Paradise Found

New American classic: After four months, Mirepoix has hit its stride.
Mark Manger

I never thought Mirepoix would make it. I didn't believe that Bryan Moscatello and crew could squeeze Adega's smart, beautiful cuisine into a JW Marriott corporate template; I kept seeing all that lovely food dying under the domes of room-service trays. And the fact that they were trading on the success of their LoDo venture to branch out not once, but twice -- to Sixth Avenue, where they'd snagged the former Beehive space for Table 6, as well as Cherry Creek -- seemed at best like hubris, at worst like career suicide.

Dining at Mirepoix shortly after it opened five months ago, I was willing to bet on hubris. The menu was a bungled New American mess, all Bloody Mary gelées, flavored oils, foams, pistous, emulsions and nonsense. The food was buried under a flood of smarts and technique, and while it wasn't necessarily bad, it was goofy. Rabbit loin poached in lemon-prosciutto oil. Artichoke salad with parmesan foam. Paella poppers.

So if the normal rigors of a three-a-day hotel regimen weren't enough to kill off the kitchen, I was sure that subjecting visitors to dinners full of truffles, lola rosa and terrible combinations of the season's buzzword ingredients would do the job.

But I was so wrong.

Breakfast: I walk into Mirepoix one morning looking like a bum -- poorly shaven, in blue jeans, T-shirt, ratty baseball hat. The hostess immediately seats me at a good table in the earth-tone dining room, with its pleasantly swank white linen and heavy flatware. I'm treated just like the guy at the table across from mine who's wearing the thousand-dollar three-piece, working two cell phones and reading three papers at once. That's a good sign: I like the place immediately.

I order beef-cheek hash with molasses-ginger ketchup and a fried duck egg. Although that's not standard hotel fare, there's also an egg-and-toast buffet line for the less daring, as well as a pastry basket for dullards. The hash is excellent, made with the namesake mirepoix mix of diced carrot, onion and celery and meltingly tender beef cheek, strangely well matched to the spicy-sweet ketchup. My only complaint is that the big white plate is grease-stained, with two oily smears where the cook rested his fingers while removing the ring mold, or the server touched steel before grabbing the dish. It's a little thing, but in an environment like this, little things look large.

Lunch: I'm a Creeker -- a Cherry Creek dad out for a Saturday stroll with the precious family unit. I've kept things casual with blue jeans, hiking boots and a nice turtleneck; to complete the image, I've rented my friend Vic and her daughter for the afternoon. Like any accidental walk-ins, we've made no reservation and arrive late in service -- about a quarter after one, just when unscheduled tables begin to annoy a kitchen getting ready to shut down for the break between lunch and dinner. We are met by a still-smiling hostess, seated promptly, doted on by a server, a back server and the floor man, and when I order coffee, they brew a fresh pot rather than pass off whatever burnt leftovers the kitchen is guzzling.

The menu change, Mirepoix's first, is a little less than a month old -- barely a week on the lunch side -- and a massive improvement over the first lineup. The arrogance, the name-dropping of ingredients, the culinary double entendres have been punted in favor of a wickedly pointed new classicism. And while I almost always prefer a fall menu to a summer, this one's just plain brilliant. Fall squash tian (a Provençal casserole, both the dish and its contents) with pumpkin crema and maple-infused mascarpone; pork and beans that's really a confit of pork belly served over butter beans in bourbon BBQ sauce; a turkey burger -- moist and densely flavored -- on a wheat bun dressed with sweet-potato purée, accompanied by parmesan-crusted hand-cut fries.

I start with the scallop-and-chenin-blanc bisque. The hot, creamy, impossibly smooth soup is poured tableside over a knot of tiny, sweet bay scallops, and even the preserved tomato foam -- an overly fussy and très-1996 inclusion, the recipe no doubt salvaged from a back issue of Gourmet that one of the cooks found in the john -- doesn't bug me, because it's been deflated by the heat of the bisque and adds an extra layer of flavor rather than just an extra level of spectacle.

Vic has ordered a chicken-and-artichoke stew, and while with one hand she tries to keep her daughter from biting the help, with the other she passes forkfuls across the table. The stew is amazing. We'd both misread the menu, seeing "curried" chicken rather than "cured," and like idiots, we marvel at the complexity and rich, earthy bluntness of the curry, figuring the kitchen must have ground its own blend to get such powerful, well-balanced flavors that perfectly wed the potatoes, the cubed artichoke hearts, the everything. Learning that the chicken is cured, not curried, doesn't stop our gushing. This is the basic, the down-home, the simple made sublime. I take the child, and as soon as Vic's hands are free, she scrapes the bowl until it's spotless. When a kitchen makes food this good, a dishwasher's job must be a whole lot easier.  

While we're sitting there swooning, another table of late lunchers shows up: two women, older but expensively preserved, and Creeker to the core. They've got green salads and tap written all over them, but for some reason -- perhaps a split-second decision to chuck the Atkins regimen for the comfort foods of their youth -- they order Mirepoix's grilled cheese sandwich trilogy. Conveniently, that's one of the dishes on our table. And though the menu promises a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, what the kitchen delivers are a half-dozen rounds of perfect little grilled canapes -- three breads, three cheeses -- and a small cup of thin, powerfully sweet, golden tomato bisque topped with a romaine foam that's collapsed into a film riding the top, adding a bittersweet counterpoint to the tomato's sweetness.

