Cafe Society

Saint Elsewhere

Last Labor Day weekend, after spending several hours wandering around in the sun eating lukewarm shrimp cocktails and cheesecake on a stick at the Taste of Colorado, I stopped by Somethin' Else, the place that Sean Kelly was putting into the very same spot where his last restaurant, Clair de Lune, had so recently suffered the indignities of a long, lingering death.

Although the small demi-cafe at 1313 East Sixth Avenue wasn't exactly open yet, it wasn't exactly empty, either. Seth Black, the Clair de Lune roundsman turned Somethin' Else chef de cuisine, was in the tiny foxhole of a kitchen, his back now to the burners, his hands now on the pass rail, standing in the spot where Sean had run his one-man show nightly at Clair. Dishwasher Gustavo Murillo -- who, like Seth, has been working with Sean for years -- was there, too, standing in the cramped, dead-end gangway where the dish machine lives. His job hadn't changed at all: No matter what you call a restaurant, dishes are still dishes. A floor staff of three -- a frontman and two servers -- was knocking around, rubbing up against each other in the small service area tucked behind the short bar just inside the front door. And in the dining room, there was one table, a four-top: man, woman, two kids. That meant Somethin' Else was staffing one employee per customer, with one to spare.

The only person I didn't see -- and the one I'd come looking for -- was Sean, Denver's own bastard outta Jersey, the archetypal juvenile fuckup made good by a life in the kitchens, an honest-to-Jesus local success story, and my friend.

Restaurant critics supposedly don't have friends in the kitchens, but I've got a couple, and Sean is one of them. After my first meal at Clair de Lune, I knew I had to meet the guy, and I did. I spent time watching him work; I sat in on staff meetings and family meals at Clair de Lune; I talked to him on the phone as he closed Clair; and I still had him cook for me anytime I could.

Sean is from New Jersey -- a working-class kid, the son of a cop -- and may have earned his chops on the low end of the East Coast industry, but he didn't really find his legs until 1991, when he followed a girl out to Denver. He honed his skills here (like many of Denver's other great chefs, he did time on the hot line at Mel's Restaurant and Bar); opened his first restaurant here (Aubergine, which once occupied the space at 225 East Seventh Avenue now filled by Mizuna, run by Frank Bonanno, another Mel's alum and friend of Sean's); and married the girl he'd followed here. And in the last decade, he'd ridden both sides of Denver's boom-and-bust roller coaster -- first up with Aubergine, then down straight into the dirt with his high-end, high-priced, highly personal eight-table fantasy, Clair de Lune, which I loved so much that it still hurt a little just to look around. Sean's new place had the same layout as Clair -- the same small dining room, the same diminutive kitchen, the same few tables -- but seemed somehow 180 degrees different in feel and attitude. The walls were warmer now -- no longer that cool Monet blue, but the color of French mustard and paprika. And the tables were all bare, with no more setting than a plain candle and white napkins. The whole place felt easier, friendlier, less reserved than it once had.

In the dining room, the father at the four-top unfolded himself from his chair and walked over to say hello. It took me a second to realize that this guy in the jeans and checkered button-down was actually Sean Kelly. I'd never seen him in the dining room before. Never once seen him without the white jacket and chef pants of his chosen trade.

The woman, the children at the table -- those were his wife and kids. The clothes? His, too, although it had been a long time since he'd worn much besides his chef's drag. And the restaurant was undeniably his, even though he was in the front of the house now rather than the back, even though there was someone else standing his watch in the kitchen. I asked him how that felt, and he laughed -- told me that Seth was ready for it and, more important, he was ready for it. After all the years, all the kitchens, all the long nights and early mornings, he was ready to slouch a little at the bar, shake a few hands and go home early. He'd arranged for Somethin' Else to be the kind of place where he could do just that. Take a look at the menu, he said. And the wine list -- so short and so sweet. And hey, since I was there, did I want something to eat? The place wasn't technically open, not really, but the credit-card machine -- a new addition after the cash-on-the-barrelhead policy caused so much trouble at Clair -- had gone in the night before, and Seth had been cooking for family and friends of the house for a couple of nights, so...

And right then, two people from the neighborhood strolled by hand in hand, hesitated and stopped. The young couple saw Sean's family in the dining room, saw us standing at the bar, looked at the menu hung French-style just beside the door, glanced up questioningly. They were wondering if the place was open or not. Suddenly, so was I.

Sean smiled through the window. "Well, I guess we're really open now," he said, as he went to hold the door open for them. And just like that, Somethin' Else became a real restaurant.

On that first day, I'd been able to smell fresh paint on the walls. When I stopped in a few weeks later, Somethin' Else smelled like a restaurant. Sean was standing at the bar getting ready for another round of greeting and handshaking. He'd already put in a full day doing prep, doing the kind of grunt work for Seth that he used to do to get himself ready for service each night at Clair.

"You know how it is," he said. "I don't want to turn into some kind of Rocco DiSpirito or something like that. I don't want people to come in here expecting to see me. I just want to be here when I need to be here, and I want people to have a great meal. The celebrity thing?" Sean rolled his eyes dismissively, saying in his own way that it wasn't worth the trouble. "This is where I want to be right now."

Seth was ensconced in the kitchen, burners going in preparation for the first walk-ins of the night. Gustavo was stacking wine glasses in the racks behind the bar. Because reservations (or, rather, a lack thereof) were such a problem at Clair, Sean did away with them at Somethin' Else. He wanted people to be able to drop in any time they felt like it.

"So are they?" I asked. "Just dropping in?"

"Only about as much as they did at Clair," he said, shaking his head. "The problem is, now the check averages are about half what they used to be."

Looking over Somethin' Else's menu, I could see why. This was essentially a tapas menu -- only not Spanish, and not necessarily featuring the traditional small portions. It was priced like a tapas menu, with tabs ranging from $3 a plate for spiced almonds to $15 for half a chilled Maine lobster, and designed to be served like a tapas menu, with multiple flights of plates converging on the table, all meant for tasting and sharing. Almost poetic in its separation of courses, the plates laddered down the page like stanzas, snacks to the left of center, then seafoods on the right, meats on the left, desserts on the right. The page told the story of Sean's career, with favorites culled from his Frog-Mediterranean culinary upbringing and some new stuff that, in years past, he'd never had the time to try. Like sliced plantains, fried and served with a chunky, syrupy-sweet mango chutney. Or a plain mascarpone-thickened polenta, delivered warm to the table and topped with a knob of melting butter.

I've dropped by Somethin' Else several times since Sean opened the place four months ago, always checking to see how he's holding up, slowly eating my way through that menu. The fried baby artichoke hearts that some foodies said were responsible for the success of Aubergine are served simply here, mounded on a plain white plate and drizzled with a thin, cold citric aioli that mixes with the heart's own nutty flavor, warmth, and paper-thin crispness for an ideal display of the inspired, two-ingredient minimalism that was the actual reason for Sean's success. That same simplicity held with the plateau de fruits de mer that once starred at Clair and is now deconstructed into several separate dishes on this menu. There's the lobster -- poached in bouillon, then chilled for service and curled up on its plate like it's napping. And the Malpeque oysters, their powerful brine and hard flavor capable of standing up to the astringent mignonette sauce that Sean serves with them. A half-dozen of these and a glass of crisp white perfectly complement another plate of anchovy filets laid across shaved fresh fennel drizzled with strong olive oil. Another Aubergine memory: a bowl of mussels in saffron broth spiked with garlic aioli.

There are no rules to this menu. You want to start with a cheese course? No one's going to stop you. You want a cup of espresso and then three desserts? Go for it. The Meyer lemon tart with preserved Italian cherries is particularly nice, and who's ever gone wrong with a bowl of double-chocolate pudding topped with fresh whipped cream?

The food and service are solid, but business is still uneven. One night when I stop by, I'm the only guy in the house. Another time I show up with a party of three on a Wednesday night and am turned away because the dining room is full, of all things. I'm so happy, I almost don't mind having to go somewhere else.

Finally, in December, Laura and I come in for a full dinner -- ten courses. We eat curried chicken casserole with sliced black figs; spicy pork albondigas in a fiery tomato sauce; a stiff country pâté served with pickled haricots verts in lieu of the more traditional cornichons, along with more figs and a spicy dot of mustard. For a moment we're confused, because there's nothing on the plate to spread the pâté on, but then we realize that every ten minutes or so, one of the servers comes around with fresh bread. That's a smart idea, because almost half of the items on the menu need bread, and lots of it: pâté, baba ganoush, the chicken stew and patatas bravas served in a sweet/spicy paprika sauce so good that to leave even a smear of it on the plate is unthinkable.

We eat and eat, going through plates two at a time, pacing ourselves, and when we're done, we order desserts to go. We pay with a credit card, and that feels good. We have to wait to have our check rung up because there's a backup of tickets at the register, and that feels even better. And while we're waiting, who's there to chat us up? Sean. He's been working the four feet of oak that makes up Somethin' Else's bar all night, opening doors, helping people with their coats. He's had his eye on the kitchen, sure, but he doesn't jump behind the line once. He's making the transition smoothly -- no sweats (at least, none that show) and no shakes. For a guy like Sean, whose whole life has been on the other side of the swinging doors, that's really something.

In fact, that's really somethin' else.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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