Bite Me

This just in: Griff's Burger Bar at 742 South Broadway, for which I just professed my undying love ("Cheeseburgers in Paradise," October 2), is no longer serving, well, anything. Early last Friday, just a day after my review hit the stands, Griff's caught fire. It started in the kitchen, quickly spread and by morning had gutted the much-loved little burger stand -- despite all the best efforts of firemen who'd been eating at the place for years.

Representatives from Griff's say that the place will be reopening as soon as possible, but there's no word yet on how soon "soon" might be.

Remember, though, there's still one more Griff's location in the area, at 5770 Wadsworth Bypass in Arvada. If you go, keep all open flames away from the building. This is the last Griff's we've got, and I don't want anyone taking any chances.

"In its own subtle way, Mel's is a small museum of recent American gastronomy." So wrote John Mariani, Esquire magazine's globe-trotting, verb-slinging epicure-for-hire, the last time he took a swing through Mel's Restaurant and Bar (reviewed on page 71). The quote is right there on the awards page of the restaurant's Web site, alongside kudos from Food and Wine, Gourmet and just about every media outfit in town. Mel's has been chosen as one of America's top bistros and one of America's top tables (in both 1996 and '97, by Gourmet); it has won awards for its wine list and its food, and while the Mariani quote dates from the days when Mel's was a younger, somewhat more chaotic lighthouse of New American cuisine in the vast darkness of the Midwest, the words still ring true. If anything, the light faithfully tended by Mel's owners, Melvyn and Jane Master, only shines brighter today.

And why? Two words: Jeff Saudo. A young chef near the top of his game who's keeping a few steps ahead of everyone else treading the New American/comfort-food path that still dominates the American culinary landscape.

And I've got two more: Alejandro Sosa. He's Saudo's chef de cuisine and a seven-year veteran of Mel's who started as a dishwasher and has been promoted through every rank in the brigade. Another two: Frank Bonanno. He was a line cook at Top Hat (a restaurant also owned by the Masters, whose former space at 1512 Lawrence Street is today occupied by Max Burgerworks), moved over to Mel's, and while top dog on the line there, met Doug Fleischmann -- then Mel's general manager. Bonanno and Fleischmann went on to partner up on not one, but two of Denver's top restaurants (Mizuna, at 225 East Seventh Avenue, and Luca d'Italia, around the corner at 711 Grant Street) before Fleischmann's tragic death in a car crash this past summer.

Tyler Wiard -- now executive chef at the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue) -- actually took two turns behind the grills at Mel's. Melissa Kelly (a student of Alice Waters and Larry Forgione and now chef/owner of a multiple-award-winning restaurant Primo, in Maine) put in time at Mel's, as did Ben Davis, Ben Davidson and Chris Fallon (who was chef when Mariani took his spin through the Rocky Mountain West and is now running bakeries in Boston). Greg Bortz was working as a baker and pastry chef at Mel's when, like Fallon, he got the bug to open his own bakery -- only he stayed in town to do it and called it the Denver Bread Company. Goose Sorenson made his journeyman's bones at Mel's, too: After doing time at Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) under former exec chef Michael Degenhart, he moved into a spot in Mel's kitchen, was then given the reins of Starfish (another Master outpost in Cherry Creek, at 300 Fillmore Street in what's now Campo de Fiori), which he later bought, then sold. Sorenson is now doing his own thing at Solera (5410 East Colfax) with partner Brian Klinginsmith, where he's winning awards of his own.

And then there are the Masters themselves, the curators of this museum of recent American gastronomy and the proud owners of one of the only places in town that can truly be called a training house. Since they started their working lives in France in the late '60s, they've been musicians, food writers, wine exporters and passionate eaters, as well as restaurateurs. Always a little ahead of the game, these two put Denver on the culinary map back in the '70s when, along with Blair Taylor, they created Dudley's -- "one of the first nouvelle restaurants in the West," again according to Mariani. (Taylor went on to have a long run with Chives in that space at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, which today holds Piscos.) After that, the couple opened Jams, which introduced New York City to the (arguable) joys of California cuisine, Barolo Grill (again with Taylor, who still runs the restaurant at 3030 East Sixth Avenue) and, finally, Mel's -- where all their experience from forty years of immersive, obsessive, expansive restaurateuring is focused.  

When I ask the chefs -- both present and former -- why Mel's has been so successful over the years, they give credit to the Masters. When I ask Mel why his place has done so well, he gives credit to his staff.

