Success can sometimes be a stumbling block. It sounds paradoxical, but you see it on the basketball court all the time. A team fights to get ahead, then slows down its game to protect the lead. Fear creeps in, and instead of playing to win, the team starts playing to not lose.
Alex Seidel isn’t in the NBA, but he’s no stranger to success. In 2010, he nabbed a coveted Best New Chef award from Food & Wine magazine for his work at Fruition, his shoebox-sized restaurant on Sixth Avenue. Three consecutive nominations from the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Southwest followed. So I was eager to see what Seidel would do at Mercantile Dining & Provision, which he opened in Union Station’s sprawling north wing this past September after three years of planning. Would he play it safe, giving us more of the haute comfort food we’ve come to love at the restaurant that made him famous? Or would he play to win?
The space itself was clearly a departure from what Seidel has done before — a combination market, bar, open kitchen and dining room that hums from morning to night and is three times as large as the tiny Fruition. Hotel guests stop by, roller bags in hand, for chocolate croissants en route to DIA. Business types run in for sandwiches, only to spontaneously settle in at the bar to eat and enjoy the light streaming in from windows that front the plaza. At night — the only time the dining room is open for full service — every seat on the tufted blue banquettes is taken, filled with guests celebrating, catching up or even deep in tête-à-têtes, the room too noisy to worry that anyone is listening in. Grand without being pretentious, the space isn’t playing it safe. But is the food?
Visits at breakfast and lunch were promising, but it wasn’t until dinner that I found the answer, and it came in the first plate that crossed my path: an amuse-bouche of carrots, eggplant, croissant and foie gras. (I was sitting at the chef’s counter, where such gratis offerings are commonplace.) This was no one-bite morsel. Carrot purée was painted down the center of a long rectangular plate, croissant and eggplant duxelles sat clustered to one side, and in the center lay an oval that chefs call a quenelle — in this case, a fragile, light-brown creation the color of sugar as it begins to caramelize. I slipped a piece onto my tongue and it melted, a snowflake of foie gras, rendered fat, butter and cream. More than a gesture of goodwill from the chef, the dish delivered a message: The only game that counts is this, and we’re all in.
That foie gras butter was followed by more foie gras, this time jarred next to blinis dotted with duck confit, the undeniable richness somehow reined in by tart cherry purée and cardamom-maple syrup. Cauliflower bisque evolved into a melody of mushrooms from the duxelles and foraged fungi that shared the bowl; a lone arancini (crisp rice ball) added a touch of crunch and whimsy. Another night brought oxtail marmalade and two tall bones — one fat, one skinny, their cores of buttery marrow topped with a layer of caramelized sugar that shattered like sweet glass. Freestanding segments and drops of blood-orange purée were arresting in more than a tart, citrusy sense, their ruby color adding a primal vibrancy.
Cod was a stunning study in white, with a haunting vegetal flavor from the parsnip-milk broth in which it had been poached and later sauced, as well as droplets of housemade ginger-persimmon preserve. The fish was clearly a risk, without the skin-on, pan-crisped exterior that chefs work to their advantage — but that risk paid off. One of those skin-on crowd-pleasers was on the menu, too, a very fine sea bass with kale purée, foraged mushrooms and mushroom-sherry-brown-butter sauce. But it was the cod, like the duck-confit blinis and foie gras quenelle that preceded it, that underscored the drive and depth at Mercantile. “We push ourselves to put out better food every day,” says Seidel.
Not just better food, but more daring food, which this kitchen is able to do given both its size and the evolution of Denver’s dining scene. “Some of the best dishes I was doing as a chef [at Mizuna] in 2005, I’d think, ‘This is amazing,’” Seidel recalls. “We’d sell two a night.” Ten years later, he and chef de cuisine-proprietor Matt Vawter — backed by a talented crew that includes several former executive and sous-chefs who took demotions to join the team — send out not two, but close to twenty bone marrows a night. “Now we have an opportunity to cook like we’re cooking for ourselves a little bit.”
If this creativity is what cooking for themselves looks like, I’m all for it. But not all guests will be. That’s why the four-page menu, folded like a story, includes an array of dishes for comfort-seeking guests. What functions as the restaurant’s bread service is perhaps the most comforting of all, with lamb rillette, hummus and black-olive tapenade to slather on fat slices of grilled ciabatta. The $6 tag is comforting, too, a steal on a menu with pastas and vegetables in the mid- to upper teens and entrees pushing $30. (A family-style ribeye with sides runs $98.) Pan-crisped gnocchi tempt in meaty lamb ragu, and red-wine-braised short ribs set the standard for fork-tender. All three are hallmark Seidel: faint notes of Indian spices in the lamb rillette; drops of tangy sheepskyr yogurt-cheese from Seidel’s Fruition Farms in the ragu; crème fraîche bolstering the whipped potatoes. Mercantile may be complex in terms of plating and technique, but the kitchen remains minimalist at heart. “We’re not trying to do too much, not ten different spices in the marinades or vinaigrettes,” Seidel says. “The flavors are always very clean.”
Where many restaurants collapse is in the fourth quarter, in that hand-off from savory to pastry. Here, though, desserts are as strong as the courses that came before, conceptualized and executed by Lonne Cunningham. Unlike Vawter, he’s not a Fruition veteran, but he’s already thinking like one. “In my entire career, I think I’ve been satisfied with five items,” says Cunningham, who spent time at Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin in New York and came to Mercantile from Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked for James Lewis, another Food & Wine Best New Chef. “Otherwise, I’m always saying, ‘Can I make it look prettier? Can I make it better?’”
Cunningham’s quest for perpetual improvement produced one of the best dessert menus I’ve seen all year. Honey-caramel-topped discs of crème caramel evoked the Mediterranean in the plate’s enchanting mix of pistachio cakes, pomegranate arils, candied kumquats and pistachio dust. Peanut butter semifreddo recalled childhood, channeling what we love about Snickers in a decidedly elegant way, with smooth peanut butter ovals, chocolate-sea-salt brownies, Valrhona hot fudge and peanuts intensified by a dip in the fryer. Cunningham’s background in the kitchen — he switched to pastry five years into his career — informs his approach: a touch of cardamom to the caramel in a spectacular pot de crème, a light but confident hand when it comes to sugar.
At times Mercantile does falter, as the kitchen or front of the house trips up ever so slightly. Custards made of mushrooms and farro verde were overly dry and cakey, and they were plated with a large indention where the custard must have stuck to the mold. Broccoli with yogurt curry could’ve used more time on the plancha or a longer blanch to soften the tough stems. And one night our server was always in a rush to leave our table. That didn’t mar the meal, though, because the rest of the staff swooped in to help him out — proof, if anyone needed it, that after all Seidel’s success, this team is still playing to win.
Mercantile Dining & Provision
1701 Wynkoop Street
Select menu items:
Grilled ancient ciabatta $6
Cauliflower bisque $12
Marrow bone $13
Pot au foie gras $17
Potato gnocchi $13
Farro verde custard $19
Broccoli à la plancha $11
Pan-roasted sea bass $29
Poached cod $28
Braised short ribs $28
Pistachio crème caramel $10
Peanut butter semifreddo $10
Milk-chocolate pot de crème $10
Mercantile Dining & Provision is open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at mercantiledenver.com.