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THE EGGPLANT AND I

In restaurant circles, you frequently hear the saying, "If you like to cook, don't become a chef." Seasoned chefs will tell you that they got into the business because they loved working with food and serving their beautiful creations to others. Until they became chefs, that is, and found themselves up to their toques in food costs, incompetent co-workers and customers who don't know shit from shiitake.

Take those worries, add hundreds more and you'll understand the origins of another saying, "If you like being a chef, don't open your own restaurant." Even when the chef shares the ownership headaches, it's a whole new ball of whacks--as Aubergine Cafe chef/ owner Sean Kelly well knows.

"I feel like we're finally coming out of the other side of the tunnel," says Kelly, who in February opened Aubergine, his first almost-solo venture (there are two money people back East, but he runs the show). "The 120-hour weeks are lessening, and the things that we weren't happy with ourselves are fixed. I'm still enjoying the cooking, though, and we're still having fun here."

Kelly has good reason to be optimistic: his success in other people's kitchens. As executive chef at Barolo Grill for three years, he helped fuel that restaurant's rapid rise; before that he spent a year as Kevin Taylor's lunch chef at Zenith American Grill. But through it all, he longed to break out on his own. "I've been doing this since I was fourteen," says the 33-year-old Kelly. "So nineteen years is a long time coming to do my own thing."

Kelly's own thing has the looks of a sure thing. He took over the Seventh Avenue building vacated by Benny's and changed it from a modest Mexican joint to a warm, sunlit room with custard-colored walls and homey touches. Kelly almost stumbled--literally--over the location one day while he was jogging. "I had been looking for something for a long time," he says, "and I knew I didn't want to be in Cherry Creek, where you really have to do a certain thing to make the people happy. And I didn't want to get stuck in downtown's baseball melodrama, where a bunch of millionaires are going to cry every few years and not play ball so that I go bankrupt. As soon as I walked into this place, I could just see the kind of cafe I could turn it into."

His cafe concept extends to an ever-changing list of daily specials as well as a "cafe menu" of Mediterranean-style semi-small plates, none over $7. Although the standard lineup is primarily vegetarian, Kelly says he never intended for Aubergine to be labeled a vegetarian restaurant. "I'm not sure why people latched on to that so hard," he says. "I really just wanted to do some stuff that was a little healthier, and I wanted to show people that it doesn't have to be a beef-filled burrito to be good. But the specials always contain some meat and fish." Many of the items on the cafe menu, he adds, were included because they were dishes that he and kitchen mate Jon Ahalt, who's worked with Kelly for three years, did well together.

One such dish is the saffron-stewed mussels ($7), with its broth of fennel seed, orange zest, roasted tomatoes, onions and enough saffron that we could actually taste it. The liquid was a sweet, more concentrated take on bouillabaisse that Kelly and Ahalt had used as a sauce base for tuna, among other things, at Barolo; the addition of saffron made the mix even headier. This spice is so expensive--a purple crocus flower produces only three saffron stigmas, each of which must be hand-picked, and it takes about 14,000 stigmas to make an ounce--that it's often pretentious for restaurants to even list it on their menus. Not so at Aubergine, where the perfumey flavor of the saffron was further exploited in an aioli drizzled across the mussels. Accompanied by a thick slice of toast for sopping up any remaining juices, the portion was ample for lunch or dinner (all of the "cafe" items are the same size and price at both meals) and the production marred only by what I thought was a really long thread of saffron but turned out to be a piece of nylon from the bag the mussels came in.

But such a minor flaw was far outweighed by sound food combinations and otherwise savvy executions. The roast leg of lamb sandwich ($6) from that day's lunch specials, for example, featured just-made focaccia that housed slices of very rare lamb along with arugula and a mellow tapenade. The lamb was chewy and could have used a few more minutes of cooking time to render it tender, but when Kelly cooked it longer he got complaints. "It's another one of those `can't please everyone' deals," he says. "When I cooked it medium, more people complained because they like it rare." And it wouldn't be cost-effective to offer a choice of doneness, he explains, because then the kitchen would have to "do three legs a day, and a lot would be left over from each."

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