When I learned learned that Mel’s Restaurant and Bar was closing, I posted “Farewell to Mel’s” as a euology to this wonderful Cherry Creek North restaurant, a genuine contemporary Denver dining institution. Two friends and I went there for lunch yesterday, expecting to be part of a real crowd. It didn’t happen. Most of the intimate booths, whose pink walls are decorated with framed menus and other graphics, were occupied, as were a few of the tables. None of the overflow space was used. Even the big bar was uncharateristically empty too. Granted, the restaurant was gearing up for last night’s last gala dinner before it shutters after Saturday service, but still….
I don’t usually drink wine with lunch (except in Europe or at the occasional press lunch), but a private farewell toast seemed called for, so I ordered glass of of chardonnay from Tortoise Creek in Languedoc. It was just $5. Mel’s hasn’t ever overcharged for wines by the glass and also offers well-priced bottles too. I chose a thick mushroom-lentil soup topped with a float of creme fraiche and a salad. My friends and I caught up on each others’ news and didn’t dwell on the “last lunch” aspect of this final Mel’s meal. The weather was icky (heavy rain, cold air, standing water on the roadways, low-lying fog), so we didn’t linger. No dessert. No coffee. Just a quick exit. Perhaps it was better that way.
But wait. There’s more!
My modest little farewell here coincides with greater ones in the Denver print media — I’m sure with more to come. “Mel’s Ever-Expanding Universe,” the lead story in today’s Denver Post food section, following “Casual But Elegant Mel’s is Bidding Adieu,” yesterday’s piece by travel editor and former restaurant critic Kyle Wagner. The illustration for today’s front-pager charts Mel’s influence on the Denver dining scene, citing the chefs who have cooked there and gone on to other places, as well as the local and national celebs who have dined there. The Post also ran half-a-dozen recipes from Mel’s chefs, past and present, should you wish to try to recreate a taste of Mel’s at home.
Meanwhile, this week’s Westword features critic Jason’s Sheehan’s complementary review of Montecito, the restaurant that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master opened a few months ago. My earlier blog posting on the then-impending end included information on Montecito, the Masters’ California-inspired restaurant, and other culinary projects they and their son Charles are undertaking.
- Bob Burden (above left), Beaver Run Restaurant, Breckenridge – Sautéed herb-rubbed lamb loin topped with micro greens and enoki mushroom salad tossed in pinot noir dressing, with Bing cherry and pomegranate demi-glace and forest mushroom bulgur risotto.
- Jake Linzinmeier, Chair 8, Telluride – Wild mushroom consomme, cappuccino-style topped with a celery root and potato foam, with goat cheese biscotti.
- Tim McCaw, Zach’s Cabin, Beaver Creek – Coquille St. Jacques (above right, seared scallop and brandied curry cream atop puff potato, which one of the Zach’s crew described to me as duchesse potatoes and five different mushrooms — lion’s head, shiitaki, baby portabello king oyster and oyster).
- Aaron Taylor, Keystone Ranch Restaurant – Venison strip loin with mushroom duxelles, stuffed with mushrooms and foie gras, with wild ramp potato risotto, huckleberry compote and mushrooms.
I had a heck of a time marking my ballot from four excellent dishes. Burden’s lamb was super-flavorful, and the demi-glace was sensational. Linzinmeier’s “drinkable” soup was imaginative to the max. McCaw’s scallop was perfectly seared, brown-crusted on top and delicate in the center were a straightforward flavor that worked beautifully with the subtly complex mushroom mix. The stuffing for Taylor’s venison was a rich counterpoint to the venison, and the mushrooms and compote tamed it all down a tad. In the end, Linzinmeier took “Best Dish” honors, and McCaw was voted the “Best Food & Wine Pairing.”
Speaking of pairings, the chefs created their mushroom dishes to pair with the following wines:
- 2005 Buena Vista EVS Pinot Noir for Burden (tied for “Best Wine” honors)
- 2004 Wattle Creek Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Linzinmeier
- 2005 Clos du Bois Reserve Chardonnay Russian River Valley for McCaw
- 2004 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexander Valley Meritage for Taylor (Geyser Peak’s 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, served during the reception, tied for “Best Wine”)
- Crab cakes with Meyer lemon relish and tarragon aioli
- Cocoa seared pork tenderloin
- Heirloom tomato and California artichoke on puff pastry, with opal basil pesto
- Sesame seared ahi tuna, with wakame salad and pickled ginger, crisp lotus root and wasabi-scented soy sauce
- Tempura calamari “lollipops”
- Tomato-lemongrass coulis shooters
- Duck confit spring rolls with California raisin chutney
- Niman Ranch steak tartar on crisp potato gallettes
- Citrus-scented lobster and jicama salad with vanilla Anglaise
- Spicy Baja ceviche and taro chips
- Niman Ranch tri-tip with warm tortillas
Then there were the desserts. I thought I’d died an gone to heaven when I ate Wen Chocolates’ offerings. The Mission Fig chocolates were great. Then there were pecans in chocolate that were even greater. Then there were the several teas in dark chocolate — a formula for the longevity if ever there was one, especially with red wine — that were so good that I think I ate myself into a coma!
I never pass up the opportunity to eat truffles, both the fungus and the chocolate. During this about-to-end visit to New York, I lucked into an invitation gourmet truffle tasting at Vosges Haut–Chocolat in Manhattan’s oh-so-trendy SoHo. In an aggressively designed retail space (one purple wall, one large crystal chandelier, gleaming cases and shelves displaying truffles as if they were precious jewels, one long white marble table where the tasting took place and where usual habitues gather for coffee-and…), I tasted some weird, wild combos. A red wine (I think the Merlot) from Long Island’s Osprey’s Dominion Vineyard was poured with the trufffles.
