No restaurant in town has received as much press in the last year and a half as Niche. Named by Food & Wine magazine as one of 2008's Best New Chefs, Gerard Craft and his crew have lightened up the Benton Park neighborhood with their urbane little bistro. Cozy but not crowded (which is the only thing that gives the lie to the New York-y feeling), it rocks. In a city that rushes to the restaurant of the moment and then moves on to the next, Niche shows every sign of becoming a perpetual hot table, or at least one that’s darned warm. Our most recent visit was in a room with a 10-top of suits and ties, a family party with a grade-school eater the guest of honor, lots of 30-somethings, and grateful empty-nesters gabbing with their pals. The noise level is not unreasonable compared to many of its peers, the lighting is absolutely impeccable, giving a warm, imperceptibly golden, glow to things, and the service is warm and smooth, without being goofy-casual.
We opened with an amuse bouche of a single sea scallop, seared and sliced very thin, topped with croutons of pork cracklings, some shreds of candied Meyer lemon peel and a few bits of the lemon flesh, and surrounded with what Craft called "popcorn consomme", a clear broth that showed plenty of evidence of corn in its flavor. Pretty charming.
Then on to the more serious business. Vitello tonnato in Craft’s hands is almost a pun - certainly the reference to the classic Italian summertime dish of cold sliced veal with a tuna mayonnaise is there, but only obliquely. The menu explains that it contains hamachi and sweetbreads, so there’s your tuna and veal, more or less. The seared sweetbreads sit on a bed of thin-sliced raw hamachi with more shredded atop, the whole thing lightly sauced with lemon and capers. Amazingly with the savor of the fish and the tartness of the lemon and capers, the tender-firm sweetbread’s flavor is almost magnified, rather than disappearing into the rest of the dish, the way it does in many sweetbread preparations. We liked it a lot. A special of the evening was pappardelle, broad, thin noodles of artisanal pasta sauced with shreds and chunks of smoked pork shank (think barbecue rather than ham), paper-thin slices of Granny Smith apple and a hit of mascarpone cheese to thicken the braising juices. Deeply savory, it was perfect for a cold, cold night, the smoke and the apple’s sweet-tart bouncing around in the creaminess.
A pause. A sorbet to cleanse the palate arrived. "A savory Meyer lemon sorbet," announced our server. Meyer lemons are hard to come by around here, and obviously Craft had pounced on them. Not a problem for us; we love lemon, and the sweeter, deeply aromatic Meyer lemons are remarkable. The small scoop of the sorbet intrigued. Quite tart, but also bitter, presumably from the deliberate inclusion of the white pith of the lemon, there was another flavor bouncing around there that we couldn’t quite identify. We liked it a lot but agreed that it is the sort of thing that might not be universally popular.
For entrees a couple of duos, a common Craft theme, taking two cuts of the same meat and preparing them differently. Beef arrived as diagonal slices of a rib steak, carefully trimmed and cooked to the requested rareness, and oxtail cannoli, shreds of that wonderful rich meat that had been braised in a little tomato, wrapped in a shell and deep-fried to crispness. Alongside was a potato puree, soft and extremely buttery, a heap of wild mushrooms, and a small tangle of arugula riding atop it all, softened slightly from the heat and wearing a fast drizzle of vinaigrette. Craft seems to be a real master of pork, and reports he get much of his meat from Carlos Hinkbein’s happy hogs. This visit, the pork was slices of pork loin and a slab of pork belly. Pork belly, of course, is currently deeply fashionable in the restaurant world. (Watch for the price of bacon to continue to increase, of course.) This belly had been braised and the top skin then crisped up. Deeply unctuous, it was fork-tender, the epitome of piggy goodness. A pan sauce with red wine was hanging around, the better to sop up the cylinder of finely-ground polenta, a handful of brussels sprouts, cooked until tender but still green rather than the usual depressing gray, a few more of the mushrooms, and greens with a slightly different dressing wilting them down just slightly and quite properly.
Matthew Rice is the pastry chef, a fellow whose desserts are available at Veruca, the next-door bakery and café, if you get the urge for dessert before Niche opens. Rice’s imagination is the equal of Craft’s, so this is definitely not the place to go looking for the same old molten chocolate cake and creme brulee. We opted for blood orange profiteroles, cream puffs, if you will, split and filled with blood orange sorbet. Blood oranges are in season, a ray of light at a dark time of year, and they were a welcome sight on the menu. The profiteroles were marvelous, but equaled by the accompanying marmalade of wee squares of the rind of the oranges, tangy-tart and delicious. (Oh, for that on hot buttered toast this morning!) And for chocolate, what was titled salted milk chocolate pudding turned out to be malted as well as salted, at least in the accompaniments. The pudding, lightly chocolate and baked like a custard, was also lightly salted, and wore whipped cream flavored with malt, as well as crumbles of malt candy and a couple of quarter-sized sandwich cookies of darker chocolate. A great combination of textures and tastes, it was far more seductive than we’d imagined.
The wine list is expensive, but the by-the-glass list has a number in the high single figures, a few in the low doubles, and they represent the world’s major wine-growing regions. Gemtree, an Australian blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (or Syrah if you prefer the French name), is delicious, beautifully structured, with chocolate notes in the aroma and a splendidly long finish that sits warmly in the throat. Italian Prosecco. busily intruding into the more modest end of sparkling wines everywhere, was delicious.
This may be the most intellectually challenging menu in St. Louis right now. Only the most numbed palate or the most jaded can eat this food without stopping to think about it. Niche may turn out to be one of St. Louis’ legendary restaurants.
1831 Sidney St.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Poor