Cafe Society

Troy Guard's TAG: Play that funky music, white boy!

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan