I recently had a wonderful meal at niche. The following is the bulk of a write-up I posted on my blog about the dinner. Read more and see the photos there: (http://ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com/...).
Checking off one of my new year’s resolutions early, I cleared my schedule for two days and took the four-hour road trip down I-70 to St. Louis.
Nothing about niche is fancy. It’s upscale and stylish, but utterly unpretentious. Tables are lined with butcher paper. It’s festive without being a party. It’s strong enough for business dinners, but made for dates and friendly gatherings.
The service here is extremely polished. Every staff member we encountered – especially our server - was extremely knowledgeable about the menu, upbeat, patient, and friendly. By the end of the meal, Mini Me and I felt like regulars.
The food at niche isn’t fancy either. It’s comfort food presented in a semi-fashionable way.
The familiar stack-and-lean approach to plating is employed here. Sauces streak across plates and foams do their part in lending a sense of coyness to the food. But you won’t find haute china pushing the 16” diameter limit. Most of the plates here are of a pattern I would call “nineties square.”
The food seems straightforward. You think you know the dish by its description – like Mixed Greens Salad with Maytag blue cheese, apples, candied nuts, and champagne vinaigrette – but you don’t. Craft manages to throw a curve ball into nearly every plate.
Most of the time, like with the “Mixed Greens” salad ($9), he does so successfully. The bundle of lightly dressed greens was banded together with a “ribbon” of blue cheese. Velvety and pliable, I’ll admit, the texture of the “ribbon” was a bit strange at first. But whatever additives were incorporated (a touch of gelatin and cream, perhaps?) to make the cheese behave in that manner didn’t compromise the flavor or mouth-feel of the cheese.
The gentleman at the next table commented that he would be happy with just a bowlful of the candied pecans that doted the salad. I agreed.
But the blue cheese ribbon was just an example of cosmetic fun. Craft demonstrates a more sophisticated level of thought in dishes like the “Vitello Tonnato” ($14 for full portion). Traditionally, a cold plate of poached veal with a tuna mayonnaise sauce, Craft cleverly switches out the veal meat for veal sweetbreads – a molten nugget with a crunchy breadcrumb shell – and replaces tuna with thinly shaved carpet of hamachi.
It’s the kind of high-end witticism you’d find in the pages of Craft’s favorite cookbook, The French Laundry Cookbook.
Beyond the playfulness and unimpeachable execution and quality of the ingredients, there was an exciting interaction of flavors in this dish. The hamachi mimicked the flavor of tuna quite well – an experience that was intensified by the concentrated fish flavor in shaved bonito flakes that decorated the plate.
I have never been keen on the texture of hamachi. Raw, I find it limp and wimpy. Shaved thinly, however, as it was here, it took on a silkiness that I found very appealing.
Perhaps the most interesting element was the hit of smoky flint that the bonito contributed. Capers added a touch of acid (there might have been a spritz of lemon too). This was a great dish.
Sometimes, Craft’s curve balls didn’t quite hit the mark for me. The bright lemon vinaigrette coupled with the salty strips of shaved Parmesan in the “Arugula Salad” ($9) was the type of saliva-inducing combination that made me march right through the peppery greens. But the cubes of olive-oil drenched brioche were confounding. Notwithstanding the fact that I had expected crunchy brioche croutons, these greasy pieces were so soft that they disintegrated into little wet crumbles easily. I know that brioche is the new darling carb, but this wasn’t place for it, nor the way to serve it.
Our meal started off with an attack of Baader-Meinhof when our server told us about the day’s specials, one of which was a classic dish that I had just studied a couple of weeks before: pig trotters stuffed with chicken mousse, sweetbreads, and morels ($13).
While I’m not sure that Craft used morels in his filling (the bits I saw looked more like shiitake), the reference to Pierre Koffmann was undeniable. The Gascon chef, formerly head of London’s esteemed La Tante Claire, authored this dish, whose renown has been spread by his student, Marco Pierre White of – well – Marco Pierre White fame.
I’ve never had the original version (though I have been tempted to make it at home; the recipe is in the latest edition of White’s cookbook, “White Heat”) so I have no idea what Koffmann intended. But, I can’t imagine it could be much better than Craft’s version.
The gelatinous potential of the collagen had also been fully realized in the “Slow Roasted Pig’s Head,” ($12 for full portion). Surrounded by a generous layer of softened connective tissue, the cheek meat was full of flavor and moist. The green apple slice beneath the sliced pig’s head terrine was meaty and drunk with sweet syrup twitching with fresh lemon. I’ll admit that this dish was a tad greasy, but not unduly so for what it was. What surprised me the most is that this dish was served warm.
