By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It helps, too, that he happens to be very, very good at the style he has chosen. It helps that almost all of his training (French, Asian, Nuevo Latino and pure trailer-park Americana) is mashed up in every single plate he designs. It helps (a lot) that he has a good crew backing him up, hand-picked over his years of cooking in and around Denver. It helps that he's re-purposed some of the dishes that were hits at his other restaurants, bringing them back from the dead and peppering his current menu with odes to menus that have gone before.
And it doesn't hurt that, from day one, he's claimed that TAG's physical design — the usage of the actual space and all the stuff in it — was deliberate, planned. Before the place ever opened in its awkward spot in Larimer Square, Guard was saying loudly and publicly that he wanted a restaurant that looked and felt like the restaurants in Manhattan or Chicago — those small, squeezed, unusually shaped spaces crammed into every weird nook and cranny left by generations of division and gentrification, of re-use and boom and bust; those addresses acquired by young restaurateurs who, forced into deals by penury, ridiculous rents and overcrowding, have had to make do with what they could get.
It doesn't hurt, but it's bullshit, of course, this making the best of a bad situation and trying (hard) to turn TAG's one big weakness into a strength simply by yelling "Strength!" at the top of his lungs. Because in all honesty, eating downstairs at TAG (down-elevator, actually, because there are no stairs) is an unpleasant experience. On the first floor, Guard got it right. Here, TAG does feel like one of those cramped, scrambling Manhattan eateries, arranged shotgun-style, long and narrow, with an open kitchen at the back, red booth backs salvaged from Mao, seats crammed in everywhere, and a glass wine wall dividing the left side from the right. It is lit so that all the polished wood and burnished metal gleams with warmth, and arranged so that it feels crowded and alive even on a slow night. But one level down, TAG is dark and claustrophobic in a way that no amount of decor or architectural trickery can alleviate. The bar stools are uncomfortable. The dim lights aren't so much sexy as sepulchral, and the mirrors, rather than expressing depth, just remind you that you are trapped. Even when you're sitting at a table, there's a creeping sense of burial to the atmosphere — of being shut out of whatever good times are going on aboveground and forced to sit around eating fish in a basement.
But sometimes, if you want TAG's excellent seafood potstickers (steamed first, then perfectly fried and dressed in a sweet-hot Korean hot-pepper butter), you have to go to the basement. Sometimes — if you've walked in cold, with no reservations, or have come on a busy weekend night, hungry for Guard's smart French onion soup dumplings filled with veal gelée and Maui onions, or the kitchen's miso-glazed black cod with edamame salsa — you're going to have to take the short ride down in the elevator (avoiding the temptation to stop it early and get off at Osteria Marco, housed in the basement next door) and eat belowground.
And trust me: You want those potstickers. You might be able to skip the soup dumpling presentation (I still prefer a plain old bowl of French onion soup), but you want the black cod, lifted from the menu at Ocean, maybe Mao. It's worth it. You want the taco sushi (one of the big sellers at Nine75 when it was still under Guard's command) with its perfect rice, ahi tuna, guacamole, little fried shells and sweet, spicy mango salsa. You want the pork-belly ssam lettuce wraps with lovely little sliced slabs of fatty, seared pork belly, apple-threaded kimchi, butter lettuce, sushi rice and Japanese/French/American soy dijonnaise. You want pretty much everything on the starters menu and the sushi board, and most of what's on the big-plates menu. They're all worth a trip down to the basement, worth spending a couple of hours belowground on a busy night.
After that first busy night, I made several return trips to TAG. I hit the place early (one minute after five) so that I could sit on the main floor and eat pork-belly sliders from the happy hour menu, big Maine scallops mounted over a butternut squash purée (delicious) and sided by Brussels sprouts and roasted sunchokes (not delicious) dressed in a killer kung pao sauce that I wished had been dumped liberally over everything on the table, including the water glass and the check. I dropped by late in the evening to hang out at the upstairs bar and watch the tenders play with a dozen different cocktails, using everything from olive-oil misters filled with Everclear to laboratory bottles of bitters and weird little fruits I couldn't have identified on a bet. And then I went back on a fast-hit mission to check out just one offering: TAG's duck-fat fries.