Benton Park, the neighborhood between Jefferson avenue and I-55, just south of Gravois, is turning into quite a restaurant zone. Niche, the newest spot, has joined Frazer’s, Yemanja Brasil, the Sidney Street Café and Venice Café (perhaps not quite a restaurant but certainly a destination) in an area that makes a visitor feel as though he’s discovered one of those insiders-secret areas tourists never hear about.
Niche started hot, with a lot of buzz. However, much traffic has continued, and it has remained busy. We strongly suggest reservations, even if it means calling at 6 o’clock to see if they’ll have a table at 8. Tucked into an old storefront, the interior feels very New Yorkish with its buttercream-colored walls and spare art work. Even though chef Gerard Craft and pasty chef Mathew Rice have New York experience, they’ve skipped the New York restaurant rule that says thou shalt cram more people into a dining room than anyone could imagine, so there is sufficient space between tables. They’ve also installed that wonderful staple of Parisian bistro dining, the long mirror above the banquette wall that lets those facing the wall see what’s happening elsewhere. There’s a fair amount of what seem to be business dinners going on, which always lend a slight air of gravitas to the house, but ties are mostly loosened and the overall atmosphere feels upscale casual.
And the food? Modern American, with a nice interest in the kind of menu items not found all over town. We saw ramps, salsify and fava beans, for instance, on a recent visit, always something to raise the spirits of those who, like us, are put to sleep by the zucchini-carrot-broccoli routine.
There are two sets of first courses. "To Nosh On" is what might be considered bar snacks, including a wonderful dish of white anchovies with toast and a savory tomato jam that makes our mouths water just writing about it. The other, under the heading "First Things First," offers salads, soup and other options. A recent chilled beet soup, one of the first gastronomic signs of the warm weather, wasn’t the standard shocking-pink puree. Rather, it cradled pastel-colored baby beets in a lovely dill and buttermilk broth, tart and lively around the sweet, tender vegetable. Watercress salad wore some of the white anchovies, shards of parmesan cheese, a few grape tomatoes and a nicely tart dressing, a fine piece of work, although the watercress was less pungent than we expected. Chicken liver terrine, smooth and delicate, was a work of art, thoughtfully seasoned and altogether worthy.
The main course options are relatively brief, six in the menu’s current incarnation. A roasted trout is accompanied by "English peas", that old southern phrase that distinguishes green peas from black-eyed peas, crowder peas and other variants, a little mint, and a rhubarb sauce. The ramps appear with a steak and some potato puree. We tried pasta that paired fresh pappardelle, thinly rolled but not at all overcooked, with several kinds of mushrooms, onion slivers, those fava beans, bright green, full-flavored and not at all mushy, with a drift of pecorino cheese. The result was excellent, the sort of dish in which one never misses meat.
The meat on the table came from a dish titled "pork 2 ways," Missouri pork in the form of a slice from a tenderloin and a piece of pork belly. Both were sauced with pan juices punched up with sherry vinegar and a little amber bock beer, and showed just how one meat can change its taste in two different cuts. The lean loin, certainly nicely tender, gave the sauce more room to play. The pork belly—well, remember, pork belly is essentially a large slab of uncured bacon, striping fat and lean across it. Here, the sauce was merely an adjunct to the rich meat, picking up some glory as it came along for the ride. The sweet-savory notes in the sauce worked well with both. Sides included polenta with a little truffle oil, a little spinach, which had been hit too hard with the salt, and some salsify. Salsify is a root vegetable, long and slender and white, that’s sometimes known as oyster plant. Its mild flavor is said to resemble oysters, but that’s a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, it was quite happy playing with the buttery juices from the spinach, and we enjoyed it.
Dessert at Niche, thanks to Rice, happily rises to the level of the rest of the food. The only thing close to any of the cliched local favorites is the liquid chocolate cake, which rises above cliche with its house-made B-52 ice cream .We point out that the ice cream is named after the drink with Kahlua, Bailey’s and Grand Marnier, not the band - or the bomber. The remainder are items like a creme fraiche panna cotta, served in a soup bowl that the waiter fills, from a small pitcher, with a rhubarb-lemongrass soup. The panna cotta was particularly rich, the soup, pink from the rhubarb and heavily redolent of the lemongrass, a tart contrast. After considering a roasted banana semifreddo with butterscotch glazed bananas, we went for a pineapple upside down cake with pina colada sherbet. We asked for a pitcher of the hot fudge sauce on the side, although we would have done the same with the banana dessert. Chocolate with either fruit is an outstanding combo, although pineapple is certainly less common. The cake was a single-serving round, the classic yellow sponge cake under the tart fruit, caramelized with butter and sugar. Unlike many of its clan, the cake itself was very tender. The sherbet was a fine contrast, full of flavor. And the hot fudge sauce? Occasionally gilding the lily is just the thing, and this was one of those times.
And as an additional incentive, desserts (and the bar) are available on Friday and Saturday nights until 1:30 a.m.
The wine list is modest, with some excellent touches and a nice world-wide range of providers. There are enough by-the-glass options, and some fine, moderately priced bottles of splendid accompaniments to the meal.
We were very happy with the service, light-hearted without being silly, and extremely knowledgeable. We were also happy that Niche offers a prix fixe of three courses for $30, an excellent buy. Servings are not, by St. Louis standards, immense, but more and more we’re thinking that’s a good thing -- just like Niche.
1831 Sidney St.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Poor