If you do one thing at Mel's on Main, go to the restroom. Not that you may have a choice in the matter, especially after plunging headfirst into the horrid menu of "continental cuisine with an American flair." Even if you don't need to "go," visit the john anyway, just to see the signs on the door.
"I saw these two photos, and one was of David's nuts blown up," says Mel's co-owner Bruno Mella, who adds that his partner and girlfriend, caterer Judy Chorbajian, objected to his idea for restroom signs. "And I said 'Listen, it'll be cool for the men's. We're in Deep Ellum.' But I said make it small."
So on the front of the Mel's men's restroom door, instead of a sign that says chaps, guys, bucks, or swains, there's a tiny, tightly cropped shot of the barrel and jewel packs from Michelangelo's "David." A tiny shot of Venus hangs on the ladies room door.
But these aren't the only photos in this cavernous Deep Ellum space that was Avner Samuel's Da Spot before it was the Rehab Lounge before it was Snake River nightclub. There are photos of Mella with Luciano Pavarotti and other glitterati. Along the yellow walls are shots of Tuscany in moody black and white. On a soffit above the open kitchen, an area that was once the stage for Mel's former nightclub incarnations, hangs a butcher knife in a framed glass case and colorful plates autographed by celebrity chefs Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse.
One wonders what they would have thought of Mella's food. At lunch, baked squares of a substance that's purportedly somewhere between focaccia and pizza dough, but more closely resembles fiberboard, is delivered with a puddle of marinara. Mella claims the sauce is house-made, even though it bears a striking resemblance to the stuff disgorged from a jar.
The same fluid is pooled around a pile of mussels ($6.50). Only this time it's spiked with white wine and hopped up on garlic -- lots of it. Served cool-to-warm instead of hot, the mussels were mostly flaccid and squishy with more than a few sporting that rich, aged-in-a-wastewater-pond kind of essence.
The seared peppered salmon in caper-infested gazpacho sauce ($9.50) thankfully steered clear of such essence. Oddly, the fish was served skin up, and it was a rubbery sheath instead of a crisp coat. The meat was bland, but a side salad with wads of mushy couscous had its good points. The dressing, which tasted like scented soap from Laura Ashley, provoked an urge to scrub those mussels with the lettuce.
Barbecued quail with merqueze (Moroccan) sausage ($9), sweet potato hash, and sautéed green beans was another oddity. One piece of quail was flavorful and chewy, if a little dry. But the other was sharply sour, as if it had been bathing in the same pond in which those mussels had been loitering. The house-made barbecue sauce, more honeyed than brisk, cloyed the food relentlessly, while the dollop of whipped sweet potatoes upon which the bird perched was pocked with pieces of zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, and chunks of nearly raw potato.
In what was perhaps a fit of thematic consistency, the crème brûlée ($6.50) was topped not with a lid of warm, caramelized crust, but with a layer of slightly stiff, gritty scum that tasted like ash from an oven-roasted marshmallow.
It's hard to fathom that all of this comes from the mind of Mella, a chef with 30 years of international experience and opening chef for The Firehouse Restaurant on Greenville Avenue and Daddy Jack's Wood Grill in Deep Ellum. Needless to say, this fare isn't attracting hungry hordes. So Mella is poised to launch all-you-can-eat pasta specials on Tuesdays and Wednesday evenings, a ploy to pump up the weekday business for the fledgling restaurant. For $5.95, diners can eat as much seafood penne pasta, spaghetti, or fettuccine Alfredo as their plumbing will bear. Not only that, but there's a wine special to go along with it. For $12 per bottle or $2 per glass, you can sip wines from Italy with your carbo load. "It's very drinkable," Mella says. "It's not like rotgut Wyecliff cooking wine."
Maybe. But somehow, despite his education at London Westminster Culinary Institute, his stint at the Metropolitan Club and the Algonquin Hotel New York, the hard time he did working for Leona Helmsley at The Helmsley Palace, or his work feeding the flashy guests at Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola's wedding (he jokes that maybe his food contributed to their split), Mella's craft at Mel's comes awful close to rotgut.