Olio d’Oliva is single-origin white chocolate around an olive oil-infused ganache core. It came plated with a natural potato chip. Naga (“inspired by Nagaland, India,” we tasters were told) has a slightly nutty core, with a subtle coconut flavor and curry on top was served with small corn-nut snack crackers from the subcontinent. Black Pearl is a dark chocolate with ginger-wasabi ganache and a sprinkling of toasted black sesame seeds and accompanied by toasted wasabi-flavored edamame. Rooster is the name of a tall, conical truffle with a bittersweet chocolate mantle around a center that includes taleggio cheese. Absinthe is all about dark chocolate, black licorice flavor and a topping of powdery cocoa. Dulce de Leche combines Argentine caramel and cashew in a milk chocolate mantle, accompanied by a piece of applewood smoked bacon. I’ve had some better truffles in my life, a lot that were not nearly as good and none that were more more unusual.
This line of truffles was improbably established in Chicago by Katrina Markoff, who studied psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University and then culinary and pastry arts at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. During a subsequent eight-month trip around the world, she discovered many new flavors that she now incorporates into her truffles. In addition to the Vosges Haut-Chocolat store in SoHo (132 Spring Street), there are stores in Chicago (where the factory is also located) and at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
We were seated at the table with the sign that declared, “Ignore These People,” that was visible only to the waitstaff. Eventually someone brought us menus. Eventually someone brought us water. Eventually someone took our order: a BLT and iced coffee for my friend, and a composed salad and a lemonade for me. Our waiter disappeared. Whenever he reappeared, he looked in every direction by at our table. Eventually, he stopped by to confirm our orders: one BLT, one Cobb salad, one lemonade and one iced tea. We corrected the 50 percent that he got wrong. He disappeared again.
Sometime later, an iced tea and a lemonade appeared. We traded the tea in for coffee. He disappeared again. He reappeared. We got his attention. “Two minutes!” he declared. And disappeared. The cafe emptied out. Our food didn’t arrive. Our waiter wandered into our range of vision again. “What about two minutes?” we asked. “I’ve just been fired,” our waiter said — and disappeared for good. A waitress came over with our order: one BLT and one Cobb salad. We were too exasperated to complain. If we’d sent the Cobb back in favor of the composed salad, we might still be there.
Through it all, Mitchell London sat across the room from us, chatting on his cell phone, conversing with staff and patrons who stopped by. He had crutches leaning against the wall behind him, so I’m not surprised that he wasn’t patrolling the floor. Bit he did seem curiously disinterested in what was going on. And while I will continue to visit Fairway and even buy something exotic to bring back to Colorado, I am disinterested in ever eating at the cafe again.
Prima Ristorante at Denver’s Hotel Teatro has a new executive chef. Toby Prout comes to Denver from Arizona, where he worked at the Ritz-Carlton Phoenix and at Fox Restaurant Concepts, which operates several stylish eateries in the Grand Canyon State. He has assembled a $35 three-course dinner menu incorporating the dolci created by Jason LeBeau, one of Denver’s most talented pastry chefs. This Spring Special will be offered from April 20 to June 8. Here’s the menu, which looks terrific and tempting:
Corn and Zucchini Chowder, Crab Salad, Opal Basil Syrup
Baby Greens, Grapes, Shaved Fennel, Celery, Crostini, Lavender Vinaigrette
Crispy Polenta, Sage, Cambazola Cheese, Balsamic Tomato Sauce
Fresh Melon Salad with Prosciutto, Figs, Port Wine Drizzle
Spinach Salad, Warm Pistachio Goat Cheese, Pickled Onions, Tomatoes, Tomato Vinaigrette
Veal Au Poivre, Black Pepper Linguine, Caramelized Onions, Demi Cream
Roasted Garlic Gnocchi, Hot Sausage, Fennel, Leek Fondue
Apple Wood Smoked Bacon and Shrimp Fusilli, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Vodka Sauce
Vegetarian “Lasagna”, Mushrooms, Spinach, Grilled Onions, Squash, Basil Reduction
Salmon, Artichokes, Confit Baby Carrots, Charred Tomatoes, Red Olive Vinaigrette
Scallops, Red Onion Marmalade, Butter Mash, Micro Salad, Carrot Mint Nage
Ribeye Steak, Gorgonzola Twice Baked Potatoes, Caramelized Shallots, Port Reduction
Marinated Lamb Loin, Caramelized Parsnips, Fava Bean-Mushroom Ragout, Truffled Demi
Cherry Rubbed Pork Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Risotto, Wilted Spinach, Cherry Torani Sauce
Oregano Chicken, Roasted Baby Potatoes, Zucchini, Squash, White Wine Pan Jus
Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Meyer Lemon Gelée, Cassis Purée
Honey Vanilla Cheesecake, Sweet Cherry Ragout, Piñon Cluster
Strawberry Cassata, Sweet Crème Fraiche, Rhubarb Purée, Torbinado Cookie
Chocolate Cocoa Terrine, Mocha and Milk Chocolate Cremeaux, Bittersweet Sorbetto
Toasted Hazlenut Budino Cake, Caramel Mascarpone, Frangelico Gelato
Actually, the Boulder County Farmers’ Market kicked off its 2007 season last Saturday, but A) the weather was icky, and B) I was on the road back from Telluride and couldn’t be there anyway. Therefore, today was my my first famer’s of the year and, judging from the crowds and the overheard comments, the first for many other people too.