A Final Farewell

By the time this issue hits the stands, Mel's -- that Cherry Creek institution and stronghold of ever-changing American cookery -- will have served its final meals, poured its final glasses of wine and turned out the lights for the final time.

And you know what? I'm glad to see the place go. Not because I don't love it (I do) and not because I'm not going to miss it (I will, terribly, and for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with food), but because it's time. Twelve years -- that's how long Mel's has been on the scene, has been shaping the scene by training an entire generation of Denver chefs whose names now regularly appear in bold type in this column. And twelve years is a long run for anyone.

Which is a totally ridiculous thing to say, I know. There are restaurants that have survived fifty years, a hundred years. Across the pond, there are dim-lit rooms with elegant sconces hiding the original gas-lamp fixtures -- places that can trace their history back across centuries. In France (Paris aside), a restaurant is hardly noteworthy before it passes its tenth birthday, and some London train stations sell sandwiches older than most of Denver's best addresses.

But Cherry Creek is changing. Denver is changing. Tastes are changing in our city and all across the country. And if there's one thing that Mel and Jane Master are known for (beyond the hundred other things they're known for), it's opening hot and closing with style. After all, they were part of a group that first trotted the French around the United States (in his early days, Mel was a shill for guys like Paul Bocuse when no one outside of a very small group of New York Francophiles would buy Bocuse a glass of wine). They were the first to bring Continental sensibilities and La Cuisine, Grenouille Moderne to Denver in the early '70s when they opened Dudley's, where Jane -- a classically trained chef from back in an age when classically trained chefs were still finding work at HoJo's -- cooked nightly for the eleven people in the city actually interested in eating such things. Mel, along with his partner, Jonathan Waxman, walked California cuisine out of San Francisco and Berkeley and Bolinas and took it all the way to New York City, to Jams (Jonathan-and-Melvin's, get it?), where it hit like a bomb, blew up huge and faded fast. Long-lived Manhattan foodistas still remember Jams with the kind of fondness generally reserved for grandparents who made the family fortune or doddering aunts once infamous for running with a fast crowd. But Mel got out before "California cuisine" became a food-world punchline. He opened Mel's -- a New American bistro before there was any such phrase as "New American" -- and served comfort food in the years before it had to come with a side of irony just to be palatable.

And as New Americanism started floundering in a shallow puddle of deconstructionist weirdness, jackleg fusion and imitators imitating imitators, the Masters got in early on the resurrection of California cuisine, with all its beauty and sensibility. Montecito, their place at 1120 East Sixth Avenue (the address that was once home to Dudley's), is unabashedly Californian -- as is its chef, Adam Mali ("California Dreamin'," April 19). Slated to open this week are Montecito South and Annabel's next door, in a complex at the corner of Orchard and Holly in Greenwood Village.

Timing. It's all about timing -- and knowing when to walk away. For example, when you get shafted in a landlord/tenant dispute. (I've heard that Western Property Management is already deep into talks with someone who wants to rent the old Mel's space at 235 Fillmore Street.) There was no better time for things to go sideways in the Creek than right now, no better excuse for a party than to say goodbye to Mel's one more time.

Which is exactly what the owners, staff (current and former) and friends of the house did last week at Mel's: threw a final bash just four days ahead of last Saturday's last seating. It was a wake thrown for a loved one still very much alive --suitably boozy, occasionally weepy, mostly full of laughs. I won't bore you with the gossip-column details, but instead will tell just one brief story that I found more important and more moving than all of the long night's dagger-staring, speechifying and back-alley misbehavior put together.

At around 8:30 p.m., after the first course of wonton-mounted tuna tartare with avocado and mango salsa (which seemed dull until I realized it was a total California homage -- a wink-and-nod goof on the most overdone app of the revolution) and the second of pan-roasted halibut with sunchokes, sea beans and Meyer lemon-chive broth had both been cleared, Mel came around and grabbed me by the arm. "Jason, come with me," he said. "You must see this..."

He headed for the kitchen at a fast walk, dragging me in his wake. I hesitated, not sure that going into a busy galley full of big-name chefs was the best idea.

"Mel," I barked, "I don't know if this -- "

"Just for a minute, please. This is important." He took me by the shoulder, steered me through the swinging doors, into the scrum of expo at the pass, through the tangles of servers and runners, and into a small nook at the far end of the line.

"Look at that," he said. "Just look."

Chad Clevenger (Mel's current chef, who will soon be off on his way to act as personal chef to some friends of the Masters living in France) was rumbling down the tiny, cramped line transporting tossing bowls, moving with the veteran grace of a big man accustomed to small spaces. Tyler Wiard and Cory Treadway were laughing, bent over a board double-set with plates being assembled for service. Goose Sorensen was doing something unseemly to the stoves (or at least it appeared that way) with Mark Teffenhart almost climbing his back, while Frank Bonanno moved like one of those water-drinking toy birds -- his gleaming head bobbing up and down as he plated careful dollops of huitlacoche-seasoned duck-egg salad onto a hundred plates of Wiard and Treadway's duck enchiladas, smiling from ear to ear. Among them, sous chefs and station chefs and pastry chefs and line cooks did their own dances, shuffling plates, hauling up supplies.

It was so rare a scene, so defining a scene (all that talent in one place, all those guys who'd come up through Mel's kitchen), so happy a scene -- even though it will probably never happen again. And for a moment, all I could do was stand there, watching, seeing Denver's modern food history and its hopeful future colliding over a hundred plates of roasted duck and red-chile sauce, silenced by the understanding of what I stood in the presence of.

Beside me, Mel stood tall and proud with his arms crossed, beaming out at his boys, his cooks, the brigade of all brigades. I heard him speak over the top of my head. "You see?" he said. "I told you it would be worth it. Isn't that something to see?"

A critical democracy: Lili Bjorklund, daughter of restaurateur Addie Bjorklund and Halleh Hessami, is in eighth grade. She's the restaurant critic for her middle-school newspaper. And she kicks ass.

Not too long ago, she took on La Sandía, which I reviewed last week ("Pretty Ain't Enough," April 26). She'd already given good reviews to Chedd's, Andre's and Crepes 'n' Crepes, but at La Sandía, she got her first taste of the other side of this critic's gig: the bad meal, the careless service, the annoying little everythings. And she let the joint have it.

The entire review is posted on From the Gut, on the Westword blog, but here are a couple of samples: "The chicken was cooked so far past tough that I can hardly cut through it with my knife, much less chew it." And when the drunks spill salsa all over her? "The manager does not come...and I begin to doubt his overall existence."

And, okay, maybe that's a wee bit existential for a middle-school restaurant review, but I know just where she's coming from. Sometimes a retreat into the bleak philosophies of Kierkegaard is the only route left to take.

"After my review came out in the paper, it was the most talked-about article for weeks," Lili reports. "I was constantly asked why was I so angry; what made me so mean all of a sudden? See, all my other reviews had been of really great places. La Sandía was just...well, bad."

Welcome to the club, kid.

Leftovers: The Best of Denver curse has struck again. Two Saturdays ago, Tonti's on South Chambers Road (which won an award this year for Best Sometime Italian) closed. The other two locations in Parker and Elizabeth are still up and running, though. And in Aurora, Afghan Village is gone. Its space at 11002 East Yale Avenue had been the home of Kabul Kabob, which essentially shared the Best New Restaurant award in 2004 with Brasserie Rouge and succumbed to the curse shortly after.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan