Dining » Restaurant Reviews

TV Dinner

MelBee's in Mission seduces with both food and ambience.

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One of the many bizarre idiosyncrasies I love about daytime TV soap operas is the dearth of restaurant scenes in the fictional cities and towns inhabited by the characters. No matter if the occasion is dressy or laid-back, the residents of Pine Valley, Genoa City, Springfield or Oakdale always seem to be eating in the same restaurant. Oakdale, the locale of the long-running As the World Turns, does at least have a cheap diner as an alternative to the snazzy dining room at Lakeview Towers, but the characters are almost never seen dining in a Chinese restaurant, a smoky barbecue joint, a sushi bar or — God forbid — ordering a double cheeseburger from a McDonald's drive-through.

That's because the soap-opera universe doesn't reflect anything resembling real life. But conversely, real life does occasionally take on the qualities of a soap opera. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you know what I'm talking about. As an observant waiter, I was able to witness husbands asking for divorces right in the middle of a meal (it's an ugly scene, and they rarely leave a tip); lovers breaking up practically in midbite; and drunken confessions erupting at the most inopportune moments, such as the young floozy who screamed at her seething middle-aged lover, "And you're lousy in bed, too!" just as I was handing him a sharp steak knife. The three of us looked at one another, speechless, until I cleared my throat and asked if they wanted steak sauce ... or a Valium. They quietly ate their meal and left. I took the Valium.

If life could be more like a soap opera, I'd nominate Mission's three-year-old MelBee's as the perfect venue for beautiful people to sit around looking glamorous and exchanging shocking secrets. The tiny restaurant's exterior isn't much to look at — it's tucked into a 1960s-era retail strip — but inside, it's as theatrically composed as a stage set, with a curvy concrete bar (and the lovely Debbie Nichols standing behind it, mixing martinis), lots of tasteful light fixtures and the smoldering Latin heartthrob Rubin Pascottini tinkling the keys of the shiny grand piano.

And wasn't that the legendary Erica Kane posturing over at the dimly lit corner table on the other side of the dining room? Well, no, but it was a beautifully coifed local society doyenne who has reportedly been married and divorced nearly as often as the All My Children heroine. Life imitates art! Even my friends Marilyn and Bob, normally so laid-back in restaurants, sat with perfect posture (not so easy to do on the swivel chairs in the dining room) and seemed slightly self-conscious that night, as if a camera might be wheeled out from behind a corner at any moment for a tight close-up.

I had dressed up myself, even though MelBee's doesn't have a dress code. Still, it's a fancy restaurant, at least by Mission standards, where most of the neighboring dining joints are so casual that you could walk into them wearing your pajamas and no one would blink an eye. On second thought, I'm not sure the clientele at MelBee's would blink if a customer strolled in wearing the right kind of pajamas (embroidered silk, matching slippers), because many of the customers are just as creatively stylized as the décor. On the night I dined with Bob and Marilyn, I noted a popular young interior designer sitting at the next table, flashing some of the most flamboyant jewelry I'd seen since Liberace went off to sequin heaven.

When it first opened, I thought MelBee's was classy but maybe a shade pretentious. When I last reviewed it ("Mission Statement," May 23, 2002), I complained that its prices were too high and its portions too small. The petite servings looked stunning and tasted delicious, but when I paid my bill, my wallet was empty and my stomach felt that way, too.

But things have changed considerably since then. Lloyd Boothe, the very hands-on owner of MelBee's, has made the menu more accessible by offering reasonably priced prix fixe dinners: $35 for four courses, $48 for five. If you add up the individual prices on some of the more alluring options, such as the jumbo lump-crab cheesecake and the herb-seared filet mignon, you'll realize that the prix fixe deal is an incredible bargain — particularly because chef Tom Harley is a true artiste. I've eaten some extraordinary meals at MelBee's since he took over the kitchen last December, and I've always walked out of the restaurant feeling full and satisfied.

Boothe says MelBee's has "gone through a learning curve." It has definitely come out on top. The young servers are smart and attentive (particularly the willowy, blond Shai, who knows the menu intimately — she's married to the chef), and all are pretty enough to be soap-opera stars. That realization hit me, seriously, as Rubin Pascottini started playing the theme song from The Young and the Restless.

I didn't need a guiding light, as it were, to find the description of the mushroom-and-brie savory bread pudding on the starter menu. It sounded luscious, and it was. The portion was doll-sized, but it was such a sensationally rich concoction that the modest size was just right. Another savory twist on a dessert theme was the creamy wedge of "cheesecake," made with chevre, mascarpone and Boursin cheeses and big chunks of lump crab. Bob only reluctantly shared it with us. Marilyn hoarded the broiled oysters, dappled with bits of pancetta, pecans and spinach cream sauce.

My second course was a silken cream soup laden with snippets of asparagus and sweet crabmeat, which we all preferred to that night's soup du jour, a surprisingly thin, pallid concoction of potato and gorgonzola cheese. "I wish it had been as creamy as the crab soup," Bob said.

The ten main-course options on chef Harley's autumn menu all sounded so enticing, none of us could make a quick decision. Marilyn finally settled on the bacon-wrapped quail with cornbread and oyster dressing ("You don't find quail on many menus anymore," she said), though the bird was less meaty than she had hoped.

I went for a sexier choice, a plump, walnut-crusted chicken breast stuffed with pears, shallots and gorgonzola; it's the very dish that Tom Harley used to seduce Shai on their first date, she confessed, and I understand why. Bob found the juicy pork chop, stuffed with spinach, Boursin cheese and mushrooms, to be equally seductive.

There are only a few dessert choices, each reflecting the flavors of the harvest season: a soothing, warm chocolate-oatmeal pie; a satiny cheesecake speckled with bits of pear and ginger; and a tiny cup of eggnog crème brûlée, which was surprisingly spicy and airy under its traditional burnt-sugar crust. "It's more mousse than crème brûlée," Marilyn announced.

A few nights later, I returned with Lillis, who frequently dines at MelBee's because she likes smaller portions. I had to talk her into the four-course dinner; she insisted she would take only a few bites. She was as good as her word, and I ended up nibbling on her starter course and sipping her soup. Not that I was sheepish about gobbling up my own choices: a French roll, carved out boule-style and filled with tender beef tips, as my starter, followed by a superb salad of wilted greens and fat bread cubes drenched in a hot red-wine vinaigrette.

Fussy Lillis didn't like the Moroccan-style lamb chop she ordered as her main course. "It's a very strong-tasting lamb," she sniffed. It was, I agreed, and fatty, too. I made a happier choice, a 4-ounce filet mignon, gorgeously tender and blanketed in a terrific tomato-and-red-wine sauce. I thought of sharing it with her but didn't.

We did share a dessert, though: a half-dozen warm, sugar-dusted pumpkin "gnocchi" on a puddle of bourbon-chocolate sauce. They tasted more like tiny, slightly chewy beignets than soft gnocchi dumplings, but that made us love them even more.

"They're very nice to their customers," Lillis said as we walked out to the car. Nice? For an hour, anyway, I felt like I was one of the bold and the beautiful.

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