After my review meals at Mel's Bar and Grill, I called Chad Clevenger to talk about my experiences while under his care. It wasn't the sweetest conversation I've ever had, but it was enlightening.
He'll mark his one-year anniversary as the owner of Mel's on August 1. He'd been looking around for a place to open his first restaurant when Mel Master, who was breaking up his longtime empire and leaving Denver, basically made "an offer I couldn't refuse," Clevenger remembered. He took the deal because it was on the table, because he was already working there. "And overall, it's been pretty good," he told me. Although Clevenger owns the place outright (along with his brother, a silent partner), he kept the Mel's name and some of that restaurant's classic dishes because, essentially, that's what the customers wanted. "I do the same food Mel's has always been doing," he explained. "It's not necessarily what I would be doing, [but] I knew going into this what I was getting into."
But over the past year he's been trying, slowly and carefully, to warp things into a form that provides more excitement — if not for customers, then certainly for him. He's just introduced a new menu that tinkers with four or five of the entrees, about as many apps. This isn't the first time he's reworked his board, but each time, he takes it a little further. He's already been trying to sneak little hints of molecular cuisine onto his menus, he told me, sparks of magic like fluid gels and compressed avocados. He's also toyed with modernist approaches to plating and presentation, to food in general.
Still, he knows he can only take things so far in Greenwood Village. "Look, I don't have the best location over here," he admitted. What he'd truly like is a place downtown, a tapas restaurant, a real Spanish place, and while he's been scouting for spaces, he's also been talking with his old boss, Mark Miller at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, about what it might take to make that happen. He'd also like to do a gastropub some day, something casual and close to the heart of things.
But right now, he's concentrating on Mel's — and he wanted to know about the review I'd just turned in. "It's not good," I told him. "It's not all bad, but it certainly isn't good."
Like the pro he is, he immediately started asking questions — trying to track back the issues that'd caused the perfect storm of badness I described. "I don't get this a lot," he told me. "This direct response. So this is good."
When I mentioned the tacos drowning in sauce, he recounted how one order had gone out over-sauced, how he'd jumped on the cook responsible, then missed it when a second order (mine) went out the same way. "My fault," he said. "I can guarantee you, if you came back today, it would be a different taco." We talked about the "black garlic sauce" that seemed more like a barbecue sauce, and he explained how it was supposed to be a simple Bordelaise shot with garlic; mine had obviously been over-reduced. As for the mystery tagliatelle? Clevenger told me I'd been given a menu with an old insert that included a dish no longer done by the kitchen.
It was a bad day, in other words. A really bad day. Not necessarily indicative of his restaurant as a whole, but probably entirely indicative of Clevenger's mood, his reaching past what is happening today for what he wants someday. Once, when I was in a situation similar to Clevenger's at Mel's, I had a chef say something very smart to me: We cook the food that's in front of us. We do what we need to do today, in other words. And we worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
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So I told Clevenger (as if he didn't already know...) that he needed to keep a closer eye on his crew, on every element of every plate that left his kitchen. I wasn't giving up on Mel's, I said. Clevenger is too talented a chef for that, too good a cook, a guy who loves food too much. All it will take to fix the current problems at Mel's is a refocusing of his attention on the present.
At least until he can bring his dreams for the future to fruition.
Leftovers: Mark your calendars for November 15, when the new Den Deli and Seafood Market is slated to open inside the former Seams Like Olde Times/Footprints of Asia space at 1501 South Pearl Street. Toshi and Yazu Kizaki, the brothers who own the nearby Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, just slapped down over seven figures to buy the building for their next project.
To get a little taste of things to come, I talked to Chris Dunphy, GM at Izakaya and the guy who's overseeing the construction/staffing/stocking of the new venture. He explained that the place is going to be something of a mutt, a combination fish market (focusing on the kinds of incredibly fresh fish that the Kizakis get straight from the Japanese fish markets), deli (with a prepared-foods section and daily specials), ramen noodle shop (fifteen or twenty stools and pure Japanese-style ramen, which Toshi just spent several weeks in Japan researching) and a gift shop. The chef who'll be running the kitchen at Den Deli? Darren Pusateri, who has a serious resumé: Most recently, he was at Elway's at the Ritz-Carlton, before that the Cherry Creek Elway's, before that Frasca in Boulder, and before that gigs in Manhattan and Florida, where he did time with Daniel Bolud at both db Bistro and Cafe Bolud. I can't wait for November.