The women call over the floor man and immediately start complaining (and there was no question that they'd find something to complain about). The sandwiches aren't sandwiches, they say. The soup isn't soup. One woman holds up a canape, one tiny bite taken out of one side, letting it dangle from her claw like something dead and foul. "Too greasy," she says. But it's not. Each of the sandwich-lets are flat-grilled in real butter, which must be terrifying to these women. "Too strong," meaning the cheese; "too thin," meaning the soup; and one woman actually complains that her cheese (a heavenly, Roaring '40s blue melted on toasted fruit-and-nut bread) is moldy.

I don't know how the kitchen survives on customers like that. I don't know how the floor man keeps from smacking both of them and walking away. I watch as he clenches and releases his hands behind his back, making fists, then letting go. "I don't want to make a fuss," says one woman, leaning close like she's whispering, but talking exactly loud enough for everyone in the dining room to hear. "But this just isn't very good. Can we try something else?"

Green salads and tap, of course.

Dinner: As I walk in for my early reservation, alone and in businessman drag, all jacketed and polished, there's a server trimming the plant on the banquette in the middle of the dining room. Pruning shears in hand, she's contemplating the plant (or tree or bush or whatever) like a bonsai master. She raises the clippers, then lowers them. Then raises them, tilts her head, then lowers them. Then she walks away. It looks perfect; she just needed a few minutes to decide that it looks perfect enough.

Mirepoix is not Adega and it's not Table 6, although each restaurant showcases a particular influence in Moscatello's repertoire. At Table 6 the focus is on upscale comfort foods with a twist. At Adega the emphasis is on weight -- meats and stocks and sauces layered into multiple and interlocking flavors, creating a deep and concentrated punch to the palate. Mirepoix is all about vegetables. Its kitchen makes ten veggie stocks every day, and each entree has a highlighted vegetable component, with the protein its complement. The flavors here are lighter, fresher, crisper, cleaner.

When I take my first bite of the asparagus and prosciutto off the small-plates menu, it's like I've never eaten asparagus before. The kitchen has arranged the plate in layers -- a thin-sliced wisp of prosciutto draped over asparagus tips cooked perfectly, pulled exactly, so that they are woody and nutty and sour-sweet and crisp; below that another twist of prosciutto, then asparagus middles, boiled and peeled; then more prosciutto, then a final layer of asparagus bottoms, again peeled, pure white and tender as blanched spinach, set in a base of white-bean purée napped with white-bean vinaigrette. Only three hours have passed since I finished one of my best lunches ever in this very room, so I'm not all that hungry; even so, I run my finger around the plate, getting the very last of the purée and vin. When I'm done, it's clean enough to go right into the service rack.

Moscatello, who's already made stops at Adega and Table 6, is in the kitchen -- a great open arrangement with long decks of burners and a small, bustling army of white coats -- and I can hear him give the fire order for my Alaskan halibut. The timing is immaculate, the service smooth and flawless. My waitress appears to know everything about every item on the menu, right down to how it is sourced and prepared -- which is handy, because she will spend ten minutes hand-holding a two-top next to me through the ordering process, describing each dish in detail, selling as hard as any used-car salesman, only to later take away food that's barely been nibbled.  

When the halibut arrives, I run out of superlatives for describing this food. The fish is beautiful but secondary to the plate, as Moscatello intended -- a generous portion of center-cut halibut, crisp-brown on the top, tender and flaky throughout. It's made better, more full, by the work of its sides and ancillary elements: soft but meaty chanterelle mushrooms that had been soaked in sherry for two hours, their woody flavor holding its own against the marinade; the sherry reduction sauce; the interplay of starchy, silver-dollar fingerling potatoes and "green bean salad" that's actually micro-diced haricots verts, parboiled, flash-finished and so good that when the fish is gone, I'm ready to scoop up the rest with my fingers until I realize that my server has given me a spoon. Obviously, I'm not the first person to think of dumping the leftover beans and sauce into his pockets.

The dinner menu is simple, with no description running to more than a half-dozen words, and it's tricky, because this is New American done right, which means smart and playful. The menu warns that the stuffed cabbage is "not like mama used to make." The "green greens" is actually a salad sandwiched between onion rings and dressed with a chervil vinaigrette. And the garlic-glazed chicken breast with oyster mushrooms is mounted on a dessert charlotte stuffed with strong goat cheese so that when the pastry breaks open, the cheese mixes with the chicken juice and the sauce to create a tarn much greater than the sum of its parts.

I have a glass of Gessami muscat Sauvignon, ice-cold, drawn from the wine wall behind me -- a mini-version of the wine fortress at Adega, only this one changing colors through a variety of somewhat nauseating hues -- and paired with the fish by the house sommelier. When I finish the wine along with the last bite of halibut, I'm instantly sad. I want more. I want one of everything on the menu, two of some things. It doesn't matter that I wasn't particularly hungry to start with or that I'm now full by any reasonable standards. I don't want to stop eating.

So I order cognac and a basil crème brûlée mounted over black-pepper-macerated strawberries and bull's-eyed with basil oil. I figure that this will finally shut down my appetite, since I'm morally and religiously opposed to any brûlée not of the simple crème variety.

It doesn't work. I wipe the plate clean and then flee in a flurry of twenties, worried that if I don't leave now, I never will.

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