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Troy Atherton Guard, the man behind the semi-eponymous restaurant TAG, serves the best rice I've ever had.
Yeah, rice. But this is no backhanded compliment. Rice is important — vitally so to maybe half the world. There are about a bazillion varieties of it, each one requiring its own infinitesimally different prep and handling, each one tasting slightly different from all the others. It's one of the world's great starches, a finicky grain that punishes the dumb and brooks no fucking around. Rice is the core of one of the planet's great cuisines (Japanese) and forms the base of several others (Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, et cetera). As a foodstuff, it is both unforgiving and merciful. One can make an entire meal out of just rice and table scraps, rice and sauce, rice and a few spare herbs. You can also irretrievably ruin an entire pot of rice just by showing it your back for one wrong minute. Rice is delicious. Rice is kind. Rice is also, when wronged, vengeful.
Rice is a big deal for Guard. He's a white kid like me, who's done time in Asian restaurants (like me) and (unlike me) has actually worked overseas, cooking in Singapore (at the Raffles Hotel, which is inarguably cool). He uses rice as a starch on his menus the way most American chefs use potatoes — though he uses it better than potatoes in many cases, not just lumping the rice in a pile at three o'clock on the plate, but incorporating it into the overall design of a dish. He fills tacos with it. Pairs it with pork belly in ssam. Even offers mock rice with sunfish that's really farro, prepared as a risotto, splashed with a French-Thai lemon-and-caper butter.
But what's important is not how much Guard features rice, but how he prepares it. Made the traditional way, sushi rice is both sticky and stiff, gluey enough to glom together into balls, yet dry and al dente enough to break into individual, stubby, short grains. It is splashed with rice vinegar, which is supposed to add a bright, savory note, then touched with some magical amount of sugar — the amount of which is almost always the sushi chef's most closely held secret. And maybe it's just my heathen American palate — brutalized by too much high-fructose corn syrup, cheap beer and barbecue potato chips, savaged by my dedication to a hundred different cuisines, never just one — but I have rarely been able to taste the rice vinegar and sugar in most restaurant sushi rice. Occasionally I've sensed some faint whisper of sweetness, the gentle hint of sour vinegar bite, but it has always been damnably subtle — a tease that has driven me to put down two, three, sometimes four plates of hand rolls just to chase that flirtatious savor. As with drinking wine, with eating oysters, with tasting truffles or huitlacoche, I've yearned for that sudden lightbulb moment: Oh, so this is what everyone has been going on about... but I've never really had it.
Until my first meal at TAG.
Guard's sushi rice is markedly different, markedly better, than any other sushi rice I've tried. It's perfectly sticky/stiff, ideally cooked and gently (yet still noticeably) touched with the sour bite of rice-wine vinegar, adding an addictive note carefully mediated by a hint of sweetness. It's white-boy rice, made for white boys with white-boy palates and Asian tastes. And even though there are many other things that Guard and his crew do well at TAG, the rice is what sold me, what made all the weirdness and goofiness and arrogance and ego that infuses so much of TAG's space and menu forgivable. I will overlook any excess, any obsession, any anything if the result is a memorable dinner. And for this rice alone, I would gladly sit shoulder to shoulder in a dark, windowless space, having Guard's goofy concept of "Continental Social Food" — "It's not a cuisine, it's a challenge..." — explained to me over and over again by flights of managers and servers who descend like dive bombers bearing plates of fusion tacos and lettuce wraps.
In fact, that's how I spent my first night in Guard's house: stuck at the bar in the basement, flanked by loud parties of coup-counting foodniks wearing berets, accosting the help — demanding explanations of the veal gelée and yuzu kabayaki sauce and the proper serving temperature of the absinthe — and talking right over Wild Cherry doing "Play That Funky Music." Which was annoying, because Guard's choice in music at his restaurants has been one of the things I've always liked about him, a mix as eclectic, pop-cult and bizarre as his menus, as his tastes in food.
Hiramasa, flash-seared on a hot flat-top, served with yuzu, jalapeño and pop rocks. Braised pork cheek with a hard-fried quail egg balanced on top. Sushi rolls cut and plated with machine precision, filled with Maine lobster, with kobe beef, with avocado and unagi and pickled gobo root. Beef short ribs smeared with tamarind, mounted over potatoes spiked with horseradish, caramelized apples, mole and sweet corn purée. Dude is weird, no doubt. Dude is freaky. Dude has never met a border or a canon that he didn't just grin at and give the finger to. And all of this — all of this fusion, for lack of a less polarizing term — would have flat pissed me off straight to the core of my classicist's soul if not for the fact that Guard's taste for fusion, for juxtaposition and the gleeful collisions of modern cookery, runs just as deep. This is what he has done for as long as I have known him, for as long as he has been feeding me. I have to respect a guy who has picked his hill, planted his flag and refused to budge no matter how fads and trends and the fickle passions of the foodie class have shifted. Guard makes food that fucks with food, and I like that.
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.
To me, duck-fat fries should be the greatest invention in the world. I mean, you take some french fries (which are already pretty damn good), and then, instead of frying them in plain old fryer oil or, better, peanut oil, you use duck fat — one of the most precious things that can be gotten from a duck simply because in it is held the entire essence of everything that makes ducks good eatin'. Duck-fat fries should come with fireworks, sparklers and waving flags. They ought to be garnished with hundred-dollar bills and coupons for free blow jobs. They should be the best fries on earth. But every time I've had duck-fat fries (which has not been very often at all), I've been somewhat disappointed. The fries haven't been bad, necessarily, but they never quite rose to my ridiculous expectations.
And the duck-fat fries at TAG were no exception. I asked for the fries as a side; even though they don't appear that way on the menu, my server told me that I could get them that way, which was a nice touch. They arrived (sans sparklers, fireworks or hundies) in a little chromium box lined with wax paper, spilling over the top like a bouquet of deliciousness. Another nice touch. But then I tasted my first fistful (restraint never having been my strong point), and they were nothing more than good. Not great. Not earth-shaking. Not resplendent in their awesomeness. They were nice fries, touched with sugar, fried just right. But given how Guard makes the best rice I've ever had, I was hoping he might do the same for duck-fat fries.
Still, if the worst a restaurant does is not live up to my admittedly wild and irrational expectations for a single dish, it's doing pretty damn well for itself. With TAG, Troy Atherton Guard has finally found a space he can call his own — one where his unique style and many influences all come together into a nearly seamless whole, a true fusion restaurant where the whole is far greater than the sum of its far-flung parts.
And that ain't bad for one weird white boy serving fish in a basement.