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.

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