Gerard Craft put himself and our city in the national spotlight with Niche, a terrific restaurant for Modern American cuisine. Now, with Brasserie by Niche, he has invaded the Central West End and challenged diners with a return to classic gastronomic roots, if France can be considered that fertile ground. Brasserie by Niche is his latest outpost, serving close-to-traditional, delicious, beautifully presented French fare in the location that was Chez Leon until a few months ago. Many of the design elements remain, like the narrow horizontal mirrors along the west wall. Somehow, however, it seems roomier, the tables farther apart, with red-checked cloths on the perimeter, white ones in the center. It's well-staffed, and on a busy night, servers flew by at a genteel lope. Chez Leon, by the way, has relocated to Clayton.
From one visit's observation, it seems a general practice to give each table an orientation to the menu, much as might be done with a more exotic cuisine. It's an interesting touch, but we're not convinced it's necessary. The crowd seems slightly older than the one at Niche, although that western wall seemed to be the place where the maitre'd put all the good-looking younger diners.
The menu is marked by many classics, plus a few unusual touches. Yes, short ribs, which seem to have become the winter dish of choice at many local restaurants, not that there's anything wrong with that. Also onion soup, steak frites and moules (mussels) frites, and charcuterie. But the menu doesn't feel cliched, just a nice spot between familiar and hard to choose. We began with salade Lyonnaise, one of our favorite French salads, basically curly endive with bacon and a poached egg. Pale, tender endive, the green of April tree buds, wore a marvelously bacony dressing, the poached egg tidily trimmed and cuddled into the squiggles of endive as though it were a wren's nest studded with cubes of excellent bacon.
And then there was brandade, a traditional dish found along the Mediterranean coast; it's a puree of salt cod with olive oil, milk, and sometimes potato. Spread on rounds of toasted bread, the version served here is more distinctively coddish than some we've had, which is to say more flavorful. We liked it a lot.
One of the most challenging entrees for a restaurant in the United States is roast chicken. While the roasting isn't a major difficulty, finding a reliable supply of truly tasty birds can be a major problem, especially if the chef is trying to keep his costs lower and cuts back a notch or two with his favorite farmer. Consequently, we're often hesitant to order it in a restaurant. Still, given Gerard Craft's success as chef and creator of Niche, and his generally high standards, this seemed like a good test for the kitchen. Two trimmed quarters of Farrar Out Farm chicken is served with black trumpet mushrooms over a piece of grilled country bread, the whole thing moistened by pan juices from the chicken and mushrooms. The skin was crisp, the flesh rich, moist and full of extraordinary flavor, and it was hard to say which was tastier, the chicken itself or the bread and juice. Definitely the best roast chicken we've had since one in France.
Specials are listed a week at a time on the menu, but that night's special had been replaced by something quite unexpected. Venison liver was being offered, served with more of those mushrooms and some mashed potatoes, along with a red wine reduction of the pan juices. The liver was simply and quickly sauteed, still rare inside. While it was firm, it was quite tender to the chew, with a flavor as mild as veal, a giveaway to the fact that this was farmed deer. (We've eaten liver from wild deer, and, like the rest of the meat, the flavor is stronger. )The sauce was tinged with rosemary, the potatoes creamy and smooth. Very simple, very good. On impulse, we ordered the brussels sprouts as a side dish, just to see what the kitchen did with them. Joe adores sprouts, Ann is just okay with them, but we fought over the last bites of the shiny green ribbons of vegetable that had been quickly sauteed with lashings of butter.
The wine list offers good prices, beginning with glasses and carafe wine and all the wines but one topping out in the low 70s. Several Alsatian and Loire Valley whites provide an alternative to the white Burgundy choices and there's even a white Cote du Rhone by glass ($8) or bottle ($20). Along the reds, a couple of Californians are available in addition to the tradition tastes from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone. Bethlehem Valley is the Missouri representative, with an '07 Chardonel ($24) and an '05 Norton ($32). We sampled from the by-the-glass list, a Cote du Rhone from Domaine de la Solitude and a Bordeaux from Abbaye de St. Ferme; both were tasty, rich on the palate with a good finish, and good values at $7.
When it comes to tarte Tatin, the classic French apple tart, the pleasure comes from two things. One is the burst of tart-sweet flavor from the apples and the caramelized sugary juices. The other is the crust, which, done correctly, should remind the eater that in France pastry-making is considered a fine art like sculpture or dance. While the individual tarts are not necessarily pastry-case perfect at Brasserie, the flavor is spot on, and the pastry is delicate and clearly house-made, the whole thing irresistible.
Clafoutis (pronounced kla-fou-TEE) is a traditional and very homey French dessert, somewhere between a custard and a pancake, baked with fruit inside. The most common version has cherries, but the Niche version held prunes (dried plums, according to California marketers) that were a slightly chewy contrast to the batter. Alongside a scoop of swoon-worthy Cognac ice cream.
About our only quibble was a server's too-frequent descriptions of menu items that were “to die for.” No, no. This is food to live for.
Brasserie by Niche
4580 Laclede Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good