Masters of Disguise

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Originally, my review of Agave Grill was supposed to be a two-fer — a kind of culinary Entebbe Raid whereby Laura and I would roll in fast on slow nights to the King Soopers plaza at Orchard and Holly, where both Agave and Mel’s Greenwood Village incarnation are located, have our meals undercover, steal a couple of menus, and get out again before anyone (namely, anyone from the Master family) knew we’d been there.

Then I would have banged out my usual witty, erudite and potty-mouthed column, shoehorning two clean and uncorrupted reviews into one week’s space. The places are virtually right next door to each other, after all. They share executive chef Chad Clevenge and some of the rest of the staff and, in their strange juxtaposition and the reach of their menus, nicely point up the two very different sides of Clevenger’s life as a white-jacket. Through one door, there’s the New World flavors of the American Southwest; through the other, the Old World flavors of Europe as translated through the modern, suburban lens.

Unfortunately, as with the historic Entebbe Raid, things did not quite go according to plan. As I mention in the review, Clevenger, whom I’d met before, saw us at Agave during our final moments in the dining room – fortunately, at a point where it was too late for him to do anything to change the experience. That, I figured, was not so big a deal; we’d already been in and out cleanly for a couple of meals, and hadn’t even needed to resort to disguises.

A pageboy wig and enormous, fake, porn-star mustache complete with ten-gallon Stetson, fringed vest and stack-heeled lizard-skin cowboy boots might’ve altered my looks enough for me to pass unnoticed beneath the fleeting scrutiny of dear friends, but the wearing of disguises presents its own unique complication: No matter how well applied, all you look like is a guy wearing a disguise. And there is no faster way to draw attention than by arriving at a table dressed like one of the Village People.)

But I still had my mind – and stomach – set on eating at Mel’s. On the lunch menu, there’s an upscale mac-and-cheese, topped with a crust of sweet corn, that sounded interesting; so did the plate of bacon, chicory and grilled persimmon. And I really wanted the mussels La Cagouille, which, as much as anything, became the defining dish at the old Mel’s — a plate that might go unordered for hours in the dining room until one person did, and then, as the server walked the sizzle platter stacked with fragrant black mussels across the floor and to the table, would suddenly be ordered by everyone.

So plans were made. Tactics were discussed. Since it was Denver Restaurant Week, our assumption (ridiculous in hindsight) was that on Monday, Mel’s (which was not participating) ought to be dead.

We made our play, the two of us hitting the front door just before seven and pausing briefly to do a little recon — checking the floor, the bar, the maître d’ stand, for signs of familiar faces. I gave Laura the nod. We walked inside — and straight into the embrace of Charlie Master, Mel’s son and floor man. Worse, we’d managed to arrive on the night that Mel and Jane were celebrating Jane’s birthday, sitting together at a table in the back that’d been invisible from the sidewalk.

What to do? We couldn’t exactly just turn and walk out; that would have been unconscionably rude. Neither could I use this meal as the basis for a review; that would have been unconscionably biased. But then again, Laura and I were both hungry. And here we were at a restaurant, after all…

Long story short, we ate dinner. A lovely dinner, interrupted by frequent visits from Charlie, who stopped by to tell jokes and stories, including one about this friend of his who’s trying to start a community greenhouse project that has something to do with that book The Secret and the healing powers of organic arugula. Laura ate steak — something she does almost nowhere but at Mel’s — and murdered the perfect filet, mopping at the high-gloss and powerfully reduced bordelaise, the stalks of stock-blanched and shocked broccolini. I had the same thing I always have: the kitchen’s delicious braised lamb and goat-cheese tart with sautéed onions (a dish I wish I had dozens of frozen at home because I would eat them every night if I could). And mussels, and a beautifully simple fish-and-potatoes comfort fix — grilled salmon napped with a composed lemon beurre blanc, a pile of wilted spinach greens, a mound of whipped mashed potatoes and a side of potatoes gratin spiked with a sour hit of Maytag blue cheese.

With Charlie’s help, we did manage to avoid notice by Mel and Jane. And two days after our dinner, I got a call from Mel, laughing, telling me how pissed he’d been at Charlie for not informing him that I’d been there, sitting not twenty feet away.

“Is it that I’m getting older or that you were in disguise?” he asked.

“Disguise,” I insisted. Stetson. Big mustache. Looked like a Village Person.

Because who knows? Next time, if that’s what he and his staff are on the lookout for, maybe no one will notice Laura and me on the other side of the room dressed like the Indian and the Construction Worker. -- Jason Sheehan

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