When I made a reservation for a group of six on a Thursday night (one of the restaurant's busiest evenings), the restaurant was slow. No, that's not right. It was desolate. There wasn't a soul in sight, save for the server who doubled as a hostess who tripled as a bartender. Not only that, we didn't notice a single additional paying customer throughout dinner.
We wondered why, until the reasons began to strike successively. The first was the wine. The red we ordered (Powers Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state) was warm, stale, and otherwise swillish. It most likely had been opened days ago, plugged, and left to sit in the bar. And judging by the wooden wine racks, barely half full, Mel's hasn't been maintaining wine stocks regularly, most likely indicating slow movement.
The second was the garlic bread. It was warm, crisp, and richly buttered. But it came with a ramekin of olive oil suspended with globules of pesto in its depths for dipping. How much thinking went into this strange collusion of fats?
Certainly more than in the hearts-of-palm salad ($7). Not that the greens weren't fresh, or the hearts of palm stalks weren't supple. Not even that the clash of flavors generated from a mingling of pecans, shaved pears, blue cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes irritated with their low-level static. No, it was the strong aroma and taste of turpentine that had us puzzled. Where did this come from? A strange chemical reaction from the balsamic? Some frighteningly stray ingredient accidentally knocked into the dressing?
But this isn't the only example of execution gone tragically awry. Mel's house salad ($5), a mix of greens and tomatoes washed in a foggy vinaigrette, was pocked with artichoke hearts seemingly locked in the throes of sharply sour, effervescent fermentation.
Not everything, though, was fatally flawed. Some of the food just lumbered. Truffled foie gras ravioli in a chicken consommé ($9), an appetizer, had gummy pasta pillows with ossified rims that swamped the bird liver. A cluster of diced carrot, white turnip, zucchini, and yellow squash framed a dollop of mashed potatoes sogged in chicken broth -- a thoughtlessly constructed mess.
And despite the menu description, we couldn't find any couscous in the roasted wild salmon ($14) plopped in a béarnaise reduction. The fish itself was there, crisped on the outside, mushy on the inside, in a sauce that did little to spark interest.
"Auzzie" lamb chops ($19.50) with crispy white bean ravioli had the same gummy, stiff-edged pasta pillows as the fois gras version. And the minted cassis demi did little more than cloy the viscid chops, which lacked tender silkiness or meaty sweetness. A side of broccoli polonaise (sprinkled with egg yolk, bread crumbs, and herbs dribbled with melted butter) rocked. In fact, it was passed around our table of six and gleefully scarfed.
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And for good reason. At least two of the dishes served were inedible. Not the kind of inedible that doesn't cut it on Saturday-night dinner but becomes a mouthwatering feast served cold on Sunday morning with a hangover. It's the kind of inedible that sets you clamoring for a door with a snapshot of David's boys hanging on it. Grilled swordfish ($17) in ancho-chili butter, served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach, was raw and mushy in the center and wafted wisps of malodorous ammonia fog.
But that paled when compared with the gusts generated by the horseradish and crumb-crusted pan-seared halibut ($15) with crisp leeks, roasted beets, and chive oil. At least we think those are the things that were in there. We didn't have the valor to investigate and verify. But there's no way we could escape the acrid, sour vapors of fish gone terribly wrong. So much so, it sent one of the members of our table scurrying to the restroom with a napkin over her mouth. I just hope she didn't run through the door with David's nuts dangling on it. Not that it would have mattered, the restaurant being so desolate and all.
Grilled chicken in wasabi demi ($15) cluttered with a fricassee of fennel, green beans, and cherry tomatoes and served with garlic mashed potatoes wasn't bad, at least by the Mel's on Main standards. There were no distinct flavors (not even wasabi), and the sauce resembled not so much a flavor enhancement as it does a stream of yellow river silt.
What is going on back there behind that space that used to be a rock-and-roll stage? Or more accurately, what are they smoking? It's hard to say. What isn't hard to say is that given the palatability of some of the menu selections, sooner or later you'll come face-to-face with that shot of Michelangelo's David.