Richard Foss

Sea of change at Chez Melange

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Chez Melange chef Robert Bell and partner Michael Franks will reflect on Chez Melange’s storied history during a retrospective dinner on Nov. 6. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Richard Foss

During a meeting between two restaurateurs who had been business partners for 35 years, Robert Bell uttered a fateful sentence.

“I said to Michael, “The good news is that everyone knows Chez Melange. The bad news is that everyone knows Chez Melange.”

Michael Franks agreed with his partner’s assessment. They needed to change the name and concept of the South Bay’s longest running, contemporary restaurant. Chez Melange was groundbreaking when it opened in 1982. In an era when it was rare for restaurants to change their menus every year, they did so every day. In an era when restaurants were rigidly defined by style of service, there you could dress casually or formally, as you preferred. In an era when categories were rigid, they put traditional American, Asian fusion, and European dishes on the menu next to items that defied categorization.

Chez Melange attracted a following immediately and kept exploring new ideas. They pioneered winemaker dinners, patronized local growers, and experimented continuously. For a long time, they had no competition because no other local chefs were capable of the variety of styles and techniques. As time went on and eclectic dining mainstreamed, the local scene shifted and they found themselves competing with their followers. Those newcomers often branded their operations as lounges or gastropubs, but for the Chez team, innovation was just what they did.  

As Franks put it, “Because of Robert we have always been a chef-driven restaurant rather than a concept-driven restaurant, and we have been able to be flexible and interesting throughout our existence. We have made our decisions based on the joy of cooking and eating, on our experiences and creativity. Our format of constantly changing menus and eclectic items was unique when we opened – now you can get mixed cuisines almost everywhere.”

Franks and Bell decided that a change was needed, but not a complete one. Chez Melange has been three restaurants in one for some time: a casual bar and grill called Bouzy at the front, a larger, more formal restaurant in back, and a side room called Bar 150. Bouzy will remain the same, but the other two will become a new restaurant called Sea Change at Chez Melange. It’s an idea that first appears in a song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – the original quote reads,

Nothing of him doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Franks doesn’t go into classical allusions, but explained, “The phrase has different meanings, and one of them is metamorphosis. It seems like a way of indicating that we’re going from where we are to where we want to be.”

Franks mentioned two compelling reasons to shift to this focus: there isn’t another seafood place in the area, and the fish dishes are among the best selling items at Chez Melange. Then he offhandedly offered a third: people like eating all things oceanic, but are often intimidated about making it themselves.

“People cook steaks at home, but they go out for fish because it’s delicate and easy to overcook. That and the interest in healthy dining come together, and they want fish for both everyday and special occasion meals. We can still be eclectic and original, just as we have been since 1982, but we’re going to have a focus on seafood.”

Bell is emphatic that while there will be options for simple dishes, there is no retreat from the duo’s creativity.

“The plan is to have two sections to the menu: one where you pick the fish, the cooking method, the sauce, and the sides. Then you’ll have the catch of the day specials, my specials, that you can’t change. I’m not thinking of classic East Coast boardwalk – it’s going to be eclectic. You may see cioppino and zarzuela here, you may see pork and clam dishes, kung pao lobster. I have experience and confidence in producing an eclectic menu, and that’s what I do. If I do put a lobster roll on the menu, I’m not going to screw with it and turn it into something Chinese. And if I do a Rhode Island style crabcake, that will be what it is.”

“We’re going to keep a Chez Classics menu with some of the items that people come in for, like the fried chicken salad, steak frites, duck schnitzel… we’ll always have a good steak on the menu.”

On Nov. 6 Franks and Bell will host a food and wine evening at which they’ll share stories about their history and reminisce about what it was like to change our dining habits. The menu isn’t set yet, but both men seem to relish a chance to reflect on old times even as they go forward with a new idea. Their success has always been driven by an open minded curiosity about flavors, and unlike most veterans they haven’t become complacent and fallen into a rut. As Franks observed wryly,  “Most creative restaurants have young chefs, and I have an old man working here, but we’re still innovating.”