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.