry, with cubes of purplish-red ahi, raw circles of hearts of palm and spheres of buttery avocado atop soy-slicked quinoa. Tuna poached in olive oil becomes even more classically Italian when propped on toast with charred, caponata-like eggplant. (This toast easily outshines the land-based version, with too-sweet ricotta topped with stone fruits and guanciale.) Kimchi adds attitude but not too much sass to a bed of wheat berries underneath well-crusted corvina. If you do as your server tells you, swirling the salsa verde into the wheat berries, you’ll find that this fish is another appointment-worthy entree. Or you could order two rounds of Vietnamese-style kampachi, a stunner from the raw bar, and call it a day. The dish is an icon in the making, with glistening fish, splashes of color from mint, Thai basil, cilantro and Fresno chiles, and crunch from peanuts and fried shallots.
Guard was never one to shy away from a statement: Think of TAG’s Pop Rocks with sashimi or rattlesnake chorizo at Los Chingones. Here, though, ingredients are used for reasons other than shock value. Caponata is hit with just the right amount of aged balsamic. Mustard sauce has a brush of lavender. Kimchi supports, not steals, the show.
Despite the sexy mural, loud music and trendy location, Mister Tuna has an appealing maturity. We should all be lucky enough to age so well.
3033 Brighton Boulevard
Vietnamese-style kampachi $14
Roti taco $7
Ahi poke $16
Grilled lamb pizza $12
Carrot agnolotti $11
Mister Tuna toast $12
Mediterranean corvina $27
Pork collar $26
Mister Tuna is open 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at facebook.com/mistertunadenver.