Category Archives: Restaurant & multiple restaurants

Farewell to Mel’s

Mel’s to Close in Cherry Creek North

Singers planning retirement frequently book a farewell tour. Athletes announced their final season of competition. But too often, even treasured restaurants close abruptly, with no time for one, last nostalgic visit. Not so with Mel’s Restaurant and Bar (originally, Mel’s Bar and Grill), a Cherry Creek North eatery at 235 Fillmore Street that is closing on April 28 after 12 years as a favorite in Denver’s toniest shopping/dining district. Real estate issues are the reason that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master are shuttering the restaurant, but real estate isn’t what this blog is about. It’s about food.

I’m looking forward to one final visit to Mel’s with a couple of friends for lunch on April 24. If we had deeper pockets, we might have reserved spots for the $90 grand finale dinner that evening that will be prepared by past and present Mel’s chefs: Frank Bonnano, now owner of Mizuna and Luca d’Italia, Goose Sorensen, owner/chef of Solera, Tyler Wiard and Corey Treadway, now at Elway’s, and Chad Clevenger, currently the captain of the kitchen at Mel’s. The 24th is the Masters’ 42nd wedding anniversary, which somehow fitting. On the 28th, Chef Chad prepares popular dishes for Mel’s final curtain. If you want to attend one of these specials, or just wish to have a private last meal at Mel’s, call 303-333-3979.

Instead of going into deep mourning, the Masters, including their son, Charles, have already opened instant-hit Montecito at 1120 East 6th Avenue and plan Montecito South at Orchard and Holly. Executive chef for Monty North and Monty South, which is how the Masters refer to this California/Mediterranean eatery, is Chef Adam Mali. He was previously owner/chef of the sadly short-lived Restaurant Kody in Evergreen and more recently executive chef at Aspen’s Ajax Tavern. For reservations at Montecito, call 303-777-8222.

In the works, and also under Chef Mali’s culinary supervision, is Annabel’s, projected to open in May at 5960 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village. It will serve “American comfort food.” Annabel’s is named after Mel and Janie’s granddaughter and Charles’ daughter. I’m happy that I’ll have one more opportunity to eat at Mel’s and even happier that the Masters will be keeping Colorado foodies happy and well fed even after it closes — and if naming a restaurant after a grandchild is an indicator, hopefully for years to come.

Two Crested Butte Classics Change Hands

I’ve returned from Crested Butte and the North American SnowSports Journalists Association annual meeting. While there, I learned that two classic Crested Butte restaurants have new owners. Mac Bailey hit upon a successful all-you-can-eat formula of comfort food before that had a name. He had been dishing up skillet-fried chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, biscuits with honey butter, and the best cole slaw around since 1983. He has now sold The Slogar Bar & Restaurant to CJay Clark and Megan Barney, who aren’t messing with a winner and are keeping the old recipes and retaining the same old hospitality and friendly informality.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the exquisite little fine-dining establishment called Soupcon (right) has also changed hands. I believe that it was also owned by Mac Bailey, but executive chef Scott Greene, who was at the helm in the kitchen, put his own distinctive culinary stamp on it. Quaint and charming, Soupcon was and remains the stylistic opposite of The Slogar. Greene has relocated to warmer climes, specifically to Boca Raton, FL, leaving Soupcon in the best of hands. The new owner/chef is Jason Vernon, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

While Slogar’s menu remains unaltered, some things have changed at Soupcon and others not at all. Chef Jason changes Soupcon’s menu every three weeks or so. His sophisticated and refined cuisine relies on seasonal and especially local ingredients where possible. The achingly charming restaurant looks as it always has, with small tables decked out in crisp white linens and fresh flowers, and bentwood chairs that fit perfectly into this old log cabin in a quiet alley. Fine foods and wines to match remain the hallmark in this finest of all fine-dining restaurants in Crested Butte.

Two New Pearl Street Eateries

Vasa Bar & Grill, a name that sounds to me as if it should be a Viking ship or Scandinavian flatbread (and in fact is both), is a Japanese-style eatery that finally opened on the prominent corner of 15th Street and the Pearl Street Mall. And when I write “finally,” I mean it, because the place has been under construction since early last summer. Some weeks ago, Vasa opened with discretion bordering on secrecy. In the first days (or maybe weeks) of operations, they kept the bamboo shades lowered outside of serving hours, which made it look like a construction site even after every tasteful object was in place and the “Now Hiring” sign was off the fence. Vasa is still a tad hard to spot, because their own sign is small and tasteful white-on-black, while above a corner of Vasa’s storefront (on the Pearl Street side), the plastic sign for the Subway nextdoor glares. Why did the Downtown Management Commission or other permitting agency even allow that? I haven’t eaten at Vasa yet. I don’t know exactly what they serve nor even their phone number. They don’t seem to have a website either. But remember that you read it here first, even if without details.

