Less than two years ago, Mercantile Dining & Provision chef-owner Alex Seidel, wine director Patrick Houghton, and then chef de cuisine Matt Vawter were in Chicago to celebrate what would be the night that Seidel won a 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. Today, Vawter is running his first solo project, Rootstalk, in Breckenridge while Houghton is working for a wine distributor. Seidel remains at the helm of Mercantile and Fruition Restaurant (not to mention Chook and Füdmill), but he’s also working with a new sommelier and chef—James Bube and Alex Astranti, respectively—and the trio is intent on creating an improved Mercantile 2.0.
“I had to get comfortable with rebuilding,” Seidel says, when asked about parting ways with Houghton in August 2020 after allegations of workplace misconduct against Houghton were aired on a local 86d-style Instagram account (which has since been taken down). “He was with me for six years,” Seidel says, “and he built a strong beverage program. But I couldn’t let the team down and not rebuild better. It was an opportunity to start fresh.”
That new start includes Bube and Astranti leading a streamlined service and culinary crew. Bube is an award-winning Master Sommelier and, for now, first-time general manager, who arrived in Denver from Chicago in mid-December after working as wine director for Hogsalt restaurant group (Au Cheval, Bavette’s, and Gilt Bar) and a season harvesting grapes at Argyle winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. While he will not be Mercantile’s general manager for long—Seidel is currently looking for a permanent hire for that position—Bube is intent on empowering his new Mercantile team. “I’m hiring real pros and seeking their input,” Bube says. “The top-down approach doesn’t work with true professionals.”
To wit: Bube has put Mercantile’s evolving cocktail program into the talented hands of bartender Kristina Lumm, a veteran of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, and former Mizuna general manager and sommelier Tim Hershberger. Together, they’re bringing innovative ideas and drinks to the menu, including a cocktail that Lumm has dubbed the Madame Vice President, which debuted on January 20, Inauguration Day for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s a play on an old fashioned, for which Lumm combines strawberry-infused Old Forester bourbon with thyme simple syrup, smokey Sfumato amaro, and alderwood-smoked sea salt. It’s much lighter than a traditional old-fashioned with a juicy berry profile and gentle bitterness, and is a marker of a very strong cocktail list in the making.
Bube also believes that he inherited a stellar wine program, and while he wants to democratize it, he plans to build on it instead of starting over from scratch. He learned from his time at Hogsalt that every guest and every price level needs to be represented on a great wine list. “There has to be a $9 by-the-glass option,” Bube says, even if European tariffs have raised wine prices dramatically over the past year. He doesn’t see wines from top producers in Burgundy, France, for instance, which are 40 percent more expensive than they were a year ago, ever going back down to pre-2020 pricing. Domestic wines are the answer, then, and Bube hopes to increase Mercantile’s Riesling list, in particular, especially with bottles from producers in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, which he says are some of the best in the country. Wines from the Sierra foothills of California are also on Bube’s radar.
When Mercantile reopened for dine-in service on January 12 after a brief hiatus, Astranti was in charge of the kitchen. He and Seidel had met several years ago in Dallas, where they cooked together at a Chefs for Farmers festival while Astranti was working with the Hai Hospitality group, which owns Uchi and its offshoots. A year or so later, Astranti invited Seidel back to Texas to cook with him at a ramen pop-up and the two chefs strengthened their bond. “I was impressed with [Astranti],” Seidel says. “He is a great leader and runs a tight kitchen.”
When Vawter announced that he was leaving Mercantile to open his own restaurant in Summit County, where he grew up, Astranti got in touch with Seidel about the open position. Astranti was coming off more than five years with Hai Hospitality and was ready for a new challenge. Plus, he has family in Denver. “[Seidel] and I had great chemistry out of the gate,” Astranti says. “In fact, this is the first time I’ve been so comfortable with a chef. We have an open communication and are looking forward to rebuilding Mercantile together.”
In terms of the food, Astranti plans to stay true to the roots of the culinary program at Mercantile, where local, in-season ingredients are always at the forefront. “I cook simple, honest, well-prepared food, and there’s always something fun on the plate,” Astranti says. “The dishes are shareable and I hope guests will try a lot of them, not just order an appetizer and an entrée.” He also draws on his experiences cooking Japanese cuisine under Hai and time spent working in London, as well as growing up in the village of Pietra de’ Giorgi in the countryside of Milan, Italy, where he learned to fish and his mother tended a large garden. (In fact, Astranti has an impressive tattoo collage on his left arm that includes fresh squash blossoms inspired by his mother’s garden, as well as pasta, a fork, a knife, a fig, and a pig, among other culinary emblems.)
For now, as Astranti settles into his new kitchen, the food menu at Mercantile will be an exciting work in progress. Changes are already present in the omission of some classic Mercantile dishes and approaches: the lunchtime Colorado quinoa salad, falafel flatbread, and banh mi are gone, and lunch is a full-service affair now (with Bube on the floor to help with wine pairings); sandwiches come with a choice of french fries or a little gem salad instead of former house-made pickles; and the family-style paella is off the dinner menu. New items that are sure to become classics include a glorious double cheeseburger with fries, artichoke dip with Parker House rolls, and scarpinocc pasta stuffed with Taleggio.
Astranti’s way with pasta surely makes his mother proud, as his ricotta gnudi are light as air, melting away in a burst of fresh cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The scarpinocc, which may sound too rich with its pool of lemon-butter sauce and melty filling, is only overwhelming in its simple perfection: al dente egg pasta, silky-salty cheese, beautifully bright lemon sauce, and an added hit of sweet-and-sour from swirls of black garlic agrodolce. Asian ingredients pop up here and there, too, from yuzu kosho and myoga (Japanese ginger flower buds) on the bass crudo to black vinegar-pickled cherries and togarashi granola, which offsets Astranti’s hickory-smoked beet salad. Another example of his expert mashing of Italian and Japanese traditions using Colorado ingredients: charred local broccolini with a miso citrus bagna cauda and crunchy garlic breadcrumbs.
Other changes to the Mercantile service model include a 20 percent gratuity on all orders and refusal of additional tips, a practice that went into effect last summer. “We saw an opportunity to change the wage system in the restaurant for the better,” Seidel says. “Now we pay between $21 and $35 per hour for front-of-house staff; people are excited that they can count on a steady paycheck. All of our managers get full health insurance now, and we were able to pay all staff health premiums from October through December, as a kind of health-care holiday.”
Amidst these positive changes, Seidel is also making hard decisions, including putting Fruition Farms, his Larkspur farm and creamery, up for sale in the coming weeks. “I’m hoping that whomever I sell the farm to will help create an opportunity for us to still get produce from that land,” Seidel says. “Selling the farm isn’t about moving away from agriculture, it’s using all the knowledge I’ve gained over the past 12 years to be more efficient and make a greater impact locally.” Seidel is working with Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture, on developing a Colorado food and farm bill, and he also hopes to continue Fruition Farms’ cheese program, but that depends on the sale and what cheesemaker Jimmy Warren wants to do next.
It’s all part of getting better, Seidel says. “We want to get to the pinnacle.”
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