Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TAG Round 2: TagBar

I walk out of TAG with mixed feelings.  I was faced with loving one dish that brought back waves of childhood and my heritage as well as feelings of extreme disappointment in the state of Denver sushi.  I forged past my apprehensions of landlocked states serving a decidedly raw-focused dish and all I was left with was my head hanging low. 

I continue my trek to a small shopping center approximately 30 paces from the main restaurant.  I spy this small corner bar at the bottom of the stairs.  The all glass customer facing walls remind me of a Jamba Juice or this one small burrito joint I stopped by in Dallas.  I was not impressed at first.  The first impression of an entirely sterile environment slowly peeled away in chunks as I discover a nice selection of beer, a rack full of ice and what appears to be oysters, and a menu splattered with references to noodle bowls and high end influences.  If you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm a purist when it comes to food.  I'm not a fan of fusion.  As soon as I hear the word, my skin crawls and my eyes start rolling.  However, I didn't run.  I stuck it through.  I was, dare I say, intrigued.  Among the dishes that really caught my eye were the following:

La Quercia Prosciutto with shaved fennel, apple and mustard vinaigrette. 
Hawaiian Ahi Jalapeno with daikon radish, lime oil and ponzu.
Hangar Steak Tataki with gorgonzola, watermelon radish, and nectarine.

Alas, I chose none of these. 

I sit down at the bar and scan the menu a bit longer as I'm still digesting the previous meal.  I talk to the chef.  Friendly and personable;  I was not used to this type of service from the person that's about to make my food.  OK.  I'm hooked.  I'm tempted to order the tasting menu, but I flashed back to my trip to Craft Bar and chills ran down my spine.  I opted to select a few items that stood out.

 First up: Foie Gras Torchon with cherry vanilla compote, kabayaki and rice crackers.  The foie gras was served cold.  It had a firm texture that reminded me of liverwurst.  The flavor of the torchon itself was light and buttery.  My thought was that it was going to be outflavored by the cherry vanilla compote and kabayaki and it almost was.  However, layered on top of the rice crackers, a harmonious balance of texture and flavor was achieved.  It wasn't spectacular by any means, but it was a lovely introductory dish to get me going.  The presentation was simple and I kept the compote and sauce around to finish off the rice crackers.  If this is their idea of bar food, then I'm definitely down with the concept.  I'm greedy.  I like variety versus quantity.  If I get to sample multiple dishes from a chef in the style of tapas, then I'm all for it.

 Next up: Kangaroo Loin Tataki with tomato relish, lotus root chips, and arugula pesto.  I had a couple of friends that recently came back from Australia raving about kangaroo meat.  As I've never tasted it, I had to try it as soon as I spied it on the menu.  It turns out that I really do like the way their prepared this red meat.  It was tender, slightly chewy, but incredibly sweet.  The tenderness of the kangaroo was insanely offset by the extreme crunchiness of the deep fried lotus root.  I don't know how I feel about using the lotus root chips.  I'm clumsy so inevitably it stabbed me in the roof of the mouth.  This didn't deter me from enjoying the light taste of the chips.  Besides the texture, the look of these chips are great.  I find the visual appeal of the lotus roots to greatly enhance the rather flat landscape of sliced and seared red meat.  It's almost like the modern art smacked a butcher in the face.  Not to say that butchers aren't cultured.  I know some that know a great deal about art.  OK.  I lie.  I know only one butcher and he has a thing for gutter jokes.  Either way, my point is that the juxtaposition of suspended shards of lotus goodness and the serene flow of kangaroo meat forms a highly visually appealing dish.  One final note on this dish.  The arugula pesto.  I don't know how I feel about it.  Of the 5 Chinese flavors that seek to achieve balance in a dish, bitter is often the one that's overlooked.  In fact, bitter has been viewed as evil, unwanted, and a nuisance.  The decision to play up the bitterness of arugula in pesto form was bold one.  After sampling the combination of all the flavors and textures together, I decided that the pesto was just a tad far in the side of too bitter.   It ended up trying to find balance with the sweetness of the meat, but it just couldn't.  It's essentially that loud cousin at the party that you want people to like, but you really hope all your guests can just ignore. 

My final serving of food has arrived.  It came in this oddly shaped vessel that half reminded me of a soap dish.  I just hope that the food inside doesn't taste like soap too.  It didn't.  I was served Taylor Bay Scallops Crudo with orange, lemon, and cilantro.  Cape Cod is a long way from Denver any way you look at it.  The taste and springiness of the scallops, however, told me that this bar has good shipping arrangements for its seafood.  Superbly sweet and tender, the scallops lent themselves to the crudo preparation style.  The slivers of lemon grazed the scallops and lightened up the saltiness of the meat.  I found the chiffoned cilantro to be a tad annoying as they got stuck in my teeth very easily.  I believe a finer chop would have better served the eating experience regardless of the visual sacrifice that would have made.  The final touch that sealed this dish for me into the happy category were the rice crisps.  The chef decided to go off the game plan slightly and add in some small rice crisps into the mix.  The decision was brilliant.  The previous two dishes gave me a great contrast in texture and the addition of this small ingredient did it for this dish.  The size of the rice crisps compliments the tiny scallops well.  The golden flavor of the crisps balances the light, sweet/saltiness of the scallop as well.  I think of all the different experiments, this one had the least adventurous of ingredients, but the greatest of flavor and texture combinations.  Harmonious would be the word I'd used to wrap up this last dish. 

I'm glad I came to TagBar.  It really restored confidence in the TAG branding.  If I find myself in Denver again, I'll give the big TAG restaurant another shot at a proper dinner.  However, I'll definitely be visiting this joint after I've had some drinks in me.  I think I saw something about kimchee being on the menu too...