The Bite

Toque of the town: Sean Kelly needs a break. And so one of the town's top restaurateurs is calling it quits -- for now.

"I've been struggling with this decision for a while," he says. "I hated to do this to my people. I hate to do it to the loyal customers who have been with me all this time. But the fact is, I need to take some time off to rest and spend time with my family. But don't worry -- I'm not gone for good."

Definitely gone for good, however, is The Biscuit, the breakfast and lunch place at 719 East 17th Avenue that Kelly opened last year to rave reviews. (I named it Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2000.) Over the holidays, Kelly announced that he'd be closing the Biscuit at the first of the year in order to concentrate all of his efforts and energy on Aubergine Cafe, his award-winning Mediterranean restaurant at 225 East Seventh Avenue. But while Aubergine's hours had already been pared back to dinner-only four nights a week, the eatery was packed every one of those nights, and between keeping up with those crowds and keeping up with toddler twins, Kelly didn't have enough time to sleep, much less think. When he finally found a few minutes to do the latter, he realized it was time to close Aubergine, too.

"I moved out here to Colorado ten years ago looking for the easier life," he says. "I swore to my wife that there wouldn't be any more sixteen-hour days, and it's turned into that thing where I'm always telling her it's just around the corner. I don't want to look up one day and realize I never spent any time with my family. Now people are saying, 'One of these days it's gonna hit you that Aubergine is gone,' and I'm thinking that that's better than one of these days having it hit me that, geez, my kids are all grown and I missed it."

Still, Kelly may be looking at a short sabbatical: His hope is to find a partner and a bigger space for a resurrected Aubergine sometime next fall. "The partner thing is something that would have helped a lot," he says. "My wife helped me with the books, but really, I was always playing this juggling act with cooking and taking care of the business end. With my next place, I want to take some computer classes and business classes so I'm better prepared for that stuff, and going forward, there are so many things I want to be different in the restaurant itself. But the bottom line is, next time around I want to be able to spend way more time in the kitchen, cooking the foods that I was dying to do when I got my own place to begin with."

Before he opened Aubergine six years ago (in the space previously occupied by Benny's Cantina, which moved down the street to 301 East Seventh Avenue), Kelly had been cooking at Barolo Grill. But like so many chefs, he'd dreamed of starting his own restaurant, where he could cook the food he really wanted to cook -- and that food was what won Aubergine so many fans so fast. Denver diners immediately took to Kelly's snazzy, upscale Mediterranean menu, with its appealing small plates and a rotating roster of innovative dishes based on whatever was fresh that day. And then there was the ever-popular Sunday night chicken dinner, a personal favorite, which stuffed a whole chicken with a dressing of arugula, pine nuts and currants for just $29 -- for two!

Aficionados of those Sunday nights, or any other nights, have only a few more chances to get that chicken; Aubergine will close on February 24, after a private party. And just in case Kelly has any doubts about whether his cozy eatery will be missed, diners there were crying over their eggplant this weekend. No joke.

Aubergine's space is being taken over by Doug Fleischmann, who's been general manager for several Mel and Janie Master restaurants over the years, and Frank Bonanno, one of the two chefs who'd recently been running the kitchen at the Masters' Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street). Fleischmann and Bonanno plan to call their new place Mizuna, and their focus will be on California-style Mediterranean and Italian. Bonanno, who left Mel's in the fall and briefly went to work for the new Micole (1429 South Pearl Street, an address vacated by Hugh's just last fall), has a way with in-your-face flavor combinations, and Fleischmann is well regarded in this town by industry insiders for his diplomatic manner and sweet disposition.

Their restaurant should be a worthy addition to the Denver scene. But couldn't they have replaced a Denny's?

Masters of their domain: The Masters may be feeling the need for a break soon, after many dizzying personnel changes at Mel's. A few weeks before Bonanno bailed, fellow Mel's chef Tyler Wiard had left to pursue his own restaurant; ironically, Wiard is currently looking at the Biscuit space. And just before Wiard left Mel's, Mel and Janie's son, Charlie Master, had come down from the mountains to resume his post as Mel's general manager; after assorted other posts at Mel's, Noel Martin is back as assistant manager (and customers are glad to see him there). Meanwhile, Mel's kitchen duties have been taken over by Goose Sorensen, who had been chef at the Masters' Starfish (its space at 300 Fillmore Street is now home to Campo di Fiori). Sorensen is doing so well at Mel's that you'd think he'd been there all along. Cooking with him are chef de cuisine Cory Treadway and sous chef Ben Davison, last seen at Michael's of Cherry Creek before the owners sold the eatery at 2710 East Third Avenue and it became Déjà Vu. Whew.

Along with gaining a new chef staff, Mel's has reworked its menu. It's less ambitious than the one Wiard and Bonanno were doing, but that could be a good thing: The dishes seem simpler and more focused, and the over-the-top elements that Wiard was so fond of are less abundant -- which means they carry more weight when they do appear. For instance, Sorensen is offering a fun smoked-salmon "lollipop" appetizer ($9.50) that features a salmon-wrapped breadstick stuck in goat cheese. Among the entree highlights are buffalo meatloaf ($18.50) in a poblano chile sauce with chipotle ketchup, sautéed Chilean sea bass in a ginger sauce punched up with blue crab ($23.75) and, for the vegetarians, a polenta Napoleon ($14.95) that involves fresh mozzarella and wilted greens.

While some of the dishes -- and faces -- may be new, however, Mel's offers the same attentive, efficient service, as well as its ever-appealing and well-priced wine roster. The Masters may deserve a break, but Denver needs them right where they are.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner