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There are seventeen items on the menu at Montecito. Today there are seventeen items. That might change tomorrow, next week. And those seventeen items involve about ninety ingredients (a rough guess, because I'm making a lot of assumptions on prep and construction) that are stashed in the restaurant's pantry, in the coolers, wrapped in nooks and crannies in the kitchen lowboys. I'm counting the white Sicilian anchovies only once, though they're used both in the construction of the Caesar salad dressing and whole on the plate for the salad of radishes with roasted red peppers and lemon-spiked olive oil. And I'm counting shallots only once, even though they're required for at least half of the plates on the menu.
So, say ninety ingredients. And that number? It probably changed twice just in the time it took you to read the above paragraph. Chef Adam Mali (late of his Restaurant Kody in Evergreen and, more recently, the Ajax Tavern in Aspen) is known for being an inveterate tinkerer, a guy who just can't leave well enough alone. I've had a lot of meals at Montecito. And I've never had the same dinner twice.
Shortly before Montecito opened last December, I talked with Mel Master about his plans for the place. He said that while he focused on Mel's in Cherry Creek and son Charlie burned the candle at both locations of Brix, Montecito would be his wife's baby, Jane Master's love letter to the couple's early days in California. This was before news leaked out that, owing to a landlord/tenant dispute, Mel's would be closing this month; before Charlie walked away from the day-to-day operations at Brix, leaving those to partner Chuck Cattaneo; before the announcements were made that a second Montecito was in the offing down in Greenwood Village and a third restaurant (to be called Anabell's, after Charlie's daughter, among other things) was on the way. To put it bluntly, this was before a whole lotta shit came down. Back when Mel and I talked, I asked who'd be Montecito's chef, and Mel responded by asking if I knew anyone who was looking.
1120 E. 6th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
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Arugula salad: $10
Anchovy salad: $9
I did. He asked if it would be too weird for me to give him a couple of names, what with me being a critic and him being a restaurateur. But I've known Mel and Jane and Charlie since pretty much my first week in Denver; we passed "weird" years ago. Besides, I was just going to give him the names cold, mention a couple of guys who I knew were either out of work or looking to make a jump. I wasn't going to make any sort of recommendations. That would have been weird, because at the time, I honestly thought Montecito sounded like a really bad idea.
At the time, it was just a concept and a space. The concept: California/Mediterranean cuisine. The space: the former Piscos, at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, which Mel and Jane had picked up because it suddenly became available and because, decades before, the two of them -- along with Blair Taylor from Barolo -- had run Dudley's, an infamous and very fondly remembered Denver restaurant, out of that same spot. "It's full circle, man," Mel told me. "How could we not?"
A couple of reasons. First, California cuisine, no matter its geographic inspiration, had worked in Denver only once in the past five years -- at Deluxe, and then only under strange circumstances of person and place. It had been tried plenty, but failed -- to one degree or another -- every other time. And second, I didn't like the space. I'd never been a big fan of Piscos, never loved the room, never would have considered it for the foundation of a new restaurant empire.
But not only did Montecito's Sixth Avenue neighbors embrace California cuisine, but so did Denver at large. And not only did the concept work, but it slid seamlessly into the redesigned space. Dimly lit, anchored by a long bar and banquettes, with a solarium-cum-patio raised slightly above the darkly accented dining floor and cubist umbrellas hanging cockeyed above some of the tables where there was almost no direct sunlight, it was an exercise in anti-Californian design -- which worked in perfect counterpoint to the purely Californian menu.
That menu is the work of Mali, who was not one of the guys I suggested to Mel. He was not even someone I considered. And now I'm firmly of the belief that without him, Montecito probably wouldn't have succeeded.
Mali is known for much more than his tinkering. He's a chef with California history, having done time with Craig Stoll at Delfina (who did time with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse) and with Gary Danko at his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco, the cradle of the revolution's second generation. A cook cannot spend more than fifteen minutes in San Francisco without being washed in the fount and altered on an almost genetic level; I've never known a chef with Frisco roots (however tenuous) who didn't get all weepy over heirloom this-and-that and pop a little gastro-chubby at the mere mention of mesquite grilling.