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EAT AT MEL'S

There are those folks whose routines sound like the instructions on a shampoo bottle. They work nine-to-five, sit through rush hour on I-25 to get home in time for Entertainment Tonight and then tumble into bed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Those folks are not Melvyn and Jane Master.
The owners of Mel's Bar and Grill--a marvelous Mediterranean cafe that only sounds like a blue-collar diner--have had the kind of lives most people read about in novels, not on toiletry containers. "I've been very lucky," Mel said from an airport in Boston, where he had just finished a wine convention; he was on his way back to Denver for a late dinner with the famous French chef Paul Bocuse, in town for a Children's Hospital benefit. "I am married to the most wonderful woman."

It just so happened that it was the Masters' 33rd wedding anniversary that day, and Mel was wistfully thinking of Jane, far away in France visiting her mother and trying to get a few repairs done on their house in Provence. "We're not going to let the French muck it up, you know," he said, laughing, then added quickly, "Of course, I have the utmost respect for the French." And he should, since they were responsible for getting him into the wine business. But that was later. First he had to hook up with his life partner.

Mel and Jane met in their hometown of Surrey, England, when he was fifteen and she a year younger. They made beautiful music together on the piano and guitar and elsewhere, then traveled through France, where he studied the classics and she took cooking lessons. They settled in the south of France in 1969, and Jane got herself into the kitchen with Bocuse and then Jean Troisgros; Mel hooked up first with a sherry firm and next with Georges DeBoeuf, becoming the winery's distributor in the United States. Along the way they married, had three children and bought the house in Provence.

Because of his wine business and her work with Bocuse--she helped the chef put on wine dinners in New York--the Masters spent quite a bit of time in the States. Eventually they decided to make Denver their second home. "In France, the quality of life is so magic," Mel said. "The butterflies, the smell of the flowers, the food. But I love Denver, too. The scenery is lovely and the people are wonderful. I just love it."

Denver fell in love right back when Mel and Jane opened Dudley's in 1979. The restaurant was an instant hit and widely recognized as the first nouvelle kid on the block. But after several successful years, Dudley's slumped along with the oil business, and chef/part-owner Blair Taylor took the place over and turned it into Chives American Bistro. Meanwhile, the Masters moved to New York and opened the respected JAMS.

They missed Denver, though, and returned to help Taylor open Barolo Grill two and a half years ago. "We came to have a few philosophical differences with Blair about Barolo," Mel said. "And we all valued the friendship very much, and we decided it would be better to part ways so we could stay close. And Jane and I realized that we just wanted to have a place of our own, just the two of us."

And so they opened Mel's last November. The decor was a success from the start: soft as cream, soothing and somewhat whimsical, filled with playful knickknacks, old menus from Maxim's and pillow-stuffed booths that invite leisurely dining. So was the eclectic but sound wine list, a drinker- and pocketbook-friendly roster put together by Mel; he also peddles the Masters' own wine label, Les Jamelles (Jane and Mel, get it?), which brings in varietals from southern France. In the beginning, though, there were complaints about the food--long waits, dishes that didn't come together. To fix that, the Masters imported chef Christopher Fallen from the Harvest in Cambridge, along with a few people who had worked at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in California.

And soon, dining at Mel's Bar and Grill became as harmonic as, well, Mel and Jane.

One of the Chez Panisse hires was Greg Bortz, who has given Mel's a signature item: the dense, chewy, rustic-style bread. It was set on our table with an olive oil worthy of winespeak--fruity, clean and a perfect mate for the nutty bread. The bread itself turned out to be a nice accompaniment for the minestrone ($4.50), a Tuscan read on this thick soup of vegetables, pasta and beans. That same Italian region, as well as Bortz's creation, resurfaced in the Tuscan bread salad ($5.50), an authentic mess of greens tossed with fresh basil and bread soaked in wine vinegar.

But nothing proved the kitchen's ability with Italian foods like the risotto appetizer ($6.75). I've found it done right so rarely in Denver that I demanded Mel tell me their secret. "It takes a lot of work," he answered, adding that it didn't come out well the first, the second or even the third time. "What I think Chris Fallen understands is that it needs to be cooked carefully. That it requires a lot of attention, very careful attention to the timing and the temperature." Although other local restaurants blame their wretched risottos on the altitude, that's "baloney," according to Mel. "I've had great risotto in the Alps." It couldn't have been better than this dish, though. The grains were tender and smooth, flavored by grilled chicken, tart oven-dried tomatoes and one of the most underused herbs around: marjoram. The herb obviously had been added toward the end of the cooking time--its elusive, perfumy flavor has a tendency to disappear after lengthy cooking, and here it was headily potent.

Another sadly ignored plant, fennel, was put to good use beneath the grilled mahi mahi ($16.95). The fish, slightly dry around the edges, served as little more than an accessory to the excellent confit, a strong merging of fennel and tomatoes. A slice of caramelized-onion tart on the side was tasty but added little to the overall effect. A more impressive melding of elements was the Mediterranean shellfish stew ($16.75): part bouillabaisse and part caciucco, both renowned for their ability to extract every bit of flavor from the seafood involved. In Mel's version, the mussels, scallops, shrimp and clams had given their all to an exquisite broth kissed by wine and tomatoes and bear-hugged by garlic.

After such intensity, some kitchens would kick back on dessert. Mel's didn't. Even the coffee was superb, an appropriate chaser for an apple-rhubarb crisp ($4.95) that made the most of both the fruit and the vegetable, marrying the two in a sugary crunch dripping with melting vanilla-bean ice cream. And the blackberry tart ($4.95) had a dense, toothsome berry interior trapped in a buttery crust and drizzled with creme anglaise.

A subsequent lunch was no less spectacular than our dinner. The lobster-and-roasted-butternut-squash bisque ($5.50) had a thick, dreamy texture and pieces of actual claw meat; a salad of warm goat cheese and greens ($6.75) came swathed in a more-sweet-than-sour raspberry-tinged vinaigrette. The fettuccine with tasso, crawfish and oysters in a parmesan cream sauce ($7.50) was almost--but not quite--too rich to finish. Tasso, a tangy Cajun cured pork that screams of red pepper and garlic, is a rare find outside of Louisiana, which is a shame. Paired with pasta, its pungency and chewiness are even more inviting than prosciutto or pancetta, and the innovative addition of sweet crawfish meat and spongy oysters made for a lively combination.

After a bite of that, the grilled leg of lamb ($7.50) was entirely too tame. While the high-quality meat tasted clean and healthy, we missed the fatty, rich tones of a lower-grade leg (even though this one was probably better for us). The side of couscous had a Moroccan touch of saffron and a gentle coating of the lamb's juices.

"We didn't want to go overboard with fancy stuff that customers couldn't relate to," Mel said before hopping on his plane. "We wanted a nonthreatening kind of place where people could get good grub."

That explanation won't wash, Mel. It sounds as simple as the routine on a shampoo bottle, but it takes something more to create a restaurant this good--and get me in such a lather. It takes a match made in heaven.


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