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Keith Otter tops his new creation, the Tower of Tuna, with its main ingredient.

Hawaiian ahi tuna
Keith Otter, executive chef of Chandler’s, divulges the secrets behind the restaurant’s signature dish. Words by Jennifer Tuohy. Photos by Paulette Phlipot.

Longevity is almost a dirty word in Ketchum’s restaurant scene; establishments open and close as often as Exhibition Lift on a windy day. But, tucked away in a secluded corner of Ketchum, one of the city’s longest continually operating restaurants keeps defying the odds.

The team behind Chandler’s, Rex Chandler and Keith Otter, have worked together for 25 years. Otter started his career as a dishwasher in Chandler’s Newport Beach restaurant, The Rex. In 1994, Chandler brought Otter with him to Idaho, with the promise of starting “a great little restaurant, specializing in Pacific Northwest cuisine, backed up with our seafood and a good wine list.”

Accustomed to seafood on tap in their previous locations, Southern California and Hawaii, life in Idaho’s mountains was a rude awakening for the beach boys. “In those days it was almost impossible to get fresh seafood here,” said Chandler. “For our first New Year’s Eve, we ordered a big, whole ahi tuna. It wound up sitting on a dock somewhere in Chicago.” Today, getting their hands on the finest of fish is a little easier. “A good friend, Stu Siedman, started Mountain Pride, a seafood purveyor here; they have made the restaurant business here much more palatable.”

And while Otter may have briefly traveled down his own path (the Idaho-French restaurant, Otters, opened in 1997 and closed in 2000) the restaurant’s signature dish, Hawaiian ahi tuna, has been a staple on Chandler’s menu since day one. Otter attributes the dish’s success to the fish’s universality. “Tuna goes with almost all the wine varieties you can think of: chardonnay, merlot, cabernet, pinot noir. It matches up with almost anything you pair it with. Plus people like it because it’s lean and so healthy.”

Served Chandler’s-style, the ahi steak is seared rare and encrusted in sesame seeds. When sliced, it presents an attractive cross view that contrasts the black of the sesame seed crust with the deep red of the fish’s flesh. To achieve this perfect balance Otter ensures the tuna is seared evenly. “You’ve got to sear all four sides, but not the end pieces, for two to three minutes, to get a little well-done circle around the whole fish and the rareness in the middle. There has to be the textural balance there, something crispy versus something rare and cold.” The tuna is accompanied by ginger wasabi potato puree and draped with a sauce that Otter describes as a Japanese “beurre blanc.”

The lasting success of the ahi dish recently prompted Otter to introduce a new tuna-based starter to the restaurant. “The Tower of Tuna is about a month old,” he said. “It was inspired by my last Napa Valley wine trip.” A feast for the eyes as well as the mouth, The Tower consists of colorful ingredients stacked and layered in a feat of food engineering. “I use a stainless steel ring to get the shape. I put avocado down first, then a little small layer of tomato, a small layer of hamachi, a little fried rice and then the ahi on the very top. So you end up with four good colors all segmented and layered up. Then I take the ring off and drizzle it with two sauces.”

The inception of The Tower is a prelude to Chandler’s and Otter’s newest endeavor: a foray into the Boise restaurant scene. The new Chandler’s in Boise opens this March.

“Initially, the main focus will be on our steaks and prime meats,” said Chandler. “And then we’ll subtly bring our seafood to the fore. We are also developing ‘large small plates,’ which are appetizers meant to be shared—such as our Tower of Tuna. In fact, all of the new dishes we are creating here at Chandler’s right now are designed to be the prototypes of what we’ll be doing in Boise.

“Keith and I have worked as a team for a long time now,” continued Chandler. “We’ve developed several concepts together and I have a lot of confidence in his palette and his ability to assemble great food. I think we’re going to make a great team down in Boise.”

Hawaiian ahi tuna

Serves 6
Six 5-ounce portions of Sashimi grade ahi tuna
1/2 cup of black sesame seeds,
1/4 sesame see oil, combined
Wasabe mashed potatoes:
3 medium sized russet potatoes,
1 tsp garlic, 1/2 cup cream, 1 Tbsp butter, 1 tsp grated ginger, 1 tsp wasabe powder, salt and white
pepper to taste. Sauce: 2 cups sake, 1 tsp grated ginger, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 Tbsp chopped shallots, 4 black peppercorns, 1/2 tsp crushed red chilies, 1 tsp soy sauce, 8 oz. butter. Garnishes: Roasted garlic cloves, sautéed sliced shitake mushrooms, finely diced tomatoes. Salad: Watercress and cilantro. Dressing: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 1 tsp sesame seed oil, 1 squeeze of lime juice.

To make the sauce, place ginger, coriander, shallots, peppercorns and red chili flakes in a saucepan, then cover with sake. Cook over medium heat and reduce by 75 percent.
Turn down flame and blend in whole butter. Set aside in a warm spot.
Make the mashed potatoes, mix the dressing and salad and set aside.
Pre-heat sauté pan on medium heat. Coat each portion of tuna with seed mixture, covering all sides. Pan sear tuna for one minute on each side, then slice into 1/8 inch medallions. Place potato mixture in the middle of each plate. Place tuna slices around potatoes, toss salad mixture and place on top of tuna, heat sauce with garnishes and spoon around each plate.