In the 1521 Pearl Street space vacated by Allison Espresso and Pastry Boutique, the newspapers have come off the windows and The Cup is now taking shape. Gone are the shabby-chic mismatched tables and chairs. In their place are stylish ash and chrome furniture. The counter is being rebuilt, and the chalkboard propped up in the window promises pastries, bagels, paninis and all sorts of espresso drinks and other beverages. No phone number or opening date yet, but again, remember that you read it here first.

Superstar Salad Bar

We went to a South American-style steakhouse last night, and what impressed me most at Texas de Brazil was the salad bar (a tiny corner of which is shown, right). Restaurateur Salim Aswari, who opened the first American rendition of the Brazilian churrascaria in Addison, TX, in 1998, told a Dallas Observor, “We want to be the P.F. Chang’s of steakhouses.” Good for his bank balance (the privately held chain raked in $50 million last year), but not inspiring for diners who want something other than a “concept” that will fly across the country.

There are (or will be by the end of 2007) three Texas de Brazil restaurants clustered around Dallas (Dallas, Fort Worth and the original in Addison), three in Florida (Miami, Orlando and Miami Beach), two in Virginia (Norfolk and Fairfax), two in Illinois (Schaumburg and Chicago) and one each in Las Vegas and Denver — the last where my husband and I and two other couples went last night.

Churrasco, the Brazilian equivalent of barbecue, is derived from on-the-range grilling in the cattle lands of the southern part of the country. Brazil de Texas’s all-you-can-eat shtick involves a squadron of “gauchos” who bustle from table to table with chunks of open-fire grilled meats skewered onto big swords, like shishkebobs on steroids. Each “gaucho” comes around bearing two skewers of beef (filet or picanha, a seasoned top sirloin that is the house specialty), pork, lamb, Brazilian sausage or chicken, which he will flick onto your plate on request. Want your meat medium-rare? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-rare. Want it medium-well? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-well. The picanha was best-tasting of the meats. The chicken was tender but didn’t have much flavor — not even bacon flavor to the bacon-wrapped chicken or any hint of cheese in the grilled Parmesan chicken. Small sides of garlic mashed potatoes and grilled bananas (“to cleanse your palate,” explained the waiter) were brought to the table. Bottom line is that not even the most ardent carnivores among us truly raved about the meats.

The salad bar was the star of the meal, and it is such a star that I’d return just for that. The 50 or 60 items were opulently displayed as if on a cruise ship or at a Club Med, but the offerings were not just there for show. Here, quality matched quantity, and everything tasted really good. One bowl held romaine lettuce hearts and one contained mixed greens, but there were no sprouts, no grated carrots, no underripe tomatoes, no radishes, no cottage cheese, no straight-from-the-can beans or chickpeas, no wilted green peppers — in short, nothing that makes the average salad bar so depressing.

Everything (and I mean everything) so artfully arranged on a large, square buffet, was over-the-top beautiful and very good or better than that: balls of fresh buffalo mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, gorgonzola, goat cheese terrine, spiced mixed olives, Greek olives, pepperoncini, grilled red and yellow peppers, grilled eggplant, grilled portabello mushrooms, sauteed button mushrooms, steamed asparagus, pesto-topped tomato halves, Italian cold meats, crisp bacon, cold shrimp, hearts of palm, salmon and rare ahi tuna (each with an appropriate sauce) and so much more. In addition to house-made dressings (doubtless from company recipes), a shelf above the main buffet held a fabulous assortment of olive oils and vinegars so that those of us who like to dress our own salads can do so and also baskets of fresh, nicely crusty bread. I was happy to see a bowl of chimichurri, a South American condiment that comes in many variations. The Texas de Brazil rendition isn’t very garlicky, but a tasty herb blend nonetheless.

A smaller linear buffet held soup (a slightly oversalted lobster bisque was the soup of the day), jasmine rice, Brazilian black beans and probably another side dish or two that I can’t recall. There was also a small selection of pre-made sushi — OK considering that it is served at a Brazilian-themed steakhouse but otherwise a weird combination — Japan de Brazil, perhaps? There were two desserts — a “traditional Key lime pie” whose center was so cold it seemed to have recently emerged from the freezer (I wonder when it was baked) and a far better bananas Foster pie. which the waiter described as “bananas Foster cheesecake.” Each chef selects a handful of nightly desserts from the company’s list.

The dramatic restaurant has high ceilings, huge lighting fixtures, lots of dark wood and lavish out-of-reach flower arrangements that I’m guessing are fake. A tall, glassed-in wine room displays many bottles, but because there was a special on Beringer wines as part of the Denver Restaurant Week promotion, my husband and I shared a bottle of very nice bottle Beringer Knights Valley Reserve cabernet sauvignon, a steal at the restaurant week price of $26.80. I understand that Texas de Brazil is planning to introduce private-label wines made from Portuguese grapes.

Other than my misgivings about multi-restaurant “concepts” that leave little or no room for individual chefs’ interpretations, Texas de Brazil does not lend itself to a seamless dining experience. Granted, we were there on a non-snowy Friday evening that happened to be the last night of Denver Restaurant Week, but the service component was, by its nature, intrusive. We were seated in a small, very dimly lit room fortuitously separated from the main part of the restaurant with sliding walls, enableing the six of us to hear each other), but the waiter insisted on launching his long, well-memorized recitation of how the concept works while we wine drinkers were still squinting at the wine list.

Individual second trips to the salad bar are par for the course conversation interrupters, but the person who leaves voluntarily removes him- or herself from the flow, but the steady procession of gauchos offering more of this, that or the other meat was somewhat intrusive. It can’t be helped, given the concept, but still…

Again, I acknowledge that we were there at a very busy time, but when a server offered to clear our salad plates and bring clean ones for the main course, I wasn’t quite finished with my salad but said that I would like a clean plate. He came back with one for everyone else but not for me, although I had finished my salad by the time he returned. I had to ask three different people for a clean plate before one finally materialized.

Texas de Brazil does have an a la carte menu, but we didn’t even consider it, because the two for $52.80 Denver Restaurant Week offer that lured us there in the first place. I”m not sure what the regular price is, but I think it’s about $38-$40 per person, still a good value for all that food and that fabulous salad bar.

Restaurant Weeks Abound

Restaurant Weeks — those successful and increasingly popular promotions during which legions of a city’s restaurants try to attract new customers and reward loyal ones with incredible deals for multi-course meals — are on my mind right now, because Denver Restaurant Week is February 24 to March 2, with dinner for two for $52.80 in dozens of Mile High City eateries. We are going in to Denver at least once, to Texas in Brazil, and maybe we’ll be lured in to Denver another evening as well, though time is getting tight.

Also coming right up is Winter Restaurant Week in Boston, March 4-9. It’s not quite a week — just Sunday through Thursday. More than 135 restaurants have signed up to three-course prix fixe lunches for $20.07 and three-course dinners for $33.07. In fairness, Boston has compensated for the short winter week with a summer equivalent that runs for 12 days.

Among the numerous other cities that have annual restaurant weeks are Washington, DC, in early January; San Diego also in early January; Norfolk in late January; Downtown Atlanta in July; Center City Philadelphia in late September; and of course, Boulder in November. Every city’s restaurant offer a different price point, and every specific restaurant works out its own offer. Regardless of the details, anyone living in or near or visiting any city during its restaurant week is missing a good thing by not eating out as often as possible.

The New York Times Discovers Boulder Dining

The New York Times Travel Section today contained a short article on Boulder dining titled “Fine Dining With a Hippie Past.” Writer Michelle Auerbach rounded up the usual recent suspects: Frasca Food & Wine, The Kitchen and Mateo. She observed, “The new kitchens are refining the town’s hippie past, with an almost obsessive focus on organic ingredients, brand-name boutique farms and eco-friendly practices, like composting, recycling and renewable energy.” True enough. However, I think that she falls into a “stereotrap” when harking back to Boulder’s hippie days, which were ascendant a long time ago. I’ve lived in Boulder for nearly 18 1/2 years, and that hippie heyday had already waned by the time I got here. Now, you have to look hard to find what’s left of that ’60s and ’70s counterculture in Boulder itself, though it is alive and well living up the hill in Ward.

Fabulous as the “new kitchens” are, there’s also a lot to be said for some of the “old kitchens” — John’s Restaurant (established in 1969), the Flagstaff House (1971), Laudisio’s (1986), L’Atelier (owner/chef Radek Czerny opened his first Boulder restaurant in 1988). I know that there were space constaints to this assignment, but it always pains me when the media — especially the New York- and California-based media — are so fixated on the newest, hippest, trendiest restaurants that they ignore those that have been carefully preparing and graciously serving fine, sophisticated food for a long time.