Marc Pen­venne’s dou­ble help­ing of suc­cess

FRENCH OWNER RUNS WELL-LOVED RESTAU­RANTS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE AV­ENUE

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - SUNDAY ARTS AND STYLE - By Rose­marie T. An­ner Rose­marie T. An­ner is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Sun­day Arts & Style.

This com­ing Jan­uary will mark Green­wich restau­rant MeliMelo’s 25th an­niver­sary. It’s an im­pres­sive statis­tic in the life of any restau­rant, par­tic­u­larly for one that be­gan op­er­a­tions as a book­mark-thin store­front. To­day, ev­ery­one in Green­wich knows MeliMelo, the crêperie at the bot­tom of Green­wich Av­enue.

Ever since Marc and Eve­lyne Pen­venne opened the restau­rant dur­ing a snow storm in Jan­uary 1994, Meli-Melo has been the place to go for a fairly in­ex­pen­sive tasty meal at any time of the day. It is the home of the quin­tes­sen­tial buck­wheat crêpe, the plat­form of so many sa­vory and sweet dishes at the restau­rant that you could go crazy try­ing to make a de­ci­sion of what com­bi­na­tion of foods you want on it.

The crêpes are made from or­ganic buck­wheat grown in Canada. It’s not a wheat but rather an herb faintly re­lated to rhubarb and sor­rel. Its seeds are ground into a flour that has been a main­stay of the Brit­tany diet in France since the Mid­dle Ages. In­sanely nu­tri­tious and gluten-free, it is pre­sented at Meli-Melo like a flat­bread with all the fix­ings on top of it. You def­i­nitely need a knife and fork to eat it. The word melimelo is of­ten trans­lated as a “hodge­podge,” which in no way de­scribes the restau­rant. Cor­nu­copian cui­sine is more like it: an over­abun­dance of food mostly within the French canon with a few di­ver­sions bor­rowed from other cul­tures.

Across the Av­enue from Meli-Melo is its higher-end sib­ling, Bistro Ver­sailles, a tra­di­tional bistro that the Pen­vennes ac­quired five years ago. The bistro stamp is in­grained in that lo­cale: It has been a bistro for close to 25 years, ever since Mau­rice Clos-Ver­sailles in­tro­duced the Av­enue to au­then­tic bistro dishes and at­mos­phere in that very same lo­ca­tion.

The bistro couldn’t be any more tra­di­tional than if you were in one in the heart of the Rive Gauche in Paris: menus dis­played be­hind a glass case near the en­trance; a few ta­bles out­side where you’re apt to see cou­ples en­joy­ing cof­fee and crois­sants; a front-of-the­house patis­serie with tempt­ing napoleons and pe­tits four; a cof­fee bar op­po­site café-style seat­ing; and a back-of-the house restau­rant with paint­ings and posters on the walls. En­tic­ing aro­mas of duck slowly sim­mer­ing in the oven un­der a layer of fat for a lus­cious confit and gar­l­icy es­car­gots waft through the room ev­ery time a waiter opens the dou­ble doors into the kitchen. It’s nos­tal­gic Parisian, with a dark in­te­rior and a whim­si­cal wine bot­tle chan­de­lier to lighten the mood.

A na­tive of Bre­tagne, Pen­venne had hoped to be­come a pas­try chef but his par­ents dis­cour­aged him, so for a time he worked in a bank. His heart, how­ever, was al­ways about food. So at one point, shortly af­ter their mar­riage, he and Eve­lyne opened a cheese shop in Brit­tany much like the one her par­ents owned.

When the Pen­vennes moved to Green­wich a few

“I THINK OF MY PA­TRONS WHO TELL ME THAT THEY WANT A CHEF THEY ‘CAN TOUCH,’ YOU HAVE TO BE ON BOARD EV­ERY DAY.”

years later, he fol­lowed his dream and opened his crêperie near the old movie theater that is now home to Ap­ple. High ta­bles and equally high stools took a bit of fid­dling for a woman to be la­dy­like proper as she tried to get com­fort­able while sip­ping a gin­ger/ pineap­ple/mint drink. The open space was so nar­row, you were ter­ri­fied that the waiter would drop his tray on you as he passed by. De­spite its lil­liputian space, Meli-Melo proved so pop­u­lar that there were of­ten peo­ple pa­tiently wait­ing out­side for a table.

A few years ago, Pen­venne greatly ex­panded his place to the cor­ner of the Av­enue and Grigg Street. He painted his eatery in­side and out in sunny Prove­nance yel­low, a bright bea­con amid all the gray, black and white of so many shops in the vicin­ity.

On any given day of the week, Eve­lyne is of­ten found work­ing the front of the house, some­times al­ter­nat­ing be­tween both restau­rants on the same day. Af­ter 15 or so years helm­ing the open kitchen at Meli-Melo, and now over­see­ing a bistro and a cater­ing ser­vice as well, Pen­venne spends most of his time in the base­ment of Ver­sailles. He ar­rives there usu­ally by 5:15 a.m. ev­ery morn­ing to check bak­ery op­er­a­tions and tend to busi­ness in his of­fice.

“It’s in­cred­i­ble,” Pen­venne says of the early morn­ing hours, when dew still slicks the con­crete pave­ments. “I love Green­wich at that time.”

With time nec­es­sar­ily de­voted to busi­ness mat­ters, Pen­venne no longer cooks. Clos-Ver­sailles's for­mer baker still over­sees the pas­try depart­ment, Pen­venne’s orig­i­nal recipes still com­mand Meli-Melo’s kitchen and ta­lented chef Cedric Lamouille de­vises and cooks the bistro’s menu.

“I miss the restau­rants on Sun­days,” says Pen­venne of his usual day off. Even when sum­mer tem­per­a­tures soared into the 90s, he ig­nored the beck­on­ing cool­ness of his pool and headed down to Meli-Melo. Then he jay-walked across the road­way to his bistro.

“I think of my pa­trons who tell me that they want a chef they ‘can touch,’ ” he says, his French ac­cent still very strong af­ter all these years in this coun­try. “You have to be on board ev­ery day.”

File photo

Marc Pen­venne, the owner of Meli-Melo, sits at the juice bar at the restau­rant, on Green­wich Av­enue.

Con­trib­uted pho­tos

Meli-Melo, above, has packed in cus­tomers for 25 years in Green­wich. Be­low, Pen­venne’s newer ac­qui­si­tion across the street is also French, but more high-end.

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