The first time I went to The Nickel, the spiffy new restaurant that took the place of Prima Ristorante in the refurbished Hotel Teatro, I felt like I was buying a new car. There was wheeling. There was dealing. There was even that awkward moment when the salesman disappeared into the back room to consult the boss, good cop/bad cop style. Only this wasn't a salesman, it was a hostess, and what we wanted wasn't a better price on the outgoing model, but one of the empty tables scattered around the dining room. "I'm sorry," the hostess said. "Can you come back in an hour? The pre-theater crowd will be gone by then."
But my friend couldn't wait; he had places to be. So he inquired about the empty stools at the community counter and wraparound bar. "I'm sorry," she said for the second time. "You're not allowed to sit there. You'll have to come back." In the end, though, the good cop saved us, interrupting our talk of where to go next with an invitation to simply find an open seat.
See also: Behind the Scenes at The Nickel
To understand the Nickel, you have to see it on nights like this, when holders of tickets to the symphony/theater/ballet have jammed the dining room and thoroughly flummoxed the front of the house. If you come on quieter nights, when nearby stages are dark and the only people in the dining room are hotel guests on laptops and girls at the community counter blowing off steam, it's not as easy to kick the kitchen's tires and see what's under the hood. But when everyone's in a hurry for appetizers, entrees and the check, thank you very much, you get a sense of what this engine can do.
And aside from that overprotective gatekeeper, what I saw was an impressive zero to sixty.
When we finally sat at the bar, we'd been warned that the kitchen might be backed up. But the bartender needn't have bothered, because plates came out quickly, in defiance of any pre-theater rush. And as our courses rolled out, one after the other, nowhere did we see the miscooked proteins, erratic timing or sloppy plating that would have indicated a crew under fire. The pressure might have been too much for some chefs, juggling the I-need-it-now theater crowd as well as the demands of a hotel program serving five menus a day, from breakfast (served in the study, where Restaurant Kevin Taylor used to be) to late-night. But you get a sense that executive chef Christopher Thompson has been training for this his entire life.
When he was twenty, Thompson left Telluride to stretch his wings as a chef, landing in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Naples, Italy, where he solidified his passion for several elements central to the Nickel. Charcuterie is one of them, and it's a terrific way to start a meal here. In a few months, you'll be able to sample the bresaola, coppa and guanciale that Thompson has produced in-house. But until those are ready, you can choose local, domestic and imported meats and cheeses from a lengthy, sushi-style list, crafting whatever size plate you wish. If I had tickets to something, I'd order a glass of wine and make a quick meal of the stuff -- I'm partial to chorizo seco, La Quercia prosciutto and Humboldt Fog goat cheese -- rounded out with pickled vegetables and seasonal jam to cut the richness. Then I'd come back for dessert after the show, especially if the pumpkin panna cotta was still on the menu; its texture is more refined than that of Thanksgiving's pie.
Throughout his career, Thompson has looked for opportunities to cook with wood. Even though he can't put his certification as a Neapolitan pizzaiolo to use at the Nickel -- the kitchen doesn't have a wood-fired oven -- he does all he can with the oak- and cherry-fed grill. (Grilled flatbreads, an occasional lunch special, are in the works for dinner.) Smoke added depth to mushrooms, shishito peppers and the fine piece of wagyu resting over them, pricey and worth every penny for its tenderness. Octopus in an assertive salad of celery, green olives and potatoes got the same treatment, the chewy rings tasting of the campfire, not the sea. The grill also lent a woodsy note to toasted levain, slathered with warm, rosemary-scented goat cheese. The appetizer was honest and unpretentious, a reflection of the kind of cooking that comes after someone has proven what he set out to prove, then returns home, comfortable in his own skin. Keep reading for more on the Nickel.
Woven throughout the menu, which is broken out into categories such as "to share," "to start" and "from the wood grill," are postcards from Thompson's culinary journeys. Some reveal his love for Italy, a country he's returned to many times, smitten by "a cuisine that won me over," he says. His lamb Bolognese won me over, too, the ragu every bit as tender as the pillowy ricotta gnocchi underneath. Just as spectacular was the short rib Genovese, fork-tender and topped with a glaze of reduced braising liquid fragrant with the red wine and aromatics that had cooked the meat.
Thompson's time in California is also visible, not just in his ability to put out lots of food fast -- as executive chef at San Francisco's acclaimed A16, he handled off-site events for 1,400 -- but in his affection for seasonal produce. Bay Area chefs aren't alone in their admiration for farm-fresh veggies, as evidenced by Mile High menus. But Thompson's willingness to play up, not overpower, what Mother Nature has already accomplished indicates someone who's spent his time in farmers' markets, sampling peas, separating corn husks from tender white kernels, and shaking dirt off misshapen carrots. The Nickel's roasted-squash soup was what I'd been looking for in every bowl I've ordered this fall, the sweetness of kabocha and butternut accented with autumn flavors: a dollop of maple crème fraîche, crunchy bits of pumpkin-seed streusel. Purple grapes, some lightly pickled, others roasted until their skins showed laugh lines and their sugars began to concentrate, were tossed with prosciutto and pecorino in an arugula salad, saving it from the cliché that arugula salad has become. "We're working in a time where you can get outstanding [produce]," says Thompson. "You don't have to bury and mask it under poorly placed ingredients."
But the Nickel doesn't always fire on all cylinders. Scallops announced their presence before they were in view, the fishy smell as unappetizing as the pale array of cauliflower, golden raisins and brown-butter emulsion that followed. Servers mistakenly said that entrees didn't come with sides, a not-so-veiled upsell of the seasonal vegetables. (We played along and were delighted by a dish of roasted carrots, onions and asparagus, set under the rotisserie to catch drippings.) And whose idea was it to broadcast a slide show of menu items on the dining-room wall? The photos were at odds with the elegant, almost period feel of the space, with linen curtains over historic, multi-paned windows; intimate, high-backed wing chairs; and checks presented in drawstring bags stamped with the word "nickel."
Under Thompson's direction, the Nickel has gotten off to a fast start, becoming not just a go-to restaurant for theater-goers and hotel guests, but a growing destination for locals looking for comfortable, honest fare -- assuming you're allowed in for a test drive.
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Select menu items at The Nickel: Baked goat cheese $12 Squash soup $10 Arugula salad $13 Octopus salad $15 Wagyu coulotte $36 Scallops $28 Short rib Genovese $25 Lamb Bolognese $21 Pumpkin panna cotta $9
The Nickel is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at thenickeldenver.com.