We'd already ordered drinks, Laura and I, and were just settling into the purple banquette behind a scratched black cafe table at Prima, Kevin Taylor's most recent revision at Hotel Teatro.
This isn't the first restaurant Taylor has had in this space. Until last year it was jou jou, a lighthearted, occasionally fusion-y cousin to Restaurant Kevin Taylor, situated directly across the boutique hotel's small lobby. And this isn't Taylor's newest restaurant, either. One of Denver's first serious contenders for the title of "celebrity chef," Taylor has been on a bit of a binge recently, opening eponymous joints as though he were setting up franchises. Kevin Taylor at the Ellie, Kevin Taylor's Rouge at the Teller House in Central City, a second Prima in Boulder that just went live last month -- the man has been busy. I've heard he's thinking about a fast-food chain: Kevin Taylor's Chicken and Waffles, where every order of truffle-scented fried chicken will come in a bucket shaped like KT's head.
Okay, maybe I made that part up, but Taylor has an undeniable passion for brand extension -- as well as for blitzkrieg openings and sudden, unannounced closures -- that borders on obsession. He runs his empire (which currently stands at five restaurants, soon to be an all-time high of six) like a high-stakes round of Red Light/Green Light. Remember that game? One kid plays traffic light, keeping all of his friends frozen in place until he turns his back and yells "Green light!," at which point everyone runs forward as fast as they can. Then the kid turns around again and shouts "Red light!," and everyone has to stop. Well, when the light goes green, Taylor runs quicker than any other player on the field. He scrambles faster than you'd believe possible.
Prima is what he ended up with at the end of the last game. Or it's how he started this round, depending on how you measure time. And it's lovely, both chic and rustic, with walls the color of cardamom and French mustard, tall windows draped with gauzy sheers, purple velvet upholstery behind those anachronistically battered cafe tables, and a second-floor mezzanine ideal for throwing olive pits or capers down into the hairdos of the beautiful people crowded around the gleaming black bar top below. If you're immature (which I am), you can make a game out of it: five points for bouncing it off a bald spot, ten if you can make it stick in someone's bob, twenty-five for plonking it into a martini on the bar, and fifty if the guy in the pressed khakis and age-inappropriate Mexican party shirt drinks it without noticing. Game ends when you get caught. Low score pays for dinner.
Tonight, though, Laura and I are stuck on the first floor, fortifying ourselves with crystal flutes of Prosecco and looking over the menu.
"What's tagliata?" she asks.
"Here." She points. "Angus sirloin tagliata with cress, roast potatoes, parmesan and horseradish."
I check my menu to make sure it's not a typo. It isn't. "I have no idea," I say.
"You should ask."
After giving us a moment to confer (and to discuss scoring aberrations in our new game, such as whether points ought to be adjusted according to cup size when making a direct hit on the cleavage of the trophy wife in the low-cut dress), our waiter returns to the table.
"Do you have any questions about the menu?" he asks, standing posed with his hands folded in front of him.
"Yes, he does," Laura chimes in.
I ask about the tagliata. "I've never seen that word before."
"Yes, well, that's just a made-up word," our waiter says.
"Made-up," I repeat.
"Yeah, to make the plate sound better. Kevin actually told us that it didn't mean anything."
"Really!" I say, slapping my hands down on the table and smiling hugely. "Well, thank you. That is just...that is just fantastic."
We order, largely and broadly. And when we're done, our waiter nods and collects our menus. "My name is Rupert," he says. "If you need anything, just ask."
Rupert. I'm pretty sure that's a made-up name, too. He looks nothing like a Rupert. All done up in house livery, he looks like the bartender at a disco funeral or like Mercutio in a glam-rock production of Romeo and Juliet. But if he can call himself Rupert and Taylor can invent Italian words for describing his beef, then so can I.
Thus, the layered Buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil salad becomes a Caprese banaletti -- a little bit dull for a menu otherwise stoked with some very high-tone interpretations of classical Italian dishes. And the green potato gnocchi with walnuts, beautifully thin-sliced leaves of sage and gorgonzola is served come un brica, because though it is delicious, it is heavy as a brick.
The carpaccio -- sliced thicker than usual and served laced with aioli, scattered with capers, stacked with stale grana padano cheese and crossed with crisp grissini breadsticks -- is stoleni. Stolen, in other words, from Harry's Bar originally (as noted on the menu), but also from nearly every other restaurant in Denver these days. Which would be fine -- I'm all in favor of the shameless pilfering that makes the restaurant world go 'round -- except that my carpaccio tastes like roast beef. Carpaccio is supposed to be ethereally thin and wispy, offering just a demure hint of bloody, beefy, carnivorous goodness. This is like an undercooked sandwich from Arby's.
Prima's roasted-beet salad is served ultima risorsa -- as a last resort for those who are trying to watch their figures, maybe, or who've succumbed to the siren's song of vegetarianism. It is a plate most notable for its conspicuous lack of anything that might be mistaken for composition, just a jumbled mess of unevenly sliced red beets, bitter greens, crushed walnuts and stiff cubes of flavorless ricotta, all heavily salted and dressed with beet juice.
