Cafe Society

TAG | RAW BAR brings fresh meat and bright lights to a basement space

At 6 p.m. on a Friday, Larimer Square is already well into the first rush of the night. Luxury vehicles hum to a stop in front of valet stands, their high-heeled occupants clicking across the sidewalk after the uniformed attendants take the keys. Other drivers are fighting for parking, much to the amusement of the business types from nearby office buildings who've walked over and are already sitting on a patio or in a bar, sipping up-glass cocktails or flutes of sparkling wine while they wait for their tables in this epicenter of upscale Denver restaurants.

The club-hoppers won't be out until later — they make up the second Larimer Square rush — but if you listen closely, you can hear Lady Gaga blasting from the Larimer Walkway, hinting at a hot spot below. This is no dance club, though. The stairs lead down to a tiny eatery that's remarkably bright, despite its subterranean address, decorated with white marble, orange bar-seat tops and metallic tiles. As eager diners claim their places on one of the twelve bar stools or at one of the two tables, someone behind the bar will yell "Poppycock!" — and then present them with a surprisingly delicious dish of caramel corn and dried, salted sea kelp.

Welcome to TAG | RAW BAR.

"To be completely honest with you, we didn't know what it was going to be," Leigh Sullivan-Guard says of the second spot that she and her husband, Troy Guard, created just down the block from TAG. "And we're still excited to see where it's going. We just knew that we didn't have a hood or grease trap. We knew we had to take raw ingredients and manipulate the cooking techniques."

The Guards did know that they wanted their new place to feel like it was part of the TAG family. For that first restaurant, they took an awkward, reconfigured Larimer Square space and turned it into a sleek, modern, sexy room, with a white spirits- and tequila-focused craft cocktail program paired with "continental social food," dishes that blended Asian, European and Hawaiian influences. At the outset, many of those dishes were reminiscent of what Troy had cooked as a chef at Zengo and Nine75. But over the past two years, TAG's list has evolved, with Pop Rock sashimi, French onion soup dumplings and pork-belly sliders creating a more defined Guard brand.

When Troy and Leigh decided it was time to extend that brand, they set their sights on the first slot in an about-to-be-renovated underground walkway. "I wanted it to be like TAG's private annex," says Leigh. So they outfitted the space in a similar color scheme — though they turned the lights up high here rather than repeat TAG's soft glow — and created a similarly cocktail-focused beverage list. Then they started experimenting with the menu, seeing what dishes Troy could cook up with ingredients that hadn't seen more heat than a butane torch. The limits of the tiny space pushed the chef to create some of his most exciting food yet, breaking down the bold flavors that characterize his cuisine and making every detail count.

I stopped by for lunch the week that TAG | RAW BAR opened in March, and I've returned just about every week since because not only is the atmosphere fun, but the food is fantastic. Over the past two months, Troy and his sous chefs, Sam Freund and Shaun Motoda, have tweaked the sushi rolls, tartares, sashimi and raw vegetable offerings that remain mainstays of the menu. My favorite order, though, is the chef's tasting menu — five, seven or ten courses invented on the spot and listed on printer tape. Like hiramasa on microgreens, Thai chile and mango granita. Or a slice of Scottish salmon on a pat of rice sitting in a pool of dill oil. Or a tiny quail-egg yolk nested in a ring of shallot-studded kangaroo tartare, topped with cinnamon-speckled foie gras foam; that dish was so popular that it was briefly added to the menu, and will soon make a comeback.

Another addition to the menu: noodle bowls. I stopped by the night they were introduced and got my first disappointing dish at TAG | RAW BAR. The limp ramen (udon, soba and rice noodles are available, too) was nested in a broth so rich with soy and mushroom that it tasted almost like French onion soup, and the piquant red peppers and jalapeños didn't do much to cut through the heaviness. Although that broth was changed the next day, this spot doesn't need noodle bowls at all. They seem out of character given all the fresh, raw food on the rest of the menu, and the broth has to be made in the TAG kitchen — which just seems like cheating. As a consolation prize, I ordered a suckle: blackberry, honeydew and lime juices poured into a machine with some hot chiles, then frozen into a popsicle. It was good, but it just made me want more.

So on a busy Friday, a couple of girlfriends and I fight the crowds on the street, find some stools at the bar and start sucking down amante picante cocktails, a blend of tequila, lime and jalapeño that would be perfect on a patio in the middle of July (and makes us wistful for warmer weather) while we wait for the ten courses on our personalized tasting menu. The first is oysters on a bed of ice: one from the East Coast and one from the West. Tipping the shells into our mouths, we compare the taste of the sea, the vegetal characteristics and the sweet flesh. No sooner do they disappear than the "ceviche imagination" arrives. The shot glass of raw fish changes daily; this time, it's full of hiramasa, an incredibly fresh white fish, and shrimp in a hot, tangy pico de gallo laced with lip-puckering lime. Then comes a small dish of haricots verts: crisp, cold green beans blended with pungent garlic shoots, doused in a slow-burning kimchi brine. It's a perfect complement to the ahi poke salad, which mixes ruby-red cubes of tuna, a pile of greens and hearts of palm bathed in a robust, peppery vinaigrette. The spicy dressing mixed with the velvety fish, the subtly bitter bite of endive and the lightly pickled slices of palm-tree core is a very compelling combination.

While we watch Freund roll our sushi, we shower him with questions about this fantastic dish — until he finally ends the interrogation by putting a plate in front of us. For the Bulldog roll, kimchi and apple give a sweet, earthy heat to more hiramasa and crisp cucumber wrapped in seaweed and rice. More spicy still is the Los Chingones roll, with bits of jalapeño and fiery aioli playing off buttery avocado and chopped ahi tuna; a couple of leaves of micro shiso top each slice, giving each bite a palate-cleansing, almost minty kick — without adding the leathery texture of the leaves of the larger plant.

Our next courses are even more heated. The first is lamb loin, pounded thin, torched medium-rare and plated with a bouquet of mustardy mizuna, a dusting of crispy, gray sunchoke chips and a breath of pecorino. For the tataki, more loin — kangaroo this time — is torched, then rolled and placed in pools of fresh arugula pesto, dotted with finely chopped tomatoes and overlaid with a crouton for crunch.

The feast ends with a single strawberry, but not a simple one. Freund has carved out the center and filled it with rhubarb compote, then dipped the fruit in chocolate. The dessert captures the taste of this changing season, pitting bitter and sour elements against sweet. It's an end that leaves us completely satisfied but not utterly stuffed.

Revitalized, we head up the stairs and join the after-dinner crowd spilling out of upscale restaurants manned by iconic chefs on a legendary Denver street, the sound of Gaga swallowed up by the chattering masses.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk