Dining

Reviews: TAG Restaurant

Great food, with a side order of inconsistent service.

February 2010

TAG Restaurant

(out of 4)
1441 Larimer St., 303-996-9985

The Draw Creative, multicultural dishes in a modern, urban space on Larimer Square.
The Drawback Service can be absentminded and inconsistent.
Don't Miss The vibrant cocktails, flash-seared kona kampachi, braised pork shoulder, Szechuan Colorado lamb.
Price $$$ ($16­-$25)

There are some evenings, and I know you know the kind I'm talking about, when all you want after the deadlines, the commute, the dry cleaners, and the obligatory call to your mother is a little attention. A little smile or a nod that lets you know everything will be fine. That tomorrow's another day. That you matter.

These are the nights I most like dining out, because at the right restaurant you know that whoever is taking your order will have your best interests in mind. He'll ask what you're in the mood for, support your selection, check back regularly, and laugh at your lame joke about not liking your entrée even though you licked the plate clean. And after an hour or two at one of these places, you'll start feeling that maybe you do count, that maybe you can do it all over again tomorrow.

On a night like this, when your need for attention is elevated, you may need a little extra patience if you dine at TAG, Troy Guard's new, hipster-cool Larimer Square restaurant. And I say this with a heavy heart, because there is so much I love about this place.

The space blends the right amount of modern high style (groovy light fixtures; a shiny, 700-bottle glass wine library) with casual Larimer Square traditionalism (exposed brick; an open kitchen).

The cocktail list wows diners with fresh and unexpected blends, like tequila, jalapeño, and English cucumber in the Amante Picante.

And the menu dazzles. Guard, 38, was born in Hawaii, raised on the West Coast, and has cooked his way through Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and New York, picking up a colorful fusion of tips, techniques, and flavors along the way. His talent for cross-cultural cuisine was on display at Zengo, Nine75, and Ocean, but here Guard is at his best.

A typical Guard dish surprises you, as it does in the flash-seared kona kampachi. In the appetizer, tender slices of delicate fish are served in a citrusy yuzu sauce and topped with spicy jalapeño and...Pop Rocks. Yes, the candy. (Guard has recently substituted hiramasa, a less tender fish, for the kona kampachi.)

A typical Guard dish entertains you, as it does with the French onion "soup" dumplings, in which deeply caramelized, sweet Maui onions are wrapped inside a pasta dough, formed into playful round balls, and topped with melted Gruyère cheese. There's really no soup here at all, just a comforting blend of warm flavors.

A typical Guard dish will subtly incorporate Asian influences. Examples: sweet Colorado lamb served Szechuan-style with spicy dragon sauce made with a blend of chiles and fermented black beans; succulent braised pork shoulder with tart green papaya slaw; and the tataki sushi roll, in which chile mayonnaise binds together spicy crab, seared tuna, and creamy avocado. Though the combination sounds rich, the flavors are balanced and clean.

Finally, a typical Guard dish will compete with the rest of the menu to earn your ranking as "favorite." One night, I dined with three friends, all enthusiastic eaters, and we ordered three appetizers, two sushi rolls, and three entrées. At the end of the meal, after much debate, we couldn't decide between the tender pork shoulder, the comforting braised rabbit empanadas, or the melt-on-contact 24-hour veal cheek.

Which ultimately brings me back to the service. Or rather, the lack thereof.

In the best restaurants, the service is imperceptible. Menus appear, glasses are filled, entrées arrive, and bottles are emptied—all in a quiet choreography that doesn't call attention to itself. Not at TAG. Here, the service may start well, but there hasn't been a single visit (and I've been numerous times) when it hasn't fallen apart at some point. Some of the problems: Dirty plates aren't replaced, cocktail glasses aren't removed, entrées are forgotten ("Oops, my bad," explained our server). On top of that, the waitstaff seems perpetually rushed. Or absentminded. Or both.

At TAG, servers take drink orders but scurry off before getting everyone at the table. The person who takes your drink order is often different from the person who takes your dinner order. And the third person, who ultimately delivers your food, will explain the dish in such rote, rapid-fire delivery that you have no idea what she just said. Instead of feeling coddled, you'll feel confused and may spend a large potion of your meal craning your neck in a desperate attempt to find a server who might take pity on you. I suspect that TAG is trying to streamline service by having a number of people serve each table, but the dance needs a lot more rehearsal.

And then there's the infomercial delivered by your server when you sit down. It's a spiel about where Guard has cooked, what Guard's influences are, what Guard calls his cuisine (Continental Social Food), what Guard wants you to experience from TAG, an acronym that happens to be his initials. This will likely be your first clue—as it was mine—that the restaurant is a little too much about Troy Guard and not quite enough about you.

Yet, it would be so easy to fix. If Guard could dial down the self-promotion and get the front of the house working as well as his kitchen, this restaurant would really sing. After all, Guard is accomplished, and he's serving up some of the most creative cuisine in the city. Until then, don't expect a meal at TAG to thoroughly transform a bad day into a good one.