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Talk about a blast from the past, eh?" I've got Mel Master on the phone, and he's talking about his own October surprise: the sudden signing of a contract for the space at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, which currently houses Piscos and originally was the home of Dudley's, the restaurant that Mel and his wife, Jane, opened with Blair Taylor (now of Barolo) back in 1977.
The Masters have just moved semi-permanently back to Denver after holding down a kind of dual residency between here and Long Island. And Provence. And occasionally England. They came back with the intention of seeing to their namesake restaurant, Mel's, as it changed chefs, decor, feel. Soon after they settled into their temporary digs, though, the Masters got a call that Piscos was going on the block. "Crazy world, isn't it?" Mel asks.
It was an opportunity they couldn't pass up, since it had everything that Mel and Jane love: history and synchronicity and a sense of fate. Also, it had a dining room that didn't need much structural work, a kitchen that's fully equipped, an address that anchors a still up-and-coming restaurant neighborhood, and the possibility of a quick turnaround between close of contract and opening of doors. Barring any last-minute complications, the deal will be sealed by the end of November, and a new restaurant, Montecito, up and running in early December. "Before Christmas, certainly," Mel tells me, hedging his bets slightly.
1120 E. 6th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
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Mel will focus primarily on Mel's, and Jane will oversee the five-night service at Montecito. "It's a mom-and-dad kind of thing," Mel explains. "Though Janie will always have input at Mel's and, I hope, I'll have some say at the new place."
No decision has been made on a chef for Montecito, though one may come soon. "There've been two or three good chefs, good names, who've approached us," Mel says. Of that I have no doubt: Over the years, Mel's kitchens -- at Mel's, Starfish, Dudley's, Top Hat and Jams, among others -- have trained or been the proving ground not only for some big international names, but pretty much every name chef working in Denver.
At least the cuisine has been decided. Jane is looking at a California-Mediterranean-styled place, bright and fresh, inspired by the restaurants around the Santa Barbara area (hence the name). "Stylistically, we don't want to be Italian," Mel explains. "We were going to do a Provençal restaurant because of, like, our life in Provence. But that was too, I don't knowSo what do you say? People ask you what kind of food it is, and you say what? Contemporary American. You say California-Mediterranean because that has an image of both the bright, simple, good places in California and some of the Italian food they do there. We both have this inevitable description we're asked for. It's getting harder and harder to find a handle, you know?"
Put (a bit) more simply, Montecito will focus on a California regional style, because that region allows you to take influences from many traditions. It can serve Italian dishes without being an Italian restaurant, Southwestern without being Mexican, greenmarket cuisine without having to pay specific homage to Saint Alice and her disciples.
"Anyway," Mel says, "it's going to be good." And then he laughs. "Now all we have to do is get it open."
State of the art: Another volume of a very important book series has just hit the shelves -- the 2006 edition of Best Food Writing. Why is it so important? Because I'm in it, of course. There's other stuff as well, but you know how I am. Me, me, me...
Just kidding. Actually, you can read my story included in Best Food Writing-- "Mama's House," from the January 5 issue, about the night Westwordphotographer Mark Mangerand I spent looking for Mama T's secret Ghanaian house restaurant -- free of charge online. But then you'd be missing the brilliant work of fifty other food writers who aren't me.
This is my fourth year in the collection, and those four years have showcased an interesting stretch of work that comes off like case wines, with good vintages and not-so-good ones. For example, 2003 was a great year, with a piece by Adam Gopnik ("The Cooking Game," originally published in the New Yorker) that's one of my favorite pieces of food writing ever. There were also achingly beautiful pieces from John Haney and Miriam Sauls, and funny ones from Nigel Slater and Jonathan Gold. In 2003, I looked like a punk among champions. It was a year when food writers lived large, spoke loud and really stomped on the terra.
But 2004 and '05 were different. How do I know? Because I looked pretty good in those years -- and it's not like I'd gotten any better at my job or anything. I'm still the same half-bright spastic thug I was the day I threw in the towel, gave up cooking and picked up a pen to pay the rent. It's just that for about two years, food writing took an ugly turn toward journalism and reporting and away from storytelling -- which is the only thing I've ever been all that good at in the first place. There were a lot of articles on the business of cooking, a lot of think pieces on organic and sustainable farming, a lot of very deep and heavy thinking that entirely missed the fun and emotional power of the best writing on food.