"A lot of people hate canned tuna," says chef Mark Hellyar of Momotaro. "It gets a bad rap." He himself hated it growing up, he says, "because tuna casserole, that’s disgusting." He thinks that Jimmy Papadopolous, chef at Bellemore, was trying to trip him up by challenging him to create a dish with canned tuna. "Little does he know that I eat canned tuna a lot—had some yesterday."
Because Momotaro is a Japanese restaurant, Hellyar works with a lot of high-quality fish, but that doesn't diminish his appreciation for the canned variety. "I love all canned fish—all fish in general—as long as it’s handled well and treated nicely," he says. That doesn't necessarily apply to the Bumblebee-brand tuna he was challenged with, but Hellyar says there's plenty of good canned tuna from Spain: "I went to Spain last year to swim with our tunas that we buy here, and I went to three days of food shows and got to taste a lot of canned tuna."
For this challenge, however, his inspiration was local: a tuna hoagie he'd recently eaten at the nearby J.P. Graziano Italian market and sandwich shop. Hellyar's dish was a play on the hoagie, including the same flavors, "just done in a cheffy way."
His tuna salad included canned tuna belly, giardiniera, and mayo made from the oil the tuna was canned in. Bread came in the form of bread crumbs fried in olive oil and tossed with dehydrated giardiniera powder, while tuna made two more appearances: more canned tuna, marinated in olive oil, and fresh bigeye tuna, pounded thin into carpaccio and sprinkled with sea salt, chives, and chive blossoms. Fava beans and pickled cherry tomatoes rounded out the dish, which Hellyar finished with a little more giardiniera powder.
"It's pretty dead-on," he said after trying it. "That actually tastes like a hoagie, I swear."
Hellyar has challenged Joe Frillman of Daisies to create a dish with preserved kombu (a type of seaweed).