I catch Mel on his cell phone while he's having lunch in Long Beach, and he tells me he's very proud of his employees -- all of them, over all those years. When I ask why it seems that nearly every chef in town who has made a name for himself first earned his chops at Mel's, he laughs. "When you have really good talent, you can't keep them forever," he says, adding that he's glad he's been able to work with so many skillful cooks and maybe impart a little of the wisdom he's gained over four decades in the business. "But what I'm happiest about is that there's never been any sort of jealousy," he continues. "That's the great thing about Denver. It's like a family. We're all very close-knit. How can you ask for more than that?"

And while the Denver restaurant scene has its fair share of sniping, poaching and back-biting, just like anywhere else, maybe it's true that the guys who've been under his wing get along better than most. Hearing Mel say it, I can almost believe it.

After talking with Saudo about Mel's-as-museum and Mel's-as-schoolroom, I ask if he's going to be the next guy to make a break for the bigtime. "I don't know," he replies. "I mean, it's there. That's my next step. But I'm in no hurry." And in the meantime, he has nothing but praise for Mel and Jane Master. "Look, I'm in a good spot right now," Saudo tells me. With all the tough times in the restaurant business, he's happy to have someone else signing the paychecks. For now, anyway. "I've got a great crew, great owners. The place is busy every night," Saudo says, then adds, "These days, you can't ask for much more than that."

Leftovers: Okay, so you've managed to wean yourself off the burgers and fries. You've turned your back on the fast-food, drive-thru culture and no longer think that a bag of pork rinds, a hot dog with everything and a can of Cheez Whiz constitutes a balanced meal. You've come a long way toward reversing your own personal involvement in the American obesity trend, and now there's this:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has recently discovered that one Chipotle chicken burrito with the usual fixings is packing nearly 1,000 calories, a whole day's worth of sodium and 12 grams of saturated fat -- half your daily allowance as dictated by the sorts of nutritionists who measure such things. A veggie burrito has 1,100 calories, 2,200 milligrams of sodium and 14 grams of saturated fat. A barbacoa with the full monty weighs in at about the same calorie, fat and salt count as a burger, fries and a Coke. And eating one whole carnitas burrito by yourself, according to the good folks at CSPI, will simply make you explode.

Okay, that's not true. But the independent laboratory that put Chipotle's burritos to the test stand by those other figures. The food police found that many of the fresh-Mex, fast-casual entrees being offered by chains like Chipotle (which got its start on East Evans Avenue here in Denver) and Baja Fresh (which didn't) are just as bad for you (numerically speaking, anyhow) as the worst pabulum offered up by such classic defilers of the food pyramid as McDonald's (which now owns a majority share of Chipotle) and Wendy's (which owns Baja Fresh).

According to Chris Arnold, "director of hoopla, hype and ballyhoo" for Chipotle, this report is misleading. "A calorie isn't a calorie isn't a calorie," he says. "In our food, you're getting calories from actual good, real food -- you know, 600 calories from a burrito bowl, as opposed to 600 calories in a Whopper with cheese. We give our customers the benefit of the doubt and don't think they need any modern-day prohibitionists telling them what to eat.

"By and large, I think the CSPI has become irrelevant," he adds. "It's just one target after another after another, and they don't give customers credit for being smart about what they eat."

My advice? Buy a burrito, and eat half. They call it portion control, folks. It's the wave of the future.  

Because it's already tough to chuck a high-fat, artery-clogging Chipotle burrito in this town without hitting a tequila bar, guess what's opening? Yup. Another tequila bar! This one is being brought to us courtesy of Chris Swank and Jesse Morreale (two of the fellows behind Nobody In Particular Presents, La Rumba, the Bluebird Theater and the Ogden) and Swank's wife, Loris. It will be going into the 3224 East Colfax Avenue space right across the street from the Bluebird. "Chris and I have a lot of places together, so operationally, this is our thing. But the concept is really Loris's," says Morreale. The Swanks had been doing some traveling over the summer, and hit on the idea for the space, now called Mezcal, that will start serving straightforward Mexican food and gallons of tequila to the NIPP faithful sometime in November.

There are also signs of activity at the spaces that are soon to become the Minturn Saloon at 846 Broadway (in what had been the Parlour), an as-yet-unnamed addition to the Adega family at 609 Corona Street (the former Beehive), and Mao, an ambitious French-Asian-fusion restaurant going into what had previously been thin air and being brought to us by Charlie Huang of Little Ollie's fame. And there's still more activity at Cafe Evangeline (30 South Broadway), whose catfish I extolled in last week's Bite Me. The place is still frying up fish -- but only to catering clients. The restaurant itself is closed.

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