We'd timed our exit as skillfully as possible, Laura and I. The bill was paid, the plates cleared, and we were sitting at our table at Mel's Bar and Grill almost silently, our heads down, making just enough uncomfortable small talk to dissuade anyone from coming over and starting a conversation.
Chef and owner Chad Clevenger was standing by the host's podium, going over the book for the night and making calls about reservations. The podium was right by the door. And we definitely did not want our exit to turn into a discussion of the meal we'd just finished. That wouldn't go well for anyone. All we wanted was to slink off into the parking lot and vanish.
Clevenger is ex of the original Mel's in Cherry Creek, the groundbreaking restaurant owned by Mel and Jane Master for more than a decade. Matter of fact, Clevenger had the honor of closing the place in April 2007, seeing through the final service and shutting down the kitchen — the last in an essential who's-who of local-boy talent (Tyler Wiard, Frank Bonanno, Sean Kelly, just for starters) who'd done turns through that cramped little line. After that, he'd done a Masters-arranged tour of France as a private chef, then came back to a job at the Agave Grill in Greenwood Village, a new Masters restaurant right next to a second new Masters restaurant, another Mel's. At Agave, Clevenger was tasked with doing something that seemed goofy at first blush: creating a sort of Chihuahua-meets-Lyon fusion of pure Old World and New World flavors, a distinctly Southwestern restaurant that encompassed both French techniques in the kitchen and French ingredients on the menu. The idea was to set Agave apart from the very continental Mel's next door by serving dramatically different food.
Still, Clevenger seemed up to the challenge. After all, he'd made his bones doing tamales and enchiladas before leaving Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe to go to the original Mel's. At Agave, he finally got his shot at a menu that was uniquely his. And he walked the Mexi-French tightrope like a champ, assembling an excellent opening board and then coming up with an even better menu for his first change. I reviewed Agave shortly after that, in March 2008, and raved about Clevenger's talents in the galley, his fine, high-wire tastes and careful couching of Old World classicism inside a shell of strictly New World modernity. Agave quickly became one of Laura's favorite restaurants. It was high on my list as well.
Still, the Master family shuttered Agave last summer and sold the restaurant, along with the property at 1120 East Sixth Avenue that they'd been operating as yet another Mel's. And then they sold the Greenwood Village Mel's space to Clevenger, who started running it as his own restaurant — albeit one still named Mel's, one that still kept alive some of the dishes, some of the flavors the original Mel's had been known for.
Over the past year, I'd stopped in at this new/old Mel's several times and had some brilliant sandwiches, a few solid dinners. Sure, there'd been a couple of failures (a muddy bowl of pasta leaps to mind, as do some over-composed entrees), but I had no concerns about the place under Clevenger's command. After all, this was really just a return to form — to those great Mel's menus of yester-whatever, touched up by sparks of the cuisine that Clevenger knew best. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, apparently. One recent Saturday, Laura and I stopped in for a simple lunch. We'd been looking forward to it, thought it would be as relaxing as slipping into an old and trustworthy pair of blue jeans. Which was why it came as such a shock, such a mortal affront, when virtually every plate at our simple lunch was fucked up in some elemental way. Occasionally multiple elemental ways. The chicken tacos were virtually inedible, sauced as though by a chimp being paid by volume. The french fries arrived limp and gray and waterlogged with grease; a second order came burnt. An order of steak frites was inexplicably awful — the meat overcooked, cut so badly it looked like a pile of stew beef hacked up with an ax, then slathered in some kind of barbecue sauce, of all things. And to top it all off, our order of tagliatelle arrived as ravioli: same ingredients as described on the menu, same presentation as promised, just a completely different pasta.
It was like dining in Bizarro World. The mess was mind-boggling, a complicated ballet of wrong moves, terrible technique and poor planning that rendered me briefly speechless and then left me just crushingly depressed. I knew that Clevenger could cook; I knew he could run a crew. He'd probably made dinner for me a dozen times over the past couple of years — both knowingly and not — and I'd never experienced anything that even hinted that such a level of fuck-uppery was possible. I found it difficult to believe that one kitchen — and one kitchen whose chef was not only in attendance, but part-owner of the place — could do so much wrong in so short a span of time.