Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tag: Continental Social Food

Colorado.  It's dry.  It's high.  And it's out in the middle of nowhere.  I've heard legends of amazing hippie chefs out in Boulder with their fresh produce and cured meats working their mysterious hippie magic.  The problem was, I was headed to Denver.  I know that Boulder is only a quick jaunt northwest of downtown Denver, but I had social obligations; namely a wedding.  Therefore, before I left for the big rectangular state of Colorado, I did a little research on the intarwebs and I found a couple restaurants that I wanted to try.  Colorado, being the landlocked state that it is, I wasn't too keen on trying any sushi or fish related dishes.  Boy was I in for a surprise.  I saw a couple of restaurants I wanted to try, but I had limited time to accomplish a very ambitious goal: 3 restaurants in 5 hours.  It was Friday afternoon when I landed and by the time I got to my buddy's place, it was already 2pm.  I don't know about you, but most of the spots near where I live are decidedly closed for a couple hours before the crazy dinner rush.  My original choices were wiped away and I was left with but a few options.

I rolled on up to Larimer Street because Denver has decided, very kindly I might add, that all the best restaurants will be located either on this street or near it.  This street is filled with all sorts of cute shoppes but I'll get into that in another post.

I'm going to be honest here.  I chose Tag because it was open.  I know Chef Troy Guard has a reputation as one of Denver's finest chefs, but to be fair, Tag was right in front of me as I walked up and it was open for business.  Either way,  I plopped myself down at the very chic bar that was incredibly colorful for such a raw, masculine space.  I loved the little cups of herbs and fruits that lined the bar.   I am definitely a fan of the design of this joint.  It's narrow like you'd see in most downtown restaurants.  There's a very comforting aura that fills this establishment, despite my hatred of warehouse designs.  Then again, I was here alone and I had no one to talk to besides the bartender.  Also, food was why I was here. 

I was very hesitant about the menu that I saw online.  There was a heavy emphasis on Asian elements on their Social Hour menu.  As this was going to be my first meal, I couldn't go too heavy.  I chose two dishes that both involved raw fish.  I know.  I know.  I know!  Landlocked state + raw fish = "what the hell are you thinking Chris?!?  Are you that much of a sushi freak to order it out here?"  The answer is 'yes' by the way.  I am that much of a sushi addict that I would order it out here.  This, however, was not the reason I ordered it this time.  I figured I had to try it and as it was staring at me right in the face, I obliged.  

This aioli is DYN-O-MITE
I'll start with the dish that I liked the least.  Ahi roll with jalapenos and 'dynamite aioli'.  So the roll comes out and it's cleverly 'decorated' with eel sauce.  I see globs of DYNAMITE AIOLI on top of each piece.  (No.  The menu did not write dynamite aioli in all caps, but I feel the name of the sauce is epic enough to warrant it.  More on this later). 
I will make it known right here that I am a fan of Japanese style sushi.  The idea of overloading my senses on a food that's meant to be an exploration on simplicity of flavors and ingredients is heresy in my book.  I want limited but high quality ingredients and as little "cooking" from the chef as possible.  The only thing the chef should do is assemble the ingredients in a manner that best enhances the excellence that both nature and the chef that prepped the rice have provided.  Now that you know this about me, you'll probably think I hated this roll.  You're right.  I absolutely hate this thing like I hate bound feet.  There's so much that went wrong with this roll.  Basics of roll making: cut your pieces so that they're all even.  It was like having Tim Taylor "eyeball" the size of each piece.  (For those of you deprived individuals who have never seen the show Home Improvement, you didn't miss out on much, but let's just say that he was NOT the best at judging distance and sizing without the aide of a measuring instrument).  Where was I?  Oh yes.  More hatred.  The cucumbers or zucchini that they used was too raw.  The ahi was chopped up beyond recognition.  The rice was torched.  Why oh why did they do that?  I wasn't sure if the rice was undercooked or if it was of the torching that dried the rice out.  Either way, it was horrid.  This brings us to the aioli.  I don't know what was dynamite about it.  It didn't contribute to the flavor.  It didn't give me any heat.  It didn't even mask the horrible job they did on roll itself.  On the level of explosiveness, it was about even with a cotton ball.  I think I've spewed enough venom on this roll.

Ah yes.  My savior of this experience at Tag.  Flash seared Himarasa with Yuzu, Jalapenos, White Soy, Micro Tatsoi, and Pop Rocks.  The white soy with the yuzu created the sauce base of this dish with a heavy emphasis on the savory component that was accented nicely with the not too pungent acidic side of things.  I love yuzu.  It tends to get overused, but in this case, it was there to help with the flavor.  In fact, the sour/sweet/texture factor was elevated by the usage of Pop Rocks.  It's funny how this novelty candy made a resurgence in the food community.  This isn't a new idea but it was definitely utilized successfully in this case.  The hiramasa itself was gorgeously delicate.  It was sweet, but not cloyingly so.  The jalapenos were a nice addition to add yet another level of flavor.  What wasn't mentioned in the dish description was the addition of shallots.  This really sealed the deal for me.  The shallots/white soy combination created a flavor that I found very familiar.  It was like I grew up with it.  Wait.  I DID grow up with it.  It's the same flavor that comes when you put ginger, peanut oil, soy sauce, shallots and scallions on top of steamed fish!  This is exactly that taste!  It was like my mother teleported herself into this kitchen and totally changed a dish that I've been having for over 20 years.  I really wished that I had 3 more of these plates.  I loved it. 

I got to talking to the bartender, who was very knowledgeable, and he saw how much I liked the hiramasa.  He suggested that I should try out the sister restaurant: Tag Bar.  I took his advice and did exactly that.  More on this next time boys and girls.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Craft Bar - NYC

I had a trip to NJ/NYC recently.  I left the dining reservations in the hands of my dear friend.  I figured that since she lived there, she knew where I should go.  I honestly didn't care where we went.  When she suggested Tom Colicchio's Craftbar, I was excited.  I've heard great things about Craft Steak and other Colicchio restaurants.  I understand that Tom won't be there to cook.  In fact, I'm not sure how much time he spends in NYC anymore.  Regardless, I had confidence that I would be satisfied.

I arrive at the restaurant and I'm met with a spacious establishment that clearly prescribed to the designer warehouse sense of aesthetics.   It's purely a personal preference, but I find these spaces uninviting and loud.  The barren walls usually means that the acoustics will be unwieldy and trying to have any sort of intimate conversation is an exercise in futility.  Luckily, I wasn't about to whisper sweet nothings into my good friend's ear, but I still wanted to hear her. 

Anyways, we were early for our reservation so we plopped our rumps down at the bar.  Fully stocked and very intimate, I was surprised at how cozy this place was starting to become.  My mood was turning for the better, but that could very well be the gin and tonics I was ingesting.  By the end of my second drink, our table was ready and we made our way over to a corner table.  Sweetness.  I'm getting hopeful that this will be a nice experience.  The corner of the room offered us a nice little alcove to either be deeply involved in our own conversation or for us to people watch the whole night. 

The waitress arrives with the menus and then slides in the tasting menu right on top.  One look at the price ($55/person) and the selection (six courses of Hudson Valley sourced ingredients) and I'm sold.  I didn't feel like thinking and this was perfect for me to try the chef's skills. 

Really wish I had just used the lemon.
The first course consisted of 2 Blue Point Oysters.  Accompanying these two oysters were cocktail sauce and fish sauce.  The cocktail sauce was good.  It was tangy, slightly spicy and accented the oyster very well.  The sweet and briny character showed very well.  It's classic in presentation and wasn't too exciting.  The fish sauce however was decidedly more adventurous in pairing.  First of all.  I was very confused as to why I got so much sauce.  It's for one, possibly two oysters.  I didn't know if they wanted me to drink the sauce?  Maybe I should have given the oysters a bath?  OK.  I'm being an ass.  I gave it a go.  A dab of the fish sauce on there.  The bright acid woke me up.  It was definitely different.  I don't know how I feel about it though.  I'm torn between thinking it's a great idea of pairing something so...fishy...with oysters.  It's an interesting contrast.  If you think about it, it's raw seafood + fermented seafood.  It's a really cool idea.  However, my taste buds has a different opinion.  I just couldn't get over the fact that my tongue was just attacked by the fish sauce and I couldn't taste the oyster anymore.  I think that since the idea was that the locally sourced ingredients were the selling point, then the oyster should have been the star.  Instead, it was like it was fighting to get a line in with the overacting supporting character.  In this round of taste versus concept, taste won the decision.  This first course didn't do it for me.  It's OK.  I have faith that I'll like the next dish.

Second Course: Sorrel Salad with Strawberries, Pink Peppercorns, and Pickled Onions.  The vinaigrette was subtle and savory.  Excellent flavor combination with the sorrel adding a subtle hint of acid as did the tiny strawberries.  The pickled onions were an excellent addition to the savory side of the dish.  I was pleased with how this salad was a nicely balanced dish.  Simple and unassuming, it was well done.  I'm not normally a strawberry fan.  I love cherries and raspberries, but strawberries were never something I craved.  Regardless, these strawberries were slightly tart and the demure size matched the pickled onions very well.  My hopes are renewed.  I knew that I wouldn't be disappointed.  I can't wait to see what the next dish looks like.

