Alex Seidel's much anticipated ode to preserved foods, Mercantile Dining & Provision, opened its cafe and market yesterday at 7 a.m. and completed its debut dinner service later that evening. Fans of Seidel's first restaurant, Fruition, will find a similar menu of focused platings that give the ingredients star billing and a dining space with an airy feel for such a surprisingly intimate room -- just 75 seats.
Wanting to get into Mercantile early to check out the scene and the food, I landed a 7 p.m. reservation on OpenTable. Entering from inside Union Station, I encountered an espresso bar and deli counter before hitting the dining room -- but the main entrance in the front of the building brings diners right to the host station between the dining room and market.
The space is large and airy, with towering ceilings, large but delicate light fixtures, and plenty of filtered sunshine from high windows. The dining area, tucked into the end of the room, seems almost an afterthought when viewed from the central bar or spacious market. Shelves stocked with preserved goods from the kitchen serve as room dividers, while stout pillars break up the room. A view of a glassed-in hotel hallway up above gives an almost voyeuristic view of the Crawford's guests. (Let's hope those morning bathrobes are cinched tight when they go to retrieve the morning paper.)
The dining space itself breathes an air of casual elegance, with pine-topped tables (no reclaimed beetle-kill here, though), padded eggshell-blue chairs, and plenty of room for staff and diners to maneuver about on the dark wood floors.
The atmosphere is cheery and relaxed; the sound level is moderate, but dissipates in the volumes of air above the restaurant. The entire theme is in keeping with the entire Union Station project: Gleaming subway tiles, polished woods and vintage flourishes give an old-world impression without seeming heavy or overly themed.
Seidel and chef de cuisine Matt Vawter have constructed a large but not intimidating menu that plays off the provisions motif without becoming bogged down in it. Preserved fruits and vegetables, cured meats and cheeses from Seidel's own Fruition Farms dot the menu, especially in the Snacks (all under $10) and Appetizers (up to $21 -- for the Market Provisions plate) sections. Seasonal ingredients like peaches, Rocky Ford melon and heirloom tomatoes are given their due alongside housemade pastas, foraged mushrooms and vibrant root vegetables.
The "Family Dinner" entrees (ranging from $60 to $85) are particular head-turners: Whole branzino with its skeleton propped upright on a serving platter and a massive, Flintstone-esque tomahawk pork chop had the entire dining room gawking with envy.
Succinct beer, cocktail and wine lists feature Colorado craft beers on tap and by the bottle, mixed drinks with housemade ingredients, and a prominent menu of "large format" wine bottles priced in the triple digits.
If budget is a concern, restraint is the key word. It would be easy to get carried away with $11 cocktails, numerous small plates and an assortment of desserts -- from a classic peach melba to a savory pine-nut tart and cheese plate. It's a menu that invites sampling and discussion -- forward-thinking enough to provide surprises (a fennel salad on a dessert?), but anchored in tradition that will appeal equally to big money and upscale tourists.
Or, if you're like me, you can just play tourist for a day and indulge in Mercantile's charm. If you're not up for dinner, you can always load up on pickles.
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Continue for more photos of Mercantile's food...