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The economy in Denver has never been better, and more people are eating out than ever before. But 200 bucks is still 200 bucks. For that amount, I can get four tickets to go hear an aging rock band belt out tunes that transport me back to my younger, more carefree days; I can get Loveland lift tickets and snowboard in windy bliss for eight hours with a companion four times; or I can get a case of really good wine, some chips and salsa, and rent a movie for a dozen fun friends. Or, if I want more solid sustenance, I can eat steak tacos every Wednesday at the Mexico City Lounge for the next five months.

So if I'm going to shell out $200 so that two people can have one two-hour dinner that, in practical terms, will have been sucked of all its vitamins and nutrients in my small intestine before I hit the lights that night, that meal had better provide several memories I can savor long after the food itself is gone. But now, after I've spent the equivalent of a reasonable down payment for a car on two occasions at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, I have few fond thoughts and two big receipts to remember the place by.

Until my visits to his namesake new eatery in the Hotel Teatro, I've loved Kevin Taylor's food every time I've encountered it. From the first slurp of heavenly roasted corn-chowder soup that was part of his New American roster at the gone-but-not-forgotten Zenith American Bistro through the funky fusion at Dandelion in Boulder, the urban chic of Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, the full-bodied creations at Brasserie Z and the fun-filled fare at Jou Jou (see Mouthing Off), the sister restaurant Taylor has opened on the other side of the Hotel Teatro, I've found his dishes unbelievably good. Hey, I even liked the now-defunct Cafe Iguana, even though I was quite alone in my admiration of his authentic Oaxacan and Yucatan cooking. And all this from a hometown boy!

Taylor, a native Coloradan, closed the decade-old Zenith in May 1997. As he explained at the time, it was partly because the place was "too Eighties" and partly because he was bored with running a "four-star" restaurant (Mouthing Off, June 5, 1997). "I want a fifth star," Taylor said. "I'm going to keep going until I get it."

Well, Kevin Taylor (the restaurant) isn't it.
The space that holds the fine-dining establishment is certainly fine. Although the Hotel Teatro still isn't finished, enough of the $18.5 million renovation has been completed that the building's glorious possibilities are beginning to show. Stepping into the marble lobby, with its brass elevators and molded-plaster ceilings, is like stepping back into the early 1900s, when this building was called the Tramway and served as the hub for Denver's mass-transit system.

The cultured elegance carries over into Kevin Taylor, where the silky walls, striped upholstery, honey-colored wood and antique-looking mirrors are reminiscent of great hotel dining everywhere--but in an appealingly more modern way, since places like the Ritz-Carlton's dining rooms are starting to look dated. Whether the average Denver diner gives a darn that this place uses Limoges china, Christofle flatware, damask linens, Spigelau stemware and Sears's best waiter uniforms, I have no idea, but I do know that if I had dropped anything, the bill was only going to go up.

When you're paying this much for a meal, you expect the service as well as the food to inspire poetry. But all the staffers here were so self-conscious that they looked incapable of executing a smile, much less a simile--from the server who took a step back from the table every time she accomplished a task (looking a bit like a Nazi marionette) to the painfully adorable guy who kept referring to the excellent breads in his little basket as "my olive oil rolls" and "my sourdough." Only the wine steward seemed to be fearlessly having fun, and that meant that everyone else seemed recently embalmed by comparison. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to note that my second meal at Kevin Taylor's was one of the very few times during my five-year career as a Denver restaurant reviewer that I was recognized: A former fellow employee from an eatery where I worked when I first came to town is now a staff member here. However, it was easy to see that the service was as stiff at other tables as it was at ours.

And knowledge of my presence certainly didn't result in stellar food coming out of the kitchen. For the most part, Kevin Taylor's fare is joyless food that wavers between taking itself way too seriously and being just plain goofy. In the latter category was the seared Maine "diver" scallop ($12.50), a jumbo price for a single jumbo scallop topped with a dinky squirt of beluga caviar from China, as well as a "citrus emulsion" that tasted very, very faintly of lemon, but only if we thought about it hard. The lonely scallop looked ridiculous; it was nouvelle hell all over again. Our other appetizer, the Peekytoe crab napoleon ($11), was tasty, if a little pretentious. Taylor is well-known for his napoleon complex; every menu of his in town right now has at least one napoleon-style dish, which traditionally refers to a layered dessert. In this variation on the theme, delicate puff pastry held together crab that was almost overshadowed by the teeny diced green apples floating in a coriander-fennel jus surrounding the napoleon like a little French moat.

