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THE EGGPLANT AND I

In restaurant circles, you frequently hear the saying, "If you like to cook, don't become a chef." Seasoned chefs will tell you that they got into the business because they loved working with food and serving their beautiful creations to others. Until they became chefs, that is, and found themselves up to their toques in food costs, incompetent co-workers and customers who don't know shit from shiitake.

Take those worries, add hundreds more and you'll understand the origins of another saying, "If you like being a chef, don't open your own restaurant." Even when the chef shares the ownership headaches, it's a whole new ball of whacks--as Aubergine Cafe chef/ owner Sean Kelly well knows.

"I feel like we're finally coming out of the other side of the tunnel," says Kelly, who in February opened Aubergine, his first almost-solo venture (there are two money people back East, but he runs the show). "The 120-hour weeks are lessening, and the things that we weren't happy with ourselves are fixed. I'm still enjoying the cooking, though, and we're still having fun here."

Kelly has good reason to be optimistic: his success in other people's kitchens. As executive chef at Barolo Grill for three years, he helped fuel that restaurant's rapid rise; before that he spent a year as Kevin Taylor's lunch chef at Zenith American Grill. But through it all, he longed to break out on his own. "I've been doing this since I was fourteen," says the 33-year-old Kelly. "So nineteen years is a long time coming to do my own thing."

Kelly's own thing has the looks of a sure thing. He took over the Seventh Avenue building vacated by Benny's and changed it from a modest Mexican joint to a warm, sunlit room with custard-colored walls and homey touches. Kelly almost stumbled--literally--over the location one day while he was jogging. "I had been looking for something for a long time," he says, "and I knew I didn't want to be in Cherry Creek, where you really have to do a certain thing to make the people happy. And I didn't want to get stuck in downtown's baseball melodrama, where a bunch of millionaires are going to cry every few years and not play ball so that I go bankrupt. As soon as I walked into this place, I could just see the kind of cafe I could turn it into."

His cafe concept extends to an ever-changing list of daily specials as well as a "cafe menu" of Mediterranean-style semi-small plates, none over $7. Although the standard lineup is primarily vegetarian, Kelly says he never intended for Aubergine to be labeled a vegetarian restaurant. "I'm not sure why people latched on to that so hard," he says. "I really just wanted to do some stuff that was a little healthier, and I wanted to show people that it doesn't have to be a beef-filled burrito to be good. But the specials always contain some meat and fish." Many of the items on the cafe menu, he adds, were included because they were dishes that he and kitchen mate Jon Ahalt, who's worked with Kelly for three years, did well together.

One such dish is the saffron-stewed mussels ($7), with its broth of fennel seed, orange zest, roasted tomatoes, onions and enough saffron that we could actually taste it. The liquid was a sweet, more concentrated take on bouillabaisse that Kelly and Ahalt had used as a sauce base for tuna, among other things, at Barolo; the addition of saffron made the mix even headier. This spice is so expensive--a purple crocus flower produces only three saffron stigmas, each of which must be hand-picked, and it takes about 14,000 stigmas to make an ounce--that it's often pretentious for restaurants to even list it on their menus. Not so at Aubergine, where the perfumey flavor of the saffron was further exploited in an aioli drizzled across the mussels. Accompanied by a thick slice of toast for sopping up any remaining juices, the portion was ample for lunch or dinner (all of the "cafe" items are the same size and price at both meals) and the production marred only by what I thought was a really long thread of saffron but turned out to be a piece of nylon from the bag the mussels came in.

But such a minor flaw was far outweighed by sound food combinations and otherwise savvy executions. The roast leg of lamb sandwich ($6) from that day's lunch specials, for example, featured just-made focaccia that housed slices of very rare lamb along with arugula and a mellow tapenade. The lamb was chewy and could have used a few more minutes of cooking time to render it tender, but when Kelly cooked it longer he got complaints. "It's another one of those `can't please everyone' deals," he says. "When I cooked it medium, more people complained because they like it rare." And it wouldn't be cost-effective to offer a choice of doneness, he explains, because then the kitchen would have to "do three legs a day, and a lot would be left over from each."

Kelly says he's still looking for a solution--but in the meantime, he'd better keep serving the sandwich. The balance of flavors and textures was wonderful: bitter greens, smooth paste and mild, if chewy, meat. Another special, a bowl of tomato and basil soup, was also an impressive blend served at just the right temperature (if a cold soup gets too cold, it becomes tasteless). We closed out lunch by divvying a piece of Zuni pine-nut tart ($4), the recipe for which Kelly borrowed from San Francisco's Zuni Restaurant and Bar after he worked in that kitchen for eight days last year. The pie was a little sticky, a little sweet and had a lot of pine nuts, which made for a light but decadent-tasting dessert.

The tart showed that Kelly is more than willing to offer something other than the standard flourless chocolate cakes and creme brulee, and the antipasto platter ($6) we tried at dinner provided further proof. Assembling up to ten different items on a plate requires extra effort and careful thought, and Aubergine's kitchen comes as close to pulling it off as any I've encountered. No deli meats and cheap cheese here--the antipasto roster usually includes a roasted portabella, caramelized onions, several types of olives, roasted red peppers, fennel with shaved grana (Italian hard cheese) and roasted almonds, as well as something extra, like baby beets Kelly pickles himself. Unfortunately, the goodies on our platter were centered by a pillowy scoop of a good-quality herbed goat cheese, which had soaked up the juices of everything around it and tasted somewhat funky. Our other starter, the Aubergine plate, brought a generous helping of roasted eggplant puree and slices of the vegetable, crisscrossed with a minty yogurt that would be overpowering if you don't like mint.

Next we tried an oyster-heavy "chowder" ($4) overflowing with new potatoes and sweet corn that gave the thin broth a caramely quality, as well as another well-melded Zuni recipe, the creamy polenta ($7) with roasted portabellos and a thick mushroom syrup. From the special menu, we'd ordered a pizza of baby artichokes and gorgonzola ($8); the thin, crispy-chewy crust came loaded with flavor. And the grilled Atlantic salmon ($14) was so fresh I thought I was back in Florida for a second. Beneath the fish sat a fried-crisp potato pancake packed with basil and garlic, a refreshing change from the now-omnipresent mashed-potatoes-with-fish combo, and a fresh yellow-tomato salsa provided a tangy zing to the whole dish.

Dessert was more of the delicious same: simple ingredients uniting harmoniously for the overall good of the palate. The dense richness of the panna cotta ($4), an Italian cooked cream, was enhanced by coffee syrup; the strong roastiness of the apple crostada ($4) went well with its walnuts and gooey caramel sauce. The one exception was the chocolate mousse, which Kelly says he threw on the menu "to please the chocolate crowd"--but it had the displeasing texture and taste of the refrigerator. Kelly says he's now reconsidering the mousse and looking to his employees for suggestions. "Having an open kitchen that looks into the dining room is a real eye-opener," Kelly says, "because I can see how people are reacting to the food. But when the staff tells me something isn't working, I'm not one of these ego guys. I listen.

"I might be the chef and the owner, but a restaurant is always bigger than one person," he adds. "I have a staff that understands that I want to be the place in between high-end and low-budget dining. That's what I saw was missing in Denver, and that's why I want to be on my own. There just hasn't been much here where the atmosphere is nice but you don't have to bring your American Express to get a good meal."

Don't leave home without...stopping here.


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