The Nickel opened last week in Hotel Teatro, in the space that was once Kevin Taylor's Prima, and hungry theater-goers and other downtowners are now following their noses to the new restaurant. What will they find there? The smell of wood smoke emanating from the building as you round the corner from Arapahoe Street onto 14th is a good clue.
Chef Chris Thompson, a Colorado native and alum of the Telluride restaurant scene, has returned to Colorado after a few years working in the California farm-fueled restaurant world, including a gig at Michelin-starred Spruce and culminating with the lead role at world-class A16.
When he landed the job at the Nickel, he came to the city and ate at as many top restaurants as he could, sitting at bars and chef counters to get a feel for the balance between the chef-driven restaurant scene and the reaction from guests around him to the food and service.
While in the Bay Area, Thompson spearheaded butchery, charcuterie and salumi programs in the kitchens where he worked. He brings that expertise to the Nickel, where he says 90 percent of the cured meats will eventually be made in-house. Professing a love for pork, the chef adds that whole-animal butchery is part of his vision: sourcing and manipulating the meat himself to get the most from each cut.
It's not just about meat, though. Thompson's other favorite ingredients include the fresh pasta that the kitchen turns out and simple vegetables like beets -- but not just the root. He says it's important "to make something from everything," and is surprised when he sees cooks throw out beet tops rather than using them along with the root. The inspiration, he says, comes from Italian grandmothers who use everything -- out of necessity, not luxury.
So how does that philosophy translate from a rural Italian setting to a high-end restaurant in one of Denver's poshest boutique hotels? "It's the culmination of life experience," says Thompson, "and applying my philosophy to a new situation."
Evidence of his dedication to the swine can be found in an elevated banh mi, which features layers of pressed pork belly braised for nine hours and housemade pork-liver pate hidden between halves of a crusty Grateful Bread baguette. An heirloom tomato Caprese shows off the kitchen's veggie skills in a balanced and filling plate of grilled figs, milky burrata cheese, puddles of soaked basil seeds (which gel like chia seeds) and hemispheres of yellow tomatoes.
The meats and many of the cooked vegetables get an extra dose of flavor from the Nickel's wood-burning stove, which Thompson says is currently fueled with oak and cherry wood; peach and other fruit woods will be used as they become seasonally available. There's a great deal of skill and patience required to build and maintain a proper bed of coals, he adds. His kitchen uses different heat zones and flame levels to properly cook each cut and add layers of flavor from the wood and smoke.
Food and beverage director David Cruz highlights the connection between the kitchen and the bar program. No stranger to the kitchen himself, Cruz's chef experience ranges from the Viceroy in Snowmass to Boulevard in San Francisco to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain; he even manned the ovens for hotel service at the Teatro while the ground floor of the hotel was being rebuilt into the Nickel. Between orders, he was scorching and filling oak mini-barrels with cocktail concoctions destined to become on-tap blends behind the Barrel Bar, the Nickel's prominent beverage counter. Cruz says the goal is to use oak to enhance cocktails -- like a bittersweet Negroni, a pear and tequila La Perla and a stiff rye Manhattan -- and marry the flavors with the wood-fired menu. He also stresses the importance of a well-trained staff that can suggest food pairings with cocktails, the Colorado-heavy list of draft beers and the 75-label-strong boutique wine list. While flourishes like cocktails presented in miniature carafes in wooden boxes and liquid-nitrogen frosted glasses add visual appeal, the food and beverage menu "is handcrafted but simple," Cruz says.
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Guests of the Hotel Teatro may no longer have the theatrical -- but pricey -- food of Restaurant Kevin Taylor, but the Nickel seems more in line with current Denver dining habits. While not cheap (some dinner entrees top $30 each), the list features locally sourced foods where possible (the printed menu has maps on the back with producers' locations marked) and house-made flourishes, including aged cherries in the Manhattans. The Nickel may follow a trend with which Denverites are now familiar, but the setting still captures the grand-yet-intimate style of the Teatro -- and the aroma of wood-fired cooking alone may be enough to lure new customers.