Coffee has long been a woefully ignored aspect of the dining experience, but as interest in specialty coffee continues to grow, the importance of a quality coffee program is beginning to cross-pollinate the restaurant world, creating café-restaurant hybrids, the likes of which have not been seen before in North America. From the likes of LA’s Go Get ‘Em Tiger and NYC’s Box Kite, where excellent fare is served within the context of a coffee shop-type space, to LA’s Superba Food + Bread and Portland, ME’s Hugo’s Restaurant, where solid coffee programs thrive within a more traditional restaurant setting. Existing somewhere on this plane but along a different axis is Mercantile Dining and Provisions, Denver’s newest venture by Chef Alex Seidel. Half restaurant and half European-style market, Mercantile provides a whole new platform for coffee and dining to intertwine, yielding new and interesting takes on coffee service.
Opened in early September, Mercantile is the newest addition to the revitalized Union Station, a 130 year-old train depot turned retail space in Denver’s Lower Downtown district. The space is bisected by the front door, with the restaurant on the right and the market on the left, representing Chef Seidel’s two major ventures to date—the award-winning Fruition Restaurant and Fruition Farms, a 10 acre sheep dairy and creamery. “The market/restaurant concept is something that was naturally inspired by the fact that we create products at the farm that we serve in the restaurant,” Chef Seidel stated. “It creates a new platform to share quality food and the relationships behind them. Chefs communicate through food and often don't get to follow up on what their intention was. The market and open kitchen provide a chance for interaction, stories, and direct communication about the offerings.”
Mercantile’s interior is modern and open feeling. High ceilings and big windows letting in lots of natural light are offset by large handwritten wooden signs and chalk boards perched on the walls, listing the current market offerings and lunch options. Along with Fruition Farms cheeses, the market offers charcuterie and local jar-preserved items like rillettes, Mission Fig jam, and Riesling-poached pears. “Our market is focused on preservation—pickled seasonal produce, vegetable and pepper jardiniere, preserved fruit and various jams,” market manager Ben Hecht told me. “Preservation also refers to our cheese and charcuterie programs, which highlight the preservation of milk as cheese and the curing and drying of meats as charcuterie.”
And of course, there’s coffee. Like the rest of the market, the coffee program focuses on locally produced offerings, going with Denver’s Commonwealth Coffee Roasters; Mercantile is one of the only places in Denver to carry Commonwealth’s full roster of coffees. “They were instrumental in the designing of Mercantile's coffee program and we wanted to be a place that Denver could experience all that they have available,” coffee manager Ryan Raef explained to me.
There’s a certain fluidity to Mercantile, each aspect of the market and restaurant interplay with one another, creating some pretty interesting outputs. The coffee program, armed with its two-group candy apple red La Marzocco FB/80 and accompanying Mahlkönig K-30 Vario espresso grinder, takes full advantage of this alchemy. Sure, there’s the standard symbiosis seen at other restaurant-coffee shop hybrids, the full coffee menu offered throughout restaurant hours and the really excellent lunch menu (like, brisket-pastrami-and-brussels-sprouts-salad-on-toasted-rye sort of excellent) served at the coffee bar. There’s also a litany of interested coffee cocktails, like the Bavarian Twerk—a deconstructed cocktail made of espresso, Underberg, and Galliano—and the Ariba Abajo—a coffee-based drink with Mexican chocolate, horchata, almond milk, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, and mole bitters.
But the real innovation is a uniquely Mercantile offering: a rotating pairing of espresso and cheese. Presented on a wooden tray, the current espresso offering is served beside a small plate of the selected artisan cheese pairing. During my visit, the Guatemala La Providencia espresso was paired with Fruition Farms’ Shepherd’s Halo, a soft, buttery cheese topped with blackberry and elderberry syrup. The pairing is creative and fun, with each component drawing out different characteristics in the other depending upon the order in which they are consumed.
Raef tells me Mercantile’s triangulated existence between coffee shop, old-world market, and restaurant has altered customers’ expectations for the better. “Being a market/bakery/coffee bar/bar bar/restaurant means that when people walk in the door, they are immediately put into a feeling of exploration and discovery. Seeing people happen upon our coffee menu and discover something unique, like pairing espresso with cheese, is a joy to be a part of. People don't expect to read a coffee menu and feel this spark of adventure inside. Watching that happen and being able to deliver that to someone is a special thing.”
There are certainly things to explore even if staying within the confines of the coffee bar, like the various coffee flights, an idea borrowed from Denver’s bustling microbrew scene. “In a city that has a brewery on every corner where beer flights are the norm, it was a no brainer to make a coffee version available,” Raef stated. There’s the standard Coffee Flight: gibraltar-sized tastings of three different coffees made through Clever drippers, their sole pour-over method, using Mercantile’s black Mahlkönig EK-43. Currently, the flight consists of both the washed and naturally processed Panama coffees from Carmen Estate along with an Ethiopia Konga, the coffee used by Commonwealth co-owner Ryan Fisher to take third place in the Southern division of this year’s Big Western Brewers Cup. There’s also the 3 x 1: three different preparations – espresso, macchiato, and Clever—of the same single origin. While they typically use Guatemala Finca la Providencia for this flight, Raef tells me that they can use any of the eight Commonwealth offerings for someone looking to try something new. “The EK gives us the flexibility to tailor a coffee experience. Right now we have a ‘go to’ coffee for the 3 x 1, but the EK gives us the ability to dial up any coffee and brew it as an espresso if a customer is really interested that specific coffee.”
There’s a lot to explore at Mercantile Dining and Provisions. Even if just dropping in for lunch or to grab a coffee, one can’t help but amble around, curiously inspecting the offerings from the different corners of the multi-faceted building. The coffee program is certainly a benefactor of such wanderlust, getting to serve customers who may not have otherwise even heard of such a thing as “specialty coffee.” And while the coffee program is top-notch, on equal footing with other shops in Denver’s exploding coffee scene, it is at its best when working in concert with the other parts of Mercantile. The results are imaginative and engaging and represent a step forward in the way coffee service can be approached at restaurants and restaurant-esque/market-ish/café-type establishments, should another one ever exist.
Photos by Caitlin Fairly (www.caitlinfairlyphoto.com)