Second Helpings

Mel’s Restaurant and Bar

Wine bars come and wine bars go. Like Sketch (see review, page 53), they often enter the scene with a splash -- but then, crippled by the double demands of being excellent in both the kitchen and the cellar, too often vanish almost as quickly. For more than ten years, though, Mel and Jane Master have seen their Mel's Restaurant and Bar survive where others have faltered. Not so much a wine bar as a fantastic restaurant that happens to have a good wine bar crammed inside, Mel's has also been one of Denver's most valuable training houses. Name a great chef in town -- Frank Bonanno, Sean Kelly, Tyler Wiard -- and odds are good that he's taken a turn (or two) through the small, claustrophobic line at Mel's. French, nouvelle French, New American, careful fusions of Asian and Continental cuisines -- Mel's menu has gone through as many changes as the kitchen. A few months ago, when Wiard moved on for a gig grilling steaks at a little neighborhood place called Elway's, Mel's signed on Florida-born Chad Clevenger, most recently of the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, where he trained under chef Mark Miller. Clevenger brought a subtle breath of the Southwest and a little South-coastal flair to Mel's occasionally overwhelmingly Euro-centric fare: stuffed squash blossoms, beer-battered soft-shell crabs, porcini flan, spoonbread and shrimp cakes. Sure, the board is still rife with French canon and technique (roasted chicken brushed with tarragon butter, shellfish consommé for the lobster and chanterelle ravioli), and old classics like the mussels La Cagouille will always remain in their place of honor at the top of the menu. But for me, such dishes as the deconstructed Kobe beef tacos (served with a trio of unbelievably good sauces -- not salsas, sauces), the pork belly with apricot risotto, and a simple plate of Mission figs wrapped in jackets of serrano and laced with a fig gastrique now show the true range of this kitchen -- and of its new chef.