There is something magical about mushrooms -- even the non-hallucinogenic kind -- and so I was pretty stoked about eating at Mellow Mushroom for the first time. The chain got its start in Atlanta in 1974, when three college students cooked up the idea for an artful pizza joint based on philosophical eccentricity and a nod to tasty fungi. The concept got popular fast, and today there are three Mellow Mushroom stores in metro Denver -- including one that just opened Monday at Park Meadows. Each location is locally-owned, and no two are exactly the same.
I ventured into the restaurant on the 16th Street Mall, and found that this Mellow Mushroom had some strange magic: My pie came with an unexpected accessory.
I'd expected the place to have a little more college hippie atmosphere; I'd equate the atmosphere more with the characters at the end of St. Elmo's Fire than the beginning of the movie. This location has a distinctly corporate-thinly-disguised-as-a-laidback-college-haunt feel, with an angular, lighted bar, a couple of neon color-changing lights peeping out from columns and a large amount of stainless steel. Only two things give this Mellow Mushroom any semblance of being a mellow, pizza-slinging student hangout: the weird, rainbow-hued acid trip painted on one side wall, and the continuous lineup of Grateful Dead songs (or it could have been one really long song, you never know with the Dead) playing on the sound system.
The menu also had far fewer mushroom items than I'd expected, and more of a typical American sit-down chain-restaurant selection: hot wings, hummus, artichoke-spinach dip. I settled on a bowl of the house Magic Mushroom soup ($5.95), a small Holy Shiitake Pie ($12.35) and a dessert slice of red velvet cake that did not have a cool name ($6.25).
On a Thursday night, the dining room was packed with a surprising demographic: mostly families with children, a few larger parties of families, a couple of singles perched at the bar watching sports on the plasma screens, and a single table of college-aged people who were drinking moderately and placidly enjoying the televisions.
Watching the cooks in the back of the restaurant's semi-open kitchen was more entertaining than scanning the crowd, as the line was staffed with attractive, scruffy-but-clean guys in their twenties, whirling pizza dough on their fingers. My soup took about forty minutes to arrive, which seemed excessive -- but at least the wait came with some scenery.
The Magic Mushroom soup is menu-pumped as a wine and herb broth with creamy Italian Montamore cheese, topped with grilled shiitake, button and Portobello mushrooms and fresh chives. Based on that description, I was expecting a broth-based soup -- but instead I got a thick, creamy concoction the consistency of thick gravy, sprinkled with crumbles of white cheese and an avalanche of chopped chives. The soup was very rich, even thicker with the topping swirled in, and magically delicious. The Italian Montamore was an excellent choice to accent the mushroom-focused soup, as its salty tang, fruity flavor and bare hint of sweetness played off the earthy, meaty, slightly smoky mushroom flavors.
It was also magically filling, and I was glad I'd ordered a small-sized pizza -- which took another twenty minutes to arrive. My attentive server finally dropped it off with profuse apologies for the wait. She was dressed in shortie-shorts and a Mellow-branded T-shirt that was the only way to distinguish staff from guests -- and good for Mellow Mushroom management. I have never understood some chains' penchants for forcing their servers into stiff, uncomfortable monkey suits to hawk chicken wings and pints. It doesn't look professional so much as it does forced-phony; doing a good job trumps the uniforms every time.
The Holy Shiitake Pie had an olive oil-and- garlic sauce base; sliced Shiitake, button and Portobello mushrooms; caramelized onions, mozzarella and more of the Montamore cheese; and the whole affair was drizzled with garlic aioli and black truffle oil and pelted with more chives and shaved Parmesan. And there was a little something extra: As I slid a spatula under the first oil-glistening, smoking hot slice, I saw something shiny on the edge of the crust. A little, silvery ring, possibly off a piece of jewelry.
I tried to be subtle as I beckoned the server over to share my prize, and she was appropriately mortified. This was far from the first foreign object I've found in restaurant food (my most notorious find was a date/time holding sticker in a piece of cheesecake that revealed the cake was two days past its shelf life), so I told her it was no big deal, but she might want to let the staff have a look-see to make sure no other errant topping had found its way onto my pie. The manager came over, and was also apologetic, removing the be-ringed slice but leaving the rest.
I scanned the next piece thoroughly before taking a tentative bite. The pizza was oily from the excess of olive and truffle oils and ribbons of aioli, and rich as all get-out from the cheeses and profusion of baked shrooms. It was magically delicious, too, but I stopped after a few bites, still full from the soup. I got the red velvet cake to go, and ate about half of it later that night at home. It was just as rich as the soup and the pizza, with thick icing, layers of chocolate and chocolate syrup, and sprinkles of chocolate chips.
Yes, Mellow Mushroom's food is rich -- so rich it comes with its own jewelry!
Strange magic. Still, if you're on the mall and hungry, there are definitely worse restaurants -- albeit ones that don't include free rings with purchase.
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