By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Oh, I like this. It's like having dinner in L.A. or something."
I blink, look around the room.
5970 S. Holly St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Shrimp and grits:
Asparagus salad: $5< br>Agnolotti: $7
Mussels La Cagouille: $9
Foie gras: $12
Pear salad: $7
Pork tenderloin: $19
Beef tenderloin: $27
Grilled ono: $23
"This place. I like it. It feels like we're in L.A."
"Or something," I reply, then lapse back into silence, feeling shifty and uncomfortable while trying -- and succeeding, at least on some level -- to appear relaxed in my fancy dinner clothes. I've gotten good at it over the years, this masquerade, this pretend-me I can put on and take off like a well-tailored suit. Tonight, we are just another bunch of Cherry Creek swells out for a night on the town. Tonight, we are Miller, party of four. Or Weaver. Or Jones. Now that we've been seated, I can't quite remember who we're supposed to be.
My wife is sitting beside me in one of the cozy, cubbyhole booths that line one wall of Mel's Restaurant and Bar. It's a good table, toward the back of the room, with a commanding view of the entire restaurant -- the well-spaced four-tops on the floor, the crowded bar up front, the romantic side room with its arched doorways, faux trellises and twinkling lights. She pinches me hard on the leg. "Say something," she hisses in my ear.
I look up from the long, compartmentalized wine list, absently trying to decide between a bottle of white burgundy or a glass of the Humanitas red, and see our friends, Pat and Suzanne, staring out into space, looking bored. I am a bad host. Worse, a bad friend. Laura and I haven't seen them in over a year, and already I have nothing to say.
"You guys drinking?" I ask.
It's not their fault I have nothing to say. It's mine. It's the weather, the season, the smell of autumn's chill in the air. It's the two cooks I saw standing by the kitchen doors when we were first seated -- guys in chef's whites leaning against the little off-angle partition that separates the back of the house from the front -- like a scene right out of a movie, a moment of natural cinema. Both were smiling, muttering to each other, and they could've been saying anything -- talking about football or girls -- but the look in their eyes was pure business. One stood with his arms folded, side-button jacket shocking white against the muted pastels and creamy shades of the dining room; the other stood with his hands shoved in his pockets, apron spattered with food stains, fresh pan burn on his forearm. The chef and his sous, I figured. Jeff Saudo and one of his crew.
We had early reservations and were only the second table of the first dinner seating, and while we were being seated, the kitchen was still in that magic moment between the grunt work of the afternoon and the first hard rush. All of the prep was done, the coolers sandbagged with backups for the line -- chopped salad greens in fish tubs, iced mussels, portioned ono for the special -- and backups for the backups. Everyone had their mise arranged (sliced garlic, chopped shallots, finger bowls of kosher salt, cracked black pepper, garnishes, speed racks full of squeeze and quick-pour bottles), their side towels stacked. Everything was just so, and the line cooks were out back, grabbing a last smoke and fucking around, waiting for the machine-gun chatter of the printer to call them to their stations, while the chef and his sous took a last look at the room before it started filling up for another busy weekend dinner.
And I know all this because I know that look. Before I was Mister-Miller-party-of-four (or Jones or Weaver), I was one of those guys standing by the door waiting for the first rush of dinner service; counting in my head for the hundredth time the amount of seats versus the amount of reservations versus the usual walk-in traffic; worrying if there was enough spinach on the line, if the rookie grillman could keep up and whether the new waitress thought I looked cute in my starched white jacket.
I miss it sometimes, especially on nights like this when the first chill of autumn marks the end of the hellish summer season. I never liked summers in the galley, hated late July and August and even those last dog days of September, when the temps over the grills would climb to 120, 130, and everyone went around wearing frozen bar towels around their necks just to cool the blood and keep their brains from boiling. But I could never get enough of autumn -- of walking in out of the cold and into the humid, sweating warmth of a working kitchen, of the stink of used linens and old sneakers in the locker room, of sourdough starter in the proofing boxes and caramelizing onions on the stovetop. And I loved beyond all other mortal obsessions that moment between prep and service where there was nothing to do but wait for the worst.
That moment -- the one the guys were enjoying when I stepped into Mel's early on a Friday night --is a benchmark for judging the efficiency and skill of a kitchen. How close they come to being ready for anything before anything starts to happen tells a lot about the chef and the crew he's got under him. Five minutes is ideal, I think. Less than that and the kitchen begins slipping into a panic; more, and the crew starts getting weird, wandering aimlessly around the house and arguing over what station the radio should be on.