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.
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.
But Mali also has a thing for simplicity that goes beyond the tenets of St. Alice and her minions. When he put spaghetti with grilled shrimp, plum tomatoes, garlic, basil and red-chile flakes on Montecito's menu, that's all it was -- six ingredients (plus a little salt and pepper, maybe), and perfect just that way. It was the kind of plate chefs make for themselves, a beautiful, time-tested and loved preparation with nothing showy, nothing extraneous, no arugula.
Not that Mali's afraid to use arugula, the vegetable flag of the California cuisine revolution. But at Montecito, he's used it just once, and brilliantly, on a single plate that was both a tribute to Chez Panisse and a gentle snub of Chez Panisse. The composed salad of baby field greens and Laura Chenel goat cheese -- that was the first shot fired during the Left Coast uprising, the plate that came to define the meatless half of the California manifesto. Mali's version laid down leaves of baby arugula, topped them with red grapefruit (in season, of course), fromage blanc from Bellwether Farms and a toasted hazelnut vinaigrette.
Mali's also a floorwalker, which bothered me a little. When I see a chef working the room, shaking hands, making nice with the customers, all I can think is that with him on the floor loving up the crowd, who's in the galley watching my agnolotti or expo-ing that twelve-top? A chef on the floor means no chef on the line. And there are only three places a chef ought to be: his kitchen, his bed or his casket.
Still, when Mali is in the kitchen, he's in command. Completely. During his first couple of months at Montecito, there was a fairly high turnover in his crew, and it showed in the food. There was always something wrong with something: lentils that were undercooked, simple sauces unnecessarily fancied up with complex emulsions or unnecessary layers of flavor. There was a strange sense of antagonism to some of the plates -- as if the grillardin handling the steak or chicken was constantly under siege from a coterie of over-anxious sauciers and sauté men all trying to sneak eleven ingredients too many into the mix.
And as it turns out, there were. A lot of those guys were friends of Mali's, cooks he'd brought along from other restaurants where he'd worked, linemen he'd gone looking for special. But when they couldn't wrap their heads around the essential simplicity of the menu, the early-'80s take on California Nouvelle and the market-driven fluidity of Mali's nightly board, they were gone. Although that might not be the way good friends are made, it is the way great restaurants are.
And in the last couple of weeks, Montecito has become that great restaurant. It happened suddenly, between one late-night visit I made on a Tuesday when the mussels in their saffron beurre blanc were weak and the vibe one of grumpy insouciance, and three days later, when everything was suddenly just right -- hard-edged and tight and in control. At that Friday dinner, I had a plate of roasted butternut squash agnolotti (which are now roasted beet agnolotti) skating around a tarn of sage brown butter sauce with Laura Chenel goat cheese melting over a tomato confit; fat slabs of housemade mozzarella and grilled artichoke hearts dressed in a gentle black truffle vinaigrette; and Mali's already famous "mac-and-cheese" sandwich -- a layer of white cheddar, a layer of thin-sliced Macintosh apples and some really good bread, bias-cut and served on a white plate. Six degrees of Thomas Keller...
On a more recent night, I watched Mali do no fewer than five turns through the room in the course of a languid three-hour dinner. And yet, the cured meat salumi plate that I began with and the cheese plate (a huge whack of Humboldt Fog, official cheese of the California cabal) with which I finished were both à point -- perfectly assembled and delivered. Between those, I tried the excellent grilled steak, cut into tournedos, cooked black and blue and served with caramelized shallots, frites and sauced with blue-cheese butter. And the butter-roasted striped bass with cipollini onions, served leaning against a pile of tiny French lentils and brunoise veggies, was dressed with a watercress sauce so beautiful as to be beyond words.
I loved that damn fish, but when I later talked to Mali, I found out that the menu was changing. Again. No more striped bass. The boats that fished it wild had all been called in until July, and he was going to replace it with something else. "I was thinking swordfish," he mused into the phone. "I can get some really good sword. Or maybe halibut -- East Coast halibut. I think that might be really good."
He was also changing the grilled calamari, which people either loved or hated. Originally served stuffed with picholine olives, Tuscan white beans and a fresh salsa, it would now be sided by two gazpachos. I had no idea how that would work, but Mali seemed confident that it would turn out just fine, thank you very much. A good summer dish.
And who was I to argue? God knows I've been wrong before.
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