Our first main course, “Seared Scallops” ($29 for full order), was technically flawless - the scallops were caramelized on the outside, velvety within; the greens and fennel were rendered silky; the foam was full of smoky bacon flavor; and the slivers of Picholine olives were uniformly sliced and warmed through.
But this dish lacked a sense of control. The plate was busy with competing flavors, all of which covered up the natural sweetness of those beautiful scallops. One or two of the elements might have made a lovely complement or counterpoint, but all together, it was distracting. My only other quip about this dish is that the polenta had congealed to the plate, as it is wont to do when spread thin and left to cool. I peeled it back with my fork.
Craft seems tirelessly fascinated by twosomes. The 5-course tasting featured “Duo of Bacon” and “Duo of Duck.” On the regular menu, there were “Pork Duo” and the “Pasture-Raised Beef Duo,” both of which we ordered.
For pasture-raised cattle, the cut of rib eye on the “Pasture-Raised Beef Duo” ($28 for full portion) was incredibly marbled and immensely tender and flavorful. The four generous slices came on a bed of roasted wild mushrooms (shiitake and oysters) with melted leeks. This was sided by very fine potato puree and soy caramel, which was not as thick or sweet as I was expecting. The soy caramel was more like a slightly caramelized essence of soy sauce.
The shell of the oxtail “cannoli” was somewhat tough and doughy - not the crisp, flaky shell I imagined it would be. The oxtail meat filling, however, was excellent – it was flavorful, incredibly moist, and not the least bit stringy.
The loin meat on the plate of “Pork Duo” ($24 for full portion) looked dry and dense. Unfortunately, it was. Thankfully, it wasn’t tough. It was flavorful, but the lack of moisture was disappointing.
The belly, however, was the paragon of perfection and the true star of the plate. The generous cube was capped with a generous layer of collagen and fat and layered with soft strands of pork belly meat.
Everything else on the dish was perfectly cooked - the Brussels sprouts were firm, but not hard; the polenta cake was nicely crisped atop and had a nice, moist, grainy crumb; and the greens sported a tangy mustard dressing.
Toasted hazelnuts were an unexpected but welcomed addition, adding crunch and flavor. But I failed to taste them in the hazelnut demi-glace.
The gentleman sitting at the table next to ours ordered the “Roasted Chicken” ($25 for full portion). It was sizable - he received what appeared to be half a chicken worth of meat.
In our (very) generous half-portion, there were six nice slices of breast meat, with the crispy skin still on. The center slices were a bit more tender and juicy than the end pieces, but overall, it was very flavorful and by no means over-cooked. The chicken came with a scoop of bread pudding, which had a crispy, toasted top and a soft, warm core perfumed with chevre (I had expected pockets of goat cheese, but the goat cheese had been thoroughly incorporated into the bread pudding).
I missed most of what violet mustard there was in the sauce, though, admittedly, Mini Me had already sopped up most of it. It didn’t matter - the chicken didn’t need any sauce.
One of the best desserts I’ve ever had is Claudia Fleming’s Coconut Tapioca with Passion Fruit Sorbet at Gramercy Tavern. Since having that dish back in 2007 (Nancy Olson, the current pastry chef revived the recipe as a pre-dessert), I have tracked down a copy of Fleming’s out-of-print cookbook, “Last Course, The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern” and read it cover to cover.
So, I was excited to find a fellow Fleming admirer in Matthew Rice, the pastry chef at niche.
The restaurant’s crowd gained momentum throughout the evening. It was more lively when we left than when we arrived.
The chef seemed like an amiable fellow. He manned the pass, which gains the dining room a view of the kitchen, most of the night, expediting dishes as they were plated. He occasionally escaped to visit with a few tables.
St. Louis is lucky to have niche. I am envious. We have a few similarly situated restaurants (i.e. casual, stylish, ingredient-driven, farm-to-table comfort food) on my side of the state, but, based on my one dinner at niche, I can’t say that any of them are operating on the same level. The service at niche is spotless, the atmosphere is lovely, presentations are neat and tidy, and flavors - for the most part - are properly tuned. The food isn’t pitch-perfect, but I’m not sure it needs to be. It’s creative and thoughtful - they served us a refreshing pamplemousse sorbet as an intermezzo between our last two savory courses (I think it’s customary for the five-course tasting). The ingredients are fresh and, where possible - like the parsnips, which came from a nearby farm - they’re locally raised.
Regardless, Craft’s food is certainly a solid representative of contemporary Midwest cooking and I am happy to have him as an ambassador for our region.
Executive Chef Gerard Craft
1831 Sidney Street
St. Louis, Missouri 63104
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