Next to the ordinariness of this salad, the homemade squid-ink linguine stands out proudly. Squid-ink linguine is just plain weird. That's why I've ordered it. But squid-ink linguine at Prima is also more delicious than I would've thought possible: studded with chunks of bay scallop, hung with perfectly cooked rings of roasted calamari, and presented like a gigantic bird's nest of purply-black linguine cut as thin as angel hair, punctuated by halves of cherry tomato so fresh they look like they're bleeding. The kitchen shows remarkable restraint in saucing this linguine with a simple beurre blanc so rich and striking that it could make an actual bird's nest taste good.
In fact, all of the sauces at Prima are extraordinary. I'd been here a week before for a fast lunch and was floored by a plate of two homemade ravioli crowned with gorgeous bits of shaved black truffle and filled with ricotta and a soft-boiled egg. Cutting into them was like watching a magic trick as the yellow egg yolk bled out into a thin, citric and truffle-spiked sauce, emulsifying it, thickening it, turning it into one of the richest, smoothest, most ridiculously buttery and luscious things I'd ever tasted. But a few days later I had a sliced diver scallop off the four-item crudo menu that was indescribably nasty -- just a mouthful of raw fish, lemon and papery pink peppercorn that did not work at all. This wasn't raw fish like sashimi is raw fish, which is to say good. This was more like going fishing with a buddy and him betting you five bucks that you won't eat bait. Of course you're going to do it, because that's just the kind of stupid thing guys do when they're out fishing and maybe drinking thirty or forty beers in the sun. But you're not going to enjoy it. Lucky for me, I got to chase the plate of fishy, mushy, lemony and peppery scallop with artichoke and goat cheese cappelletti. Rather than the traditional hat shapes, these were little pink envelopes of homemade pasta speckled with poppy seeds, stuffed with a 'choke-and-goat paste in perfect proportion, and once again set against a beautiful mother sauce customized with hints of citrus, flecked with grated Romano and an astringent lace of sweet balsamic vinegar, and mounted with so much butter it should have been illegal. It was cappelletti brillamento: pure genius.
Between courses, our waiter comes back to the table to check on us. Prima's menu is arranged in classical Italian style, with crudo, antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci all timed out on the floor to keep courses coming, to keep the plates moving, and thus far, Rupert has done beautifully: setting and clearing with grace, needing nothing more from me than a nod across a crowded floor to materialize with more food.
"I asked my manager," he begins, smiling sheepishly, "and some of the guys, they tell me that tagliata actually is a word. They say it means 'stacked,' describing the way the steak is arranged on the plate. Sorry about that."
"You're kidding me," I say.
"Well, that's not very interesting at all. I think I liked it better as a made-up word."
Rupert shrugs. "Sorry about that. Your next course should be up momentarily." He drifts away and I turn to Laura.
"I am so going to Google that shit when I get home."
And when I do, I find out that really, no one is right. Tagliata is a word, but it simply means "cut" or "sliced." It's the word Italians use when they're talking about getting a haircut, but it's an appropriate enough descriptive for what are essentially tournedos of sirloin with greens and potatoes.
Its application here is not going to stop me from thinking of the soft, billowy polenta on Prima's antipasti menu, served with roasted mushrooms and a truffle fondue, as respluminous in its fungolity. Or the broiled chicken paillard with grilled lemon, yellow potato and summer vegetable salsa as stultishly mittlebrau -- neither particularly satisfying nor uniquely bad, but almost Germanic in its efficient presentation of protein, starch and veg for those wholly uninterested in having anything interesting done to their dinner. I'm going to tell everyone I know that the white bean and farro soup with smoked bacon and a dollop of bright, electric-green pesto was scrumtrulescent (a word that's not even mine, but Will Ferrell's from an old Saturday Night Live sketch), and that the saltimboca sauce attending an otherwise tough and overcooked veal scaloppine was tragisilient -- capable in its depth and strength of flavor of rescuing a tragically overdone cut of meat, and resilient enough to not be overwhelmed by the powerful flavors of the Milanese risotto at the center of the plate.
Prima is a restaurant that almost requires that words be invented to describe it. It's a house split straight down the middle, with throwaway hotel dishes dragging down a menu that's otherwise fantastic. For all the years that Kevin Taylor has been cooking, opening and closing restaurants, writing menus and playing red light/green light against an economy at whose edge he is always operating, he's been known for his occasionally startling paraphrases of traditional Italian cuisine. The squid-ink linguine, the cappelletti, the white bean soup and egg-filled ravioli are brilliant, delicious, nearly transcendent plates; Taylor at his absolute best, translated by a kitchen working to precisely his exacting standards. But when placed alongside these gorgeous examples, a simple chicken paillard or beet salad can't help but seem lackluster.
There's probably a word for that schism, driven by business realities, that forces a great chef and a good kitchen to compromise away half a menu -- to stack it with incidental, harmless, schoolboy plates just to satisfy the tastes of a public that only wants a steak or a pork chop for dinner -- but I can't for the life of me think what it might be.
Next time I go to Prima, I'll ask KT. His vocabulary is much bigger than mine, anyway.
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