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First Bite: Koko Ni

Get a taste for James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Qui’s newest restaurant concept in Denver.

Koko Ni is Denver’s newest fine-dining concept, bringing local-farm-driven omakase tasting menu to the heart of RiNo. James Beard Award-winning Chef Paul Qui (better known to some as winner of Top Chef season 11) and Chef de Cuisine James Gnizak are curating French- and Japanese-inspired tasting menus highlighting local seasonal ingredients and sustainable American seafood. It’s on track to be crowned one of the best new restaurants in Denver.

New Hot Spot

Part of the FAM Hospitality Group, Koko Ni isn’t entirely new to Denver. The former Koko Ni Supper Club in Zeppelin Station served as an incubator for the restaurant concept, which evolved over the course of 14 months into a full-blown experience deserving of a permanent home closer to the center of the city’s action.

The decor is as understated as can be—by design. The muted surroundings emphasize that the food is the star of the culinary show. The space is open and bright, but don’t let that make you think it’s devoid of personality. The team’s infused the restaurant with fun touches that showcase their culinary histories and personalities—think: toy horses as chopstick rests, tiny giraffes and dinos mingling on a shelf above a stack of artful cookbooks). The understated decor allows the spotlight to remain on the dishes, which is where the chefs’ playful personalities shine. The wine and spirits focus is in unison with the food program, more wine and less cocktail focused than it was at the supper club. Expect a lot of obscure and off-the-beaten-path varietals to grace the menu. 

A table set with colorful plates, wine and water glasses, chopsticks, and a dish of Wagu short ribs at Koko Ni restaurant in Denver, Colorado.
Wagyu Short Rib with Chapulines XO and Jimmy Nardello Peppers

Local-Farm Driven Omakase

A prepaid $110 reservation gets you a 10-course Japanese- and French-inspired omakase-style tasting menu that’s written daily to highlight the best seasonal ingredients from Colorado farms and sustainable American seafood purveyors. Some nights, that means live scallops with marinated cucumbers, togarashi and marigold. Others, it’s halibut poached in lamb fat hiding under a leaf of Napa cabbage, aged beef fat salsa verde, piñon nuts, and crispy rice.

Omakase, from the Japanese word for “entrust,” is used to mean “trust the chef’s choice.”

 

The style of a Koko Ni feast is known as omakase, from the Japanese word for “entrust” and used to mean “trust the chef’s choice.” At an omakase dinner, menus are presented not to order from but instead only to whet diners’ interest for what’s to come. 

Chicken of the Sea

I visited the restaurant during a media preview dinner a few nights before it opened to the public. Our meal started with a bang, a tiny bang: fresh sunchoke chips topped with golden caviar from the rare albino Sterlet. The small golden pearls are briny, creamy, and soft, delivering a subtle yet satisfying pop of delicate flavors highlighted by a nutty aroma with a hint of sweetness that’s enhanced by the similarly nutty flavor profiles of the sunchoke crème fraîche. Next, smoked grilled oyster on a thin sheet of seaweed, strips of deliciously salty, crackling lamb over it with celtuce and last season’s ramps—wild onions that show up every spring and must be foraged. 

Another oyster came next, albeit of a different variety yet served in a shell. Chicken oysters, the chefs share while presenting the course, are considered the best part of the bird—juicy bites of tender dark meat located on the bird’s back on either side of the spine toward the thighs, sneakily hidden and rarely discussed outside the kitchen. Chicken oysters are a delicacy that chefs and cooks prefer to keep for themselves, hence their nickname: the chef’s reward. 

How generous of Qui and Gnizak to share the tasty morsels with us. The chefs topped the dish with oyster cream, schmaltz streusel, and pickled cucamelon. 

Sunomono, a small dish of cucumber salad, at Denver's Koko Ni restaurant
Sunomono cucumber salad

Next came one of the evening’s superstars: smoked eggplant tortellini with Maine lobster with a Thai coconut tom kha infused with the earthy, spicy flavors of matsutake mushrooms, which bring notes of cinnamon, pine, and cedar to the dish. 

The chefs source flowers, leaves, and vegetables from Esoterra Culinary Garden, a local small farm that grows high-quality greeny ingredients only for local culinary creatives, as well as from Colorado’s Croft Family Farms, Toohey & Sons Organic Farm, and Aspen Moon Farms, among others. 

The Details

1441 26th St., Denver | eatkokoni.com | @kokonidenver

Prepaid reservations for parties of 1 to 8 can be made on Tock for $110 per person. Or opt for the Chef’s Counter reservation and enjoy a premium 13-course tasting menu experience curated by the personal and culinary history of Qui and Gnizak. Note: There’s only one seating per night at the four-seat Chef’s Counter. 

All images courtesy Shawn Campbell.


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