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Saturday, October 20 Living

Marc Penvenne’s double helping of success

This coming January will mark Greenwich restaurant Meli-Melo’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 Meli-Melo, 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 meli-melo is often translated as a “hodgepodge,” which in no way describes the restaurant. Cornucopian cuisine is more like it: an over-abundance 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-the-house 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 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.

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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.”

Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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