The Bite

After a year on the outside, Sean Kelly is back in the kitchen.

The restaurant business is like the Mafia: Every time you try to get out, they pull you back in.

For Sean Kelly, "they" comprise an unholy alliance of Denver diners eager for his food, along with his own insatiable desire to cook contemporary Mediterranean cuisine for people who appreciate the finer things in life. And so here he goes again, taking over the teeny, tiny space at 1313 East Sixth Avenue that was Merano. "I love to cook," Kelly says, almost helplessly. "I want to cook; I have to cook. For me, the struggle has been not just jumping right back into it after wanting to take some time off."

It's been one year almost to the day since Kelly cooked his last meal at his six-year-old Aubergine Cafe (its former home at 225 East Seventh Avenue is now the equally popular Mizuna), and in that time, he's consulted here and there and looked at many, many opportunities for a new eatery. In the end, he says, he had to follow his heart. "I think I speak for a lot of chefs when I say the dream job for us is really to cook in a small place for a small group of people who really get it," Kelly explains. "I was never one of those money people who likes the financial side of things, the day-to-day operations of a restaurant. I just want to cook, and so now I'm continuing that dream."

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The space Kelly's renovating isn't what most restaurateurs would consider ideal (at least not the ones who look at the bottom line rather than culinary ideals). Years ago, it held Today's Gourmet, which later moved to 3927 West 32nd Avenue and changed its name to Highlands Garden Cafe. (The restaurant is rarely open for dinner these days; the rest of the time, owner Pat Perry is living her own dream of catering to large private groups.) After Today's Gourmet and before Merano, the space was Ranelle's for four years; owner Ranelle Gregory featured several chefs who did a beautiful job with Northern Italian fare. When Günter and Marie Nussbaumer took over the spot in 1996, they kept the menu and the focus, but in 1999 they changed the name to Merano, after a town in Italy's Venezia Tridentina region.

What Kelly is going to do with the space is still a mystery to him, although he's given it the name Clair de Lune. "I haven't thought it all the way through yet," he says. "I'm not going to mentally commit to anything until I get the space up to speed -- the Nussbaumers were using one four-burner stove with an oven underneath, and I need more than that. Granted, they were only doing four people a night, but it's amazing that they made that work. But I really can't say yet as far as concept. I do know that it's likely I'll end up with some kind of French Mediterranean cafe, not too far from Aubergine in theory, but obviously -- with six or seven tables -- much, much smaller."

Still, it sounds great...until you think about the number of people who are going to want to eat Kelly's food -- particularly foodie types who won't balk at paying upwards of the $30 to $35 that Kelly anticipates charging per entree for dishes that will involve such precious ingredients as organic arugula picked that day and chicken he has slaughtered just for his restaurant. I predict that the waiting list to get a table at Kelly's restaurant will be two months.

"Maybe I'm being naive," Kelly says, "but I wouldn't mind having a place where people just came to celebrate special evenings, like birthdays and anniversaries. But I want it to be people I know. I never liked looking out into a dining room and thinking, 'Who are these people? Where did they come from? And do they really like what I'm doing, or are they here because it's hip to be seen here?'" What he liked best about Aubergine, toward the end, were the weekday dinners, when serious customers spent their money -- usually far more, he notes, than on those busy weekends -- and he recognized their faces week after week.

In the past year, since he closed Aubergine and The Biscuit (719 East 17th Avenue, now the home of Aix), Kelly has had many offers to do high-end, big-deal restaurants. But ultimately, the idea of big loans and a return to an eighty-hour-a-week lifestyle turned him off. "After September 11, like everybody else, I really started to think about my priorities," he says. "There was no way that I was then going to sign off on a half-million in debt, so I backed off those kinds of options and really thought about what I wanted to do with my life. And I realized that I don't want to cook for masses of nameless people. I want to cook for friends and regulars. I want to take time off in the summer and winter and go on vacation with my family. And if that means doing a very small-scale, focused place, with dinner-only five nights a week, and not taking credit cards, and having a small, select wine list, well, then, that's okay with me."

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