Not to brag—okay, maybe a little—but I have a knack for picking winners, which I should really take to the track sometime. From Boston to Denver I’ve called many an emerging talent, so mark these here words: Will Nolan, chef de cuisine at Eight K—the stunning signature restaurant of the Viceroy Snowmass (whose name refers to the altitude but also approximates the number of calories I consumed there)—is one to watch. Under exec chef Rob Zack, the Louisiana native is bringing downhome, Deep South influences to bear on the contemporary repertoire that defines fine dining in the ski resorts of the Rockies as elsewhere—with exuberant results. Through the standard narrative of urbane delicacies made with local/seasonal ingredients, he’s weaving a thread that’s borderline idiosyncratic.

Having sampled nearly the entire selection of small plates & starters, I’ll single out a few for special mention:

Crispy pork confit crêpe with sweet soy, kimchi, watermelon & arugula

Intricately balanced between the delicate & the finger-licking, tender smoky pork & bright fruit & veggies; the kimchi was only lightly fermented, almost a spicy slaw.

Truffled gnocchi with crab fondue, baby shiitakes & peas

Perfect little puffs of velvet bathed in a warm, thick cream turned deeply sweet with lumb crabmeat.

Crawfish hush puppies with remoulade

Crunchy, chunky, yielding, corny, salty, tangy—yet still juicy with shellfish savor. (Boudin balls weren’t quite as successful, being a little too much ball & not enough boudin.)

Pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin with carrot puree & mustard jus

Striking as it was, the sweet-sharp combo of buttery carrot & spiced mustard didn’t overwhelm the gentle medallions.

Shrimp with BBQ vinaigrette, sweet corn puree, green beans & chanterelles

Zippy vinaigrette in lieu of sticky barbecue sauce was a smart move, keeping the fat, firm shrimp & almost mousse-like corn purée afloat.

Grilled asparagus & crispy poached egg with prosciutto, preserved lemon & frisée in creamy parmesan dressing

Foie gras torchon atop crunchy cinnamon toast with cherry mostarda

Deviled eggs with ham

Word to the waiflike: Nolan’s salads eat like a meal.

8K Salad with crispy prosciutto, white cheddar, cashews & spiced apple puree in balsamic vinaigrette

Cheese, meat, fruit, nuts—it’s like an antipasto platter over lettuce. The prosciutto’s transformed into chips…

Baby romaine with lobster & radishes in mustard vinaigrette

…an idea so satisfying it’s repeated here with capicola. I especially liked the use of ingredients as sharp as mustard & radishes in atypical contrast to lobster, which is usually coddled in complementary flavors. Carefully incorporated, they give it a little zing of a boost.

Heirloom tomato salad with camembert, plums, Marcona almonds & frisée in plum wine vinaigrette

Fruit, cheese & nuts meet again under lighter circumstances; this reminded me of 2 of my favorite salads in Denver, Izakaya Den’s grilled panzanella & Lala PIzzeria + Wine Bar’s Insalata Susina.

Choosing an entrée should’ve been hard: molasses-cured duck confit with dirty farro, agrodolce & garlic kale? Glazed, double-cut Berkshire pork chop with black-eyed peas, grilled savoy cabbage & debris gravy? Seared scallops with crispy pork belly, fried green tomatoes, charred shishito peppers & romesco vinaigrette? The sheer fun Nolan’s clearly having as he richochets from haute to country & back again was, for me, totally infectious.

Still, I knew what I wanted the second I laid eyes on the words “chicken oysters.”

Fresh cavatelli with chicken oysters, morels & microbasil in brandied cream

These little nodes of dark meat on the back of the bird—which do share something of the texture of Rocky Mountain oysters, though they’re named for their shape—are something you almost never see on restaurant menus, & they gave the softly luscious dish a funky backbone (so to speak).

As for dessert, pastry chef Ashley Jenkins absolutely followed Nolan’s hard act.

L to R: vanilla cream-filled doughnuts; malted chocolate layer cake with graham-cracker crumbs, hot fudge & caramelized cocoa puffs; chèvre cheesecake with salted graham crust, pistachio brittle & blueberry fritters

The latter showed particular panache, with its mix of textures & vibrant bursts of flavor.

And now for a giant disclaimer. All of the above was served at a press dinner. That should raise two suspicions in your mind. One, that my opinion was bought & paid for. To that, I’ll say what I always say in these cases: as a media guest rather than an anonymous diner, I don’t bite the hand that feeds me; I just keep my mouth shut if I’m unimpressed by the meal. If I do say something, I mean it. Which still doesn’t mean you should take my word for it, especially given suspicion number two: that the staff, both front & back of the house, was on its very best behavior toward us. To that, I’ll say: undoubtedly. As is true with any review—but especially in these circumstances—there’s only one way to tell if it’s accurate: by judging for yourself.

For what it’s worth, I did return the next night for a light meal al fresco on my own dime. My server, who was not among our servers the previous night & so wouldn’t have recognized me, was lovely—a little slower on the ball, but then, she was busy in a packed house; her attentions had to be evenly spread. Even so she managed to find me 2 cans of soda in a hotel with no vending machines. So no complaints there, & none for the complimentary happy-hour nut mix—warm, tossed with rosemary & brown sugar, olive oil & sea salt.

The flatbread I took back to my room, however, was overbaked, the crust a stale brown cracker. Too bad not least because the topping combo of duck confit, sherried onions, roasted grapes, chèvre & saba (a grape syrup) was great—almost like a modern deconstructed mincemeat.

What does the disappointment reveal? Hard to say, since I’d come straight from the 2nd Annual Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival up on the mall—where Chefs Zack & Nolan were still manning a booth. Weighing a single miss in the chefs’ absence against a slew of hits in their presence is weighing apples & oranges. It might say something about the line cooks’ level of experience. Or it might simply have been a fluke. Granted, that’s what a mistake had better be at a restaurant this posh. But it doesn’t change the fact that creativity can’t be faked. Nolan’s got it, which means that as long as he’s around Eight K’s got it—something special.

Eight K Restaurant on Urbanspoon