The Nickel is celebrating its one-year anniversary today. Last year, an overhaul of the Hotel Teatro reconfigured the previous restaurants in the space — the posh, Euro-style Restaurant Kevin Taylor and Prima — into a more inviting, almost rustic, dining room and bar. The menu from executive chef Chris Thompson is inviting, too, combining wood-fired cooking, international influences (particularly Italian) and local sourcing — a major element in the chef's philosophy of putting the freshest, highest-quality ingredients on the plate.
Thompson moved to Denver from San Francisco to open the Nickel, and from the moment he got here he worked to build relationships with local food producers so that he could feature Colorado on the menu. That's a tough task for a hotel restaurant, where balancing high volume with exceptional quality means finding producers who can provide the volume of products needed without compromising flavor or production methods.
"It's been an uphill battle, but we've made a lot of progress," says Thompson, who continues to build his network of farmers, ranchers and other food producers. "Each time I visit the farmers' market, I find something more exceptional than the last."
Those Colorado suppliers include Fresh Point Produce, Wisdom Natural Poultry, the Grateful Bread Company, Emma Farms and Boulder Lamb, to name just a few. Thompson has challenged his crew to keep ideas as well as produce fresh. "My goal is not duplicating anything we did last summer and continuing to be innovative," he explains.
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Among the new dishes he's particularly proud of is a lamb saddle loin and belly with Thai green curry, miso-rubbed eggplant and roasted romanesco. For the Nickel's anniversary, he's offering a three-course dinner that includes dry-aged beef tartare from Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe with puffed beef tendon and a salt-cured egg yolk, and cobia with pole beans and chorizo.
Staff retention has helped the Nickel maintain consistency, he says even as the kitchen talent pool continues to be stretched thin by the deluge of new restaurants. "A certain amount are poached off by new chefs," he admits, "but the ones who get it, they're the ones who stick around." With at least 50 percent of his team still on board from opening day, Thompson says, he's been able to keep heading for the goals he set when he took the job a year ago.
Tonight's three-course menu runs $50 a person and comes with a free cocktail if you tell your server "Happy Birthday."