Alex Seidel: Thinking outside the box for Mercantile Dining & Provision

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Union Station is hosting its grand opening on Saturday, July 26, two weeks behind schedule -- but one of the restaurants going into the historic building is even further down the track: Mercantile Dining & Provision. Still, Mercantile -- a 5,000 square foot restaurant in the north wing helmed by Alex Seidel -- should be worth waiting for. See also: Slide show of Fruition Farms

"It is a dream to be creating a brand-new concept in such a spectacular space," said chef/owner Alex Seidel last January, in announcing his plans to join other local ventures in Union Station. "We look forward to coming together with our neighbors at Union Station to make this a successful landmark for downtown Denver and the entire state of Colorado."

Those neighbors include Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, the team that opened Rioja in Larimer Square ten years ago and have since taken over Bistro Vendôme and created Euclid Hall; they opened Stoic & Genuine in the south wing of the station two weeks ago. Snooze and the Kitchen Next Door, concepts from local restaurant groups with multiple locations, also have restaurants at Union Station -- and the management crews in place to help take on additional projects. But this is only Seidel's second restaurant -- though his first, Fruition, snagged the Best New Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2008, just months after it made its debut.

"We set out to do a small, simple restaurant, not to blaze any trails," he told Westword in his 2009 Chef and Tell interview. "The positive reaction has been fantastic, but we never expected this kind of attention. I'm just a simple chef who cooks food."

A simple chef who continues to collect accolades from around the country and who won the Outstanding Professional Award from the Colorado Restaurant Association this spring.

And now he's a simple chef who's opening a much bigger restaurant -- the Mercantile kitchen is bigger than all of Fruition, Seidel points out -- in a historic building that came with a unique set of complications, which required endless revisions of the concept. "It's been really hard to see the light of day," Seidel says. "It's the most challenging project not just for me, but for other people who've been doing it through all the years. Coming from a little 1,400-square-foot restaurant on Sixth Avenue, it's certainly been challenging jumping to 5,000. I'm not afraid to admit that it's challenging."

The Wisconsin native began working in kitchens when he was just fourteen, then studied culinary arts in Portland. From there he moved to California, where he cooked alongside chef Hubert Keller. He continued to hone his craft in other noteworthy West Coast kitchens before packing up for Vail and a job as chef de cuisine at Sweet Basil. Several countries and cooking stints later, Seidel landed at Mizuna, where he was the executive chef for four years before leaving to open Fruition -- with just $50,000 -- in the tiny space that had once housed Sean Kelly's Clair de Lune. Keep reading for more on Alex Seidel's Mercantile Dining & Provision Fruition had just gotten off the ground when Seidel created Fruition Farms, a ten-acre artisanal sheep dairy and creamery in Larkspur five years ago, where he not only grows vegetables, but makes cheeses, too. Last year, the farm produced 700 pounds of heirloom tomatoes -- and Fruition was its number-one customer.

The food he grows at Fruition Farms and the dishes he makes at Fruition are all part of what Seidel has planned for Mercantile. "There were a lot of moving parts that really needed to come together," he says. "I can appreciate and accept all the extra time we can get. Obviously, it's been a little disappointing to not be open...." Particularly when he's been thinking about this project for almost three years now. But the wait has given Seidel time to fine-tune the idea -- which, he admits, "is really outside the box a little bit." Mercantile will be a European-style restaurant and market open seven days a week. The market will open at 7 a.m. to serve fresh-pressed juices and coffee -- Seidel is using Commonwealth, new to Denver -- and pastries along with a full menu of breakfast and on-the-go lunch options. The 75-seat restaurant will occupy the same space at dinner, when it will feature fresh Colorado ingredients and techniques that reflect Seidel's culinary journey as owner of Fruition and founder of Fruition Farms.

"It provides a continuing education for us and our community," he says. "It brought us closer to how our menu reads. I think it's sometimes easier to write a menu than execute it.... This brings you closer to the ingredients."

And Mercantile's customers will be able to get close, too, since the market will stock items from the farm, including pickled beets, fruit spreads, croissants, cheese and yogurt. In keeping with the era when Union Station was first built, the market will also offer many things preserved in jars -- mini-meals such as oatmeal, sturgeon rillettes, duck confit and bread pudding. "I always wanted to do a market in a restaurant," Seidel says. "It's the third element: farm, restaurant, market."

The space will have "no walls to separate the concept," he adds, and the market will work in concert with the kitchen. "If we make it for the restaurant, you can buy it at the market," he explains. "It's a really cool opportunity to provide guests with things you can't do in a restaurant. Pork-skin brittle, for example. Beef jerky."

Party-goers at the Great Hall Gala on July 11 got a taste of what Seidel has in mind for Mercantile when he roasted a pig right in front of the future restaurant's home -- since he had no kitchen space to work out of. "We took the grilling-and-chilling approach," he says, "and served a bunch of pork." No pork-skin brittle, however.

Seidel is partnering on the project with chef de cuisine Matt Vawter. They have plans for a wine library with storage for 600 bottles, a private dining area and a fifteen-seat bar -- but those plans can't reach fruition until they move in. And the build-out was slow to reach this section.

When we caught up with Seidel last week, as restaurants were opening around Union Station, he was still four weeks from finally being able to get into his space; after many reconfigurations, he'd delivered his plans to the city last December and had just gotten them back in late spring. Fingers crossed, Mercantile is now on schedule to host family-and-friends dinners over Labor Day weekend while the staff stocks the shelves, then close on Labor Day itself and open to the public on Tuesday, September 2.

And then, he hopes, everyone will agree that the wait has been worth it. "It's taken three years to figure out the concept," Seidel says. "The opportunity was too hard to pass up because of what it means for Denver. We're growing as a community, and we're on a solid path."

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