Is it a bar with great food or a restaurant with a great bar? However you perceive The Nickel Taphouse, the place rocks with a bonhomie not found in its other iterations. The Mt. Washington space was on the verge of being another jinxed spot after Freda’s Kitchen, The Falls, and Blue Sage Café closed up shop in quick succession. Then, Robbin Haas swooped in for the rescue. The neighborhood perked up.
Haas already had exhibited a Midas touch in turning a vacant Hampden millhouse into the successful gourmet-pizza/pasta restaurant Birroteca. His involvement brought high anticipation before The Nickel Taphouse even opened in November. It has been packed ever since.
After a makeover, the restaurant now has the look of an upscale pub with wood tables, smart-looking booths, a prominent L-shaped wood bar, and, the “wow” factor, a horizontal ceiling candelabra with over a hundred votive candles lit in the evening. The food also has polish—top ingredients and mostly excellent preparations—in a humble-roots kind of way. Haas wanted to recreate the honest fare served in the taverns of his native Buffalo, NY.
We got off to an excellent start with a creamy smoked-whitefish dip served with thick crackers and a bundle of tender vegetables, including baby carrots, thin radishes, and haricots verts. Our helpful server suggested the nibble while two of us waited for our other guests to arrive.
That was a highpoint. Unfortunately, the rest of the evening was marred by several flubs from the kitchen and bar. (Some of the food is prepared by the bartenders.) Because we ordered appetizers prepared in both places, there was a lag time of almost 40 minutes before we saw our first starter—and then we had to wait several more minutes for the French onion gratinée to arrive.
Finally, we settled into a chopped wedge salad, prepared tableside (is that trend returning?), with crisp lettuce (pieces, not a wedge), thick bacon, blue cheese, and a Dijon vinaigrette. The latecomer soup was luscious, rich with flavor, and adorned with a poufy baguette slice dripping with Gruyère, fontina, and Parmesan.
Oysters and mussels, prepared in a variety of ways, are mainstays on a menu that adapts to the seasons. The roasted oysters are succulent morsels jazzed up in styles like Nawlins (Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and wine), Carolina BBQ (mustard, vinegar, chilies, and cayenne), and traditional Rockefeller (spinach, Pernod, shallots, and butter). The “iced” oysters on the half shell vary regionally. We had some lovely, salty specimens from Rhode Island.
Six to seven entrees are available. The seared Verlasso salmon fillet sounded so promising. But the center-cut fish sat listlessly on moss-colored creamed spinach wearing a fried egg that was tougher than a mouse pad. (It’s not on the menu any longer.) The Berkshire pork chops, however, were moist and suited the caper-lemon butter sauce. The accompanying arugula-and-watercress salad was a pleasant peppery contrast.
The better route to go may be with the burgers and sandwiches. The “beef on weck,” a staple of upper New York state bars, is magnificent to behold and just as delicious. Slabs of rare roast beef are piled on a kummelweck roll—a Kaiser roll topped with salt and caraway seeds—and served with a bracing horseradish for the bold and a house-made vinegary coleslaw and pickle slices. The turkey burger was plump with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and a mayo-tasting “nickel sauce.” It was missing the advertised sprouts, but we didn’t care. We really like that the burgers are available in two sizes: nickel (five ounces) and dime (10 ounces).
Even though the hour was getting late, we plunged ahead with dessert. Again, there was a lapse. But the profiteroles were worth the wait. A pitcher of warm chocolate sauce allows you to control (if you can) the amount of topping you douse on the delicate cream puffs filled with Prigel Family Creamery pretzel-caramel ice cream. The warm bread-and-butter pudding with cinnamon apples and raisins with toffee sauce was also a comforting finish to a meal that had ups and downs, but was really solid when it delivered.
Our server, who fretted over us during the long evening, showed his appreciation for our increasingly diminishing patience by not charging us for the desserts.
We’re not sure why the kitchen was in the weeds that night. When we went back another time—and savored an amazing “works” burger with the over-easy egg cooked just right—we were impressed with the attentive service, overall good food, and fun atmosphere.
The Nickel Taphouse has found a niche as a neighborhood restaurant and a bar. We’d go back for both reasons.