Hum Enchanted Evening
Oh, I like this. It's like having dinner in L.A. or something."
I blink, look around the room.
"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.
But tonight Mel's is right on, because these days, Mel's is almost always right on with everything. Service, menu, food, decor -- all of it has been carefully chosen, tinkered with and adjusted over the past eight years so that now the hidden machinery of the business runs smoothly, meshes perfectly and operates in blessed silence. Saudo has been on the grills for over a year, coming to Mel's after a stint at Mizuna, and the rest of the staff are all veterans. Owners Mel and Jane Master are seasoned pros who have been in the industry since the '70s, both in Denver and in New York, and they have a track record of hiring good managers and great chefs. Their restaurant has solid street cred as a training house where young cooks earn their chops before moving on to make names for themselves elsewhere, and Mel's menus have a reputation for being good all the time and sometimes great. The restaurant has won more awards than I can list and was getting nods in the national press back when most coastal foodies still thought of Denver as a place where you had to knock the cowshit off your boots before coming in for dinner.
While you can't see the awards or the reputation when you sit down to eat, you can quickly see why Mel's deserves them. You can see why the first thing Pat and Suzanne -- who've never been to California -- think when we sit down is that Mel's looks like an L.A. restaurant. It doesn't look that way at all, actually, but what it does look like -- with its crisp linens and shining crystal, its warm lights and murals and signed food-celebrity head shots hung on the walls -- is what a real restaurant always looks like in the movies where everything is pretty and nothing ever goes wrong.
This image is only furthered by the fact that most of the customers could easily moonlight as soap-opera extras, with their understated suits, frosted hair and gold cards. And by the servers, most of whom come equipped with continental accents and that faultless combination of timing and discretion that you get only when service is your career and not just something you're doing until something better comes along.
We order wine -- our server appearing as if by stage magic at my elbow just when we need him most -- and my annoying reticence fades as the cooks retreat into the kitchen and I try to concentrate on being just another customer, just another number in the chef's calculations. The drinks help, but I can still hear the occasional barking from the kitchen behind us. Ordering tartar; crabcakes on two; mussels; goat-cheese salad. That's the first hit -- apps for the table ahead of us. Like the red-shirted ensign in any Star Trek episode, thegarde manger always gets it first. Then the sauté cook, grillman, poissonnarde. The pâtissier, if he's even hung around for dinner service, doesn't have to worry until a table's occupants have finished their dinner, stuffed themselves stupid and come back cruising for a little something sweet to finish off the night.
Then our food starts to arrive, and suddenly I have no trouble concentrating. Because all else aside, it's the food -- not the space, not the accents or the reputation or the flatware -- that keeps Mel's going strong.
While Mel's understands that "New American" defines a sweep of ingredients and preparation far wider than just buffalo steak and jacked up mac-n-cheese, any single definition attached to a menu is, by nature, a denial of all others. Which is why the offerings on the appetizer menu range from a bowl of straight, Southern-style shrimp and stone-ground grits studded with bacon and capped with shaved white cheddar to mussels La Cagouille that are so French they make me want to put on a beret and surrender to the first German tourist I see. The shrimp and grits are warm, filling and wonderfully bland, the way that really good, plain mashed potatoes are. The mussels, dry-roasted and dancing on their scalding, cast-iron sizzle-platter, are 180 degrees the opposite, sputtering with bright, sweet flavor.
An order of agnolotti shows off precisely this sort of complicated New American translation that Saudo and crew are capable of, pillowing Colorado-grown sweet corn, a microscopic bell-pepper brunoise and Italian mascarpone cheese inside fancied-up ravioli, giving them a tarn of white wine beurre blanc to swim in and then a sprinkle of sweet, meaty, butter-seared chanterelle mushrooms. I grab as much of that dish as I can, then take a passing bite of the seared Hudson Valley foie gras, mounding up just enough for a mouthful on a corner of buttery brioche with a bit of cantaloupe.
Then I duck out to the bathroom to take some notes. Huddled in one of the stalls with a pad on my knee, I note how the mussels barely made it one time around the table before the plate was wiped clean, how our waiter knew I was going to ask about the chanterelles before the words were even out of my mouth, what Suzanne said about L.A. and the words the awful, mousy woman at the six-top next to ours uttered when their menus arrived: "Oh, I don't need to eat. I had a small salad for lunch yesterday."
She looked like Maria Shriver's skeleton carved in alabaster, all cheekbones and teeth. She'd knocked back two and a half Grey Goose martinis in the time it took us to finish our appetizers, stuck her pointy little fingers in everyone else's plates and wouldn't shut up about how much better the food was in New York. Fine criticism coming from a woman who hasn't eaten anything more substantial than salad greens and vodka in two days. I write that, too.
I'm back at the table just in time for salads.
There's marinated asparagus, too heavy on the stalks, too light on the heads for my taste, but dressed in an excellent hazelnut vinaigrette with pickled red onions that lend it a nice bite. The pear salad pairs delicate Bibb lettuce with an odd white balsamic and bleu-cheese vinaigrette that works startlingly well, somehow managing to blend the creaminess of high-quality bleu with the sweet acid kick of vinegar in a way that's deserving of applause -- if only because it defies all the conventional laws of food physics. The plate comes accessorized with poached pears (underdone to Suzanne, but I think under-poached is better than mushy) and a sprinkling of spiced almonds and walnuts that have Pat making a face and Suzanne fanning her mouth.
We talk, the four of us. We argue over the salads and the spices. About 6:30, I take Laura aside and give her a pinot-scented kiss on the mouth and a little pinch for luck because tonight's our anniversary, and if you gotta be working on your anniversary, this ain't a bad way to do it.
While we're off smooching, our server clears plates, replaces silver and brings out our main courses -- all with perfect timing. Laura has ordered the strozzapreti ("strangled priest" in Italian, but I have no idea why), and it is awful. The oiled farfalle pasta has sat too long under the heat lamps, so now half of it is stiff and crunchy -- and the parts that aren't overcooked are undercooked, with raw rather than roasted halves of artichoke hearts, crunchy bits of bell pepper and woody asparagus all jumbled up in a broth of olive oil and garlic that doesn't taste like anything more than greasy water. Laura, ever the brave trooper, eats two bites. I eat two bites. A bit more finds its way into a napkin and the rest is ignored.
Strangled priest out of the way, we move on to much better company. We share a dish of beef tenderloin, topped with shredded spinach, floored with a dark veal jus and mounted on fantastic red tortilla-mashed potatoes that taste exactly like they sound. We pass around a plate of smoked pork tenderloin, cut on the thick side but cooked a perfect medium-rare, that's straight out of the American Southwest, with a mild avocado paste (not quite a guacamole, but not quite not a guacamole, either) spooned over the top, a smoky Anaheim-chile sauce doodled around the plate and a cumin-heavy wedge of shredded-pork-and-veggie empanada on the side.
We share grilled ono on a bed of black beans surrounded by a moat of vinegar-brined pancetta. The ono is Hawaiian -- which is to say American, but just barely -- brought by way of Italy. This plate is a wonderful, wild mess of textures and flavors, balancing the firm-fleshed, flaky white fish with firm-fleshed, meaty black beans as big as the fat part of my thumb, and then -- out of pure weirdness or some inspiration from the dark side of the Larousse Gastronomique -- the kitchen's veiled the whole thing in a bittersweet, salty, puckering vinaigrette strong as a mule kick and about as pleasant.
It's strange, but on some very base, brutal level, the sauce works. The vinegar-soaked shreds of pancetta are pungent enough to make my jaw ache. After one bite, I'm pretty sure I hate it. After three, I'm not so sure. There's some powerful chemistry here, a one-two punch of mild with madness, something I swear no cook entirely in his right mind would intentionally attempt to create -- but by the time I'm done thinking about it, I've cleaned the plate. My teeth taste funny. My tongue hurts. My tastebuds feel like they've been beaten, rolled and left for dead, and I'm hungrier now than I was when we started eating (vinegar will do that).
So we move on to dessert.
It starts with a simple ice-cream sandwich. But Robert McCarthy, Mel's pâtissier, one-ups the childhood favorite with sinfully decadent ultra-high-fat vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two huge chocolate-chunk cookies on a plate smeared with chocolate sauce. And then another dessert -- the Cosmopolitan -- one-ups the sandwich by adding alcohol. Apricot sorbet with dried lime arrives in a sugared martini glass filled with tiny, clear cubes of vodka gelée. Put a spoonful in your mouth, and the melting sorbet immediately alters the liquid balance of the gelée, causing it to melt across your tongue like the world's best Jell-O shot.
When we walked in, Mel's was quiet. By the time we're finally done, it's full. The place is jumping -- a hundred or more seats filled, each table at a different point in its meal; people waiting at the bar, milling around by the door, flocking to the hostess's stand where an upright-bass-and-piano combo play us out the door with a little light jazz.
Leaving, I can imagine the scene in the back. The kitchen's in the throes of the early rush where everything is a riot of knives, pans and fire. Orders are starting to stack up. Supplies are beginning to run low. Servers are getting double-seated. The barman is shouting for appetizers. All of the guys on the line are dropping into a siege mentality, wondering only when the worst of it will be over. But this is just another night, and Mel's machine is running smoothly. You'd never know anything was anything from the floor.
I miss it, sure. I think I always will. On nights like this -- when the air is cold, when there's a full house and hours yet to go, when everything is working exactly the way it's supposed to -- of course I miss it. I miss the perfect calm before the start of service, when everything is where it should be and all is right with the world. I even miss when everything starts to go wrong. I miss the adrenaline, the madness, the pressure.
But walking out feels kind of nice, too. It's been a few years, and I'm starting to get used to walking away. When a restaurant is as strong as Mel's, I can turn my back with no regrets and leave happy, content with being just Mister-Miller-party-of-four.
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