Third Course: New Jersey Diver Scallop with Roasted Lemon Yogurt, Jerusalem Artichoke, and Chorizo.  I must apologize for not taking a picture of this one as I couldn't resist this plate.  As soon as it showed up, I descended upon it like a hawk on a field mouse.  Anyways, this dish was by far my favorite.  First of all, it's a bit hard to mess up scallops.  It's a bit of a sellout move, but, I'll bite.  The combination of the chorizo with the chokes offered the texture component along with a great meaty counterpart to the scallops.  All of this was enhanced by the lovely lemon yogurt.  This dish played right into my comfort zone.  It was hard for me to not like this.  I love the savory, creamy, meaty, tangy combination.  It's like when you know that you're being played by someone, but you don't care because you can't say no to that person.  I'm a sucker.  I know.  Stop staring at me in that tone of voice.  Moving on. 

Only one word that
I can think of that suits you.
Fourth Course: Green Garlic-Ricotta Ravioli with Garlic Scapes in a Beurre Fondue.  Just reading this description tells me that I'm going to be a sucker again.  Garlic Scapes? Oh yeah.  Ravioli? yes please.  Beurre Fondue? Bathe me in it please.  As soon as it got here, the serving vessel was just as attractive as the description.  (I'm being serious here.  I love that it looks like a mini wok).  I fully expect to be overwhelmed with flavors, awash in a bath of awesome.  No.  This will not happen.  The ricotta ravioli was very delicate in flavor (read almost no salt whatsoever).  The beurre fondue didn't help things at all.  It was slightly watery in consistency and didn't offer anything to bring up the flavor quotient.  If subtly is what they're trying for here, then they have it in droves.  The chopped garlic scapes were a nice addition, but then the scapes that were left whole were not attractive at all.  They were stringy and tough at the ends.  They detracted from the presentation of the dish.  This course was not so good.  In fact, it tasted pretty pedestrian.  I've had more inspiring ricotta at half-assed italian restaurants.  Expectations, declining. 

You could have been so amazing.
Fifth Course: Braised Pork Belly on top of a Spring Pea Salad with Radishes and Fingerling Potatoes.   They had me at Braised Pork Belly.  They seared the pork belly excellently.  Crispy and flavorful with ample moisture.  Sweet, savory, and sticky.  It's everything that you hope for in a piece of pork belly.  The star of this dish wasn't the pork belly though.  Sure it was the big name that was billed, but the Spring Pea Salad really brought out how wonderful the pork belly was.  The pea salad was light, sweet, crisp, and refreshing.  Each bite of the pork belly that was accompanied by whole pea pods were the best ones.  But this bring me to why I was both happy and so angry about this dish.  The Spring Pea Pods were perfect.  The pods themselves were crunchy and extremely sweet.  However, they decided to use mainly just loose peas under the pork.  Although the peas themselves were good, they were too mushy to stand up properly to the gooey, sticky pork belly.  After I ran out of pea pods to accompany the pork belly, I was sad.  I was so sad and angry that they skimped on screen time from such a brilliant supporting actor.  This dish could have been so amazing and simple.  Instead, it fell just short of greatness.

Rhubarb: the awkward dessert
Sixth Course: Napoleon with Poached Rhubarb, Marscapone Cream, Graham Cracker and Thyme.  I'm not a big dessert person and this final course was not a good advocate for the dessert side.  It was awkward to eat.  The rhubarb was stringy and slightly tangy.  The flavor combination wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I cared about.    By the time I got over all of my elementary flashbacks from the graham crackers, I was left with a pile of crumbly crackers and marscapone cream spewed everywhere. I don't know how they wanted me to eat this.  Using a utensil will just squeeze the cream everywhere as soon as I try to break off a chunk small enough to eat.  Using my hands would have gotten the sauce all over me.  Just so incredibly awkward and the flavor combination was not so good.  The sweetness of the cream and cracker really overwhelmed the rhubarb.  I really don't think the rhubarb was to be blamed here.  I blame the chef for putting it in this dish.  This should have been more subtle like all the other dishes in this tasting menu.  Instead, it was trying too hard to be cool.

I was left deflated by the end of the meal.  It was so incoherent between dishes.  There wasn't a unifying theme that I could discern.  Individually, only 1 or 2 dishes could stand on their own.  The best dish was the only one that I didn't photograph.  Everything else was just frustrating.  I wanted so badly to be impressed.  I wanted to leave with renewed inspiration.  For all the talk of letting the locally sourced ingredients shine, the execution was lacking.  If every dish was just mediocre, I would have been more pleased with my experience.  No.  Instead, I get glimpses of genius and then the door is slammed shut in my face.  'Hey.  Look what I can do!  It's amazing.  But you're only going to get to see it for a split second.  I can't let you have the satisfaction of seeing all of it.  That would be absurd'.  Part of me wants to return out of morbid curiosity.  I want to believe that if I had chosen something off the normal menu, I would have been much more pleased.  Alas, what should have been a wonderful journey through the chef's imagination turned out to be a disappointing and disorienting ride through the county fair's haunted house.