Our soup and salad were better, even if they performed supporting roles. The lobster veloute ($6) brought a take on the French sauce using a slightly thickened lobster fumet as a base for tender lobster meat, thin slips of mushroom and a rich blob of tarragon-flecked cream. And the Mediterranean salad ($9) featured baby artichokes and well-aged feta in an olive-pungent "Niçoise" vinaigrette.

The real stars of the evening should have been the entrees, but they were fraught with problems. Since I tried it, Taylor has removed the John Dory ($34) from the menu. Normally, I'd say that's a shame, because the fragile, mildly flavored flesh of this fish can be exquisite when it's handled properly. Here, though, it had been topped with a piece of Parma ham and a blip of foie gras, neither of which made any sense. And the sauce, a deep, dark-red Barolo reduction, would have been better suited to a hefty piece of bloody tenderloin than a frail fish fillet. That sauce was similar in style to the vintage port mix on the seared Muscovy duck breast and slow-roasted leg ($27.50), which also sported pomegranates that offered strangely little flavor and a celeriac puree so soaked with the port sauce that it tasted of nothing else. The duck itself was tender and flavorful, though, with the crispy-skinned leg better than the breast, which was on the chewy side.

Desserts have always been among Taylor's strong points. Since his Zenith days, he's offered some version of his "liquid center" chocolate cake ($8), which was quite delicious here. The frozen espresso and hazelnut bombe ($8), on the other hand, was annoyingly bland. But 200 bucks does buy a few amenities, and the plate of delectable petit fours that arrived post-dessert was a nice touch--particularly since the tiny morsels turned out to be better than the desserts themselves.

On my second visit, our meal began with another gracious flourish: amuses-bouches. Literally translating to "mouth entertainment," this tongue-tickler was a savory, paper-thin shred of beef carpaccio. We followed it up with a tuna carpaccio ($10.50) buried under such a macro helping of "micro greens" that it was like foraging through the bushes to find the slim slice of sushi-grade tuna beneath it all. Adding to the jungle were four blood orange sections that contributed little to the overall taste and a tobiko-studded vinaigrette that was all tang and drowned out the oily but timid tuna. The foie gras ($14) that followed, though, more than lived up to expectations. (Foie gras is another signature Taylor offering.) A nice-sized piece of duck liver had been napped with a well-balanced, star-anise-kissed sherry-vinegar reduction into which oozed the sweetness of a fan-sliced piece of mango.

While the 24-hour tomato soup ($6) arrived lukewarm, its temperature didn't detract from the concentrated tomato flavor, augmented by blobs of basil puree and a rich fromage blanc (that's white cheese, for those of you who normally stick with Monterey Jack) studded with shards of crisp shiitake mushrooms. But the stuffy chilled Maine lobster, avocado and mango salad ($14) was dull, with everything tasting overly refrigerated under a "light ginger dressing" that was a huge understatement.

Lack of flavor wasn't the problem with the free-range red veal escalopes ($30); the dry, chewy veal was. Yes, free-range is going to be more muscular than the meat from a calf that sits in a two-by-four box all its life--and for all you PETA members, I wouldn't prefer that any day--but there had to be a better way of cooking this into a semblance of tenderness. The texture was so irritating that it was impossible to enjoy the added flavor that free-range meat has. Fortunately, the wild-mushroom risotto underneath was soft and moist, positively spirited with the essences of a variety of mushrooms and lightly enhanced with cognac. Take away the need to gnaw endlessly on the veal, and this was the sort of sophisticated layering of flavors I'd expect from Taylor.

But the crispy roasted dayboat cod and Manila clams ($26) reminded me of a skillet special at Denny's. A square of otherwise fresh-tasting, well-cooked, crisp-skinned cod came in on a sea of "oceanic" herb broth that tasted like bacon. The skin of the cod also tasted like bacon, as did the crunchy-skinned potato gnocchi that sat in the broth. The kitchen had used lardons (a fancy term for "bacon" done the way the French use it: diced, blanched and fried), and the dish was so salty that each bite was difficult to swallow. The only salvageable portions were the Manila clams, which were somewhat separated from the briny broth by their shells.

Rather than risk further disappointments, for dessert we opted to split an excellent dark-chocolate and pistachio teardrop ($8) sided by a scoop of vividly chocolate sorbet. Paired with the foie gras, it would have made the perfect meal.

But not one worth $200. Kevin Taylor (the man) needs to reach higher if he's going to grab that fifth star.

Restaurant Kevin Taylor, 1106 14th Street, 303-820-2600. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday.


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