Making dinner reservations was never really my thing when I lived in New York City. The idea of trying to figure out what I would feel like eating several days in advance seemed pretty unreasonable. What if thought I wanted vegan comfort food next Friday, but when that day came around, I actually felt like eating soup dumplings in Chinatown?!?! Surely I would DIE.
I know this reads pretty crazy to Normals (yes, this is what I call sane people who cannot conceive of the idea of paying $2k+ for a nearly window-less, sub-300 sq ft studio apartment in Manhattan), but my mode of thinking was that you can get anything you want at any time of the day in NYC, so why would I decide on anything too far in advance?
That’s a long-winded way of saying, I never really thought about making dinner reservations until I moved to Denver.
From what I can tell so far, some of the more highly regarded restaurants in town are next to impossible to get seated at a reasonable time on a Friday or Saturday unless you make reservations weeks in advance. So I started doing the unthinkable — firing up Open Table and making advanced reservations to the top restaurants in town.
The first fruits of my advance-planning labor came in May with a trip to The Mercantile, nestled within Denver’s newly remodeled Union Station. The Mercantile follows in the tradition of other fine dining restaurants located in train stations such as the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant in NYC, or Le Train Bleu in the Gare du Lyon in Paris.
Nowhere near as in-your-face fancy as the later example, the Mercantile goes with a modern, upscale vibe that is welcoming, yet refined. While the restaurant has tasteful furnishings (note the muted gray-blue tufted leather banquets) and elegant table settings (you’ve never seen wine glasses so perfectly polished alongside crisply pressed napkins), the waitstaff is neatly dressed in casual clothing and do not put on any airs, which suits the location perfectly.
This is because as nice of a place it is, “cozy” or “romantic” are not words to describe this restaurant. At the Merc, the sounds of clunking metal pots from the display kitchen mix with the tinkling silverware and chatter from your fellow patrons, creating a constant hum of sound that travels up the 20-foot-high cavernous ceilings and reverberates back down (we’re still in a train station, remember?). No, it’s not an overwhelming din of noise, but it’s also not a hushed experience. Did I mind it? Absolutely not.
But enough about the atmospherics – on to the food! I had actually been to the Mercantile one time before, during the winter during the first week I moved to Denver. At that time, I found the food to be good, but not amazing — I had been particularly disappointed in a scallop with speck dish that came out far too salty for my liking.
As they change their menu seasonally, I was eager to try the more spring-summer focused dishes. After perusing the menu, we bypassed the starters and decided to go with two of the vegetable dishes as appetizers.
First up was the Asparagus a la Plancha with spring garlic emulsion, Fruition Farms ricotta burrata, Meyer lemon, and beluga lentil vinaigrette ($14).
Fava bean agnolotti with fresh chickpeas, English peas, and sheepskyr ($14). Almost completely missed this on the menu, until our waitress pointed it out as something new on the menu. Boy was I glad she did! The fava bean filling was to die for – the flavor so subtle, creaminess
For our mains, we went full carb, choosing two dishes from the pasta menu. I ordered the house-made spaghetti with poached Maine lobster and pancetta bread crumbs ($17). So simple in its preparation, but delicious. Letting the fresh, carefully chosen ingredients sing their own song.
Menu stalwart, Acquerello mushroom risotto with truffle brined egg yolk and parmesan truffle sabayon ($14). Truffle is an ingredient that has been overused and abused in recent years, used as a ploy to charge more for something, or haphazardly thrown into a dish just to seem “fancy”, but here it absolutely works – brining a rich earthiness that takes this dish from just “ok” to great.
Part of the joy of this dish is messing it up – breaking into the egg, the yolk oozily spreads through the risotto rice, making the perviously neat dish into a delectable crime scene.
The Mercantile is one of the few restaurants in Denver that I’ve been to so far that really warrants a dinner reservation. I love the simplicity of the meals, but the creativity of the flavors and ingredients being used. You can tell there is selective and deliberate editing being done to these dishes – with real care and thought, which I appreciate and admire.
If I had to pick a NYC spirit restaurant for The Mercantile, it would have to be Cafe Clover – in my old neighborhood of the West Village.
I look forward to heading back to the Mercantile in the fall to see what new dishes they come up with next!
Will you be willing to give this train station fine dining experience a try?
The Mercantile – 1701 Wynkoop St #155, Denver, CO 80202
- Decor: Train station chic
- Crowd: Smart folks who had the good sense to make reservations
- Recommended: Fava bean agnolotti with fresh chickpeas, English peas, and sheepskyr (if it’s on the menu, it’s a must!)