Bite Me

Another one bites the dust: Okay, so I gave the guy a break when he did it at Dandelion, but now uber-chef Kevin Taylor has gone and closed the doors on Nicois (815 17th Street) without any warning to his staff, dropping the hammer just after the big ball dropped on the new year. "Nobody knew we were going to close," reports one newly ex-employee. "None of the staff knew. Not even the executive chef. I don't even think the managers knew."

According to peeved sources, the restaurant -- which had gone through a number of incarnations under Taylor, starting out as Brasserie Z, then becoming Zenith (a resurrection of the restaurant that debuted in the Tivoli in 1987) and finally emerging as Nicois (let's not count the week that it was spelled Nicoise) in August 2001 -- was full for New Year's Eve festivities. Everyone had been called into work, and it was a busy night -- more than 250 covers -- so everyone was making money. Taylor was on hand for the countdown and a champagne toast with his staff, during which he told everyone what a great job they had done in the last year -- and then, sometime shortly after the last table had been cleared and the last stem glass drained, the entire staff was ordered into a "quick meeting."

Says one staffer: "They called everyone into a private dining room that was empty right then, and Kevin made his speech. He said, 'This is it, the last night at Nicois.'"

And that really was the end. On January 1, the doors remained closed and the lights off; a message on the answering machine thanked people for their patronage over the years and apologized for any inconvenience the closure might cause.

And it's causing plenty: Nicois had been taking reservations for seatings well into January, and there were work schedules for the first two weeks of 2003 posted on the wall. Some staffers report they'd even been told not to take December 31 off if they wanted to keep their jobs.

"That's what's not right about it," one former employee says. "Through December, I had job offers from other restaurants, because everyone was getting busy, you know? But I told them I couldn't take it because I already had a job and couldn't leave without warning. So why should he get to do this? I mean, that's the way things work, right? Two weeks' notice?"

Actually, Taylor did one better this time around. All staff -- floor and kitchen -- at the late, great Nicois have been offered jobs at his other properties, Taylor says, with most of them going to jou jou (in the Hotel Teatro at 1106 14th Street), and Kevin Donovan, Nicois's executive chef, replacing Michael Wood in the top spot at Palettes at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway).

Does this mean that other staffers at the remaining Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group eateries -- Palettes, jou jou and Restaurant Kevin Taylor (also in the Hotel Teatro) -- need to watch their backs if they want to keep their jobs? "It's natural attrition," Taylor says. "Some staff will be leaving after the holidays on their own, some will be getting their notice." He'd been hoping for a better fourth quarter, Taylor explains, but business at Nicois was down 25 percent. By December, he knew the restaurant was going to get the ax -- and he held key positions open at his other restaurants in anticipation of filling them with those left jobless on January 1. After his announcement of Nicois's closing, he adds, "the staff was very supportive."

But for those who spoke with me after Taylor's Night of the Long Knives, "supportive" is not a word that leaps to mind. "Wary" is a better description. "Pissed off" better still. You can't blame employees for feeling that way, but neither can you blame Taylor for closing down a losing property.

"You grow when you're young," Taylor says. "You expand. And then when times get tight..." His voice trails, leaving the inevitable end to the sentence hanging in the air. When times are tight, you shrink. You conserve. You cull the herd.

When I ask why he'd decided -- again -- to surprise his staff with bad news, he says simply, "I've been through it before." He's referring to a similar announcement in early November when he shuttered the struggling Dandelion (1011 Walnut Street in Boulder), inspiring anger and a mutiny by the kitchen crew, which walked off the job before the final weekend. No such fireworks attended this closure. "People were crying," a staffer says. "But I think people expected it. After Dandelion, maybe they saw it coming."

For his part, Taylor concludes: "This is it. I'm forty years old. I've been doing this for 26 years. I no longer have any restaurants that are losing money, and business is actually up at the hotel properties. I'm not looking for any more expansion."

Just a taste: While Taylor retrenches, other chefs continue to strut their stuff. At Q's in the Hotel Boulderado (2115 13 Street in Boulder), chef John Platt puts together a different five-course tasting menu every night. At Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue), chef Marlo Hix prepares a five-course tasting menu every Thursday and Friday for $55, $75 with wine pairing (reservations strongly recommended). Tante Louise's former chef, Duy Pham, offers a personalized tasting menu at the four-month-old Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue, formerly Radex), where he'll come to your table, speak with you and then create a unique spread designed just for your tastes. Everything about Pham's deal is hand-tailored to each diner's predilections rather than pulled off the regular menu, and for the privilege of this personal attention, all you have to do is ask nicely and fork over $65 ($105 if you want Pham to pair wines with each course).

At an even newer kid on the block, Vega (410 East Seventh Avenue), chef Sean Yontz (who left Zenith and Kevin Taylor to become chef at Tamayo before striking out on his own last fall) has an impressive-sounding five-course chef's menu ($48, $75 with wine) currently featuring such New American treats as Spanish mackerel tartare and veal sweetbreads "pozole." Vega also does a vegetarian tasting menu that heats things up with a Yukon Gold and cascabel chile gnocci followed by four more meat-free courses, all for the bargain price of $38 ($65 if you want wine to wash it down).

In addition to seatings at its chef's table, Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) has introduced a tasting menu featuring white Alba, Oregon and Umbrian Black, and French Périgord truffles -- with a different four-star fungus in each course. Head chef Bryan Moscatello's lineup includes a golden potato soup with Oregon black truffle foam, as well as a butter-braised stew of rabbit and asparagus with the pricey and rare French Périgord. The price is steep at $170 per person (including wine), but truffles can run up to $1,400 a pound.

At Barolo Grill (3030 East Sixth Avenue), the chef's special changes weekly. For example, fifty bucks might get you cured salmon carpaccio followed by a dried-apricot salad, a pasta course of butternut ravioli in a sage-brown-butter sauce, then pheasant cassoulet and dessert; for $80, owner Blair Taylor will pair each course with a wine from Barolo's cellar. And the Il Fornaio group (1631 Wazee Street and 8000 East Belleview Avenue in Greenwood Village) is now in its eighth year of Festa Regionale, during which the chain highlights a different region of Italy. Through January 19, it's Trentino-Alto Adige, in the far north, reflected in such regional dishes as salsiccia e polenta -- Italian sausage with grilled polenta, mushrooms, parmesan and Fontina cheeses -- and ossobuco di maiale, a braised pork shank served with mashed potatoes and dandelion greens.

Leftovers: Just in time for the new year, Marczyk's Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue) has expanded, with a separate wine room featuring reds, whites and in-betweens handpicked and arranged by course -- as in beef, fish, dessert, etc. The 5th Avenue Chocolatier is now open at 220 Steele Street, and the Royal Hilltop, a non-smoking British pub, recently opened at 18581 East Hampden Avenue in Aurora. With tables and stools imported from England, a full bar and a menu featuring all those meat-and-potatoes Brit-food faves like fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and ale, the Hilltop is the perfect place to hide from your cardiologist or personal trainer. They'll probably be over at Las Delicias, anyway: The homegrown chain (the original outpost is still serving up great green chile at 439 East 19th Avenue) went completely smoke-free on January 1.