Niche-the-Original, as we now may need to refer to the Mother Ship, always has seemed pleasantly New York-y to us. The color, the lighting - about the only thing that made us think we weren't in some dining room on West 75th Street was that the tables were sufficiently far apart. Now, Taste by Niche, next door, moves things into a downtown mode, meaning it's a small dark room with rustic furnishings and a menu that's more casual but just as innovative.
A longish table that can easily be shared and an L-shaped bar with plenty of stools are the extent of the seating plan. While the table has some advantages, we think the bar is the place to be, with a view of all the action, which takes place in an area one might call the kitchen, if one were generous. There's not much to it, but what comes out is eminently satisfying. That goes for the bar as well. Nick Blue was at the stove when we visited, and the elegant cocktail dance is led by Ted Kilgore, one of this town's best-known bartenders, a chef of things drinkable.
The menu is made for snacking, perfect for folks who want to try a little of everything. No main courses, and many of the options are easy to share. We kicked things off with bacon-deviled eggs, three halves with a creamy-smooth filling that was deeply baconesque. We probably could have put away a dozen of them between us. Octopus with potatoes combined grilled tentacles with slices of Yukon gold potatoes in a warm olive oil vinaigrette, the octopus tender, the potatoes soaking up the vinaigrette's flavor. Nice contrast of textures, too.
“Roasted radish bruschetta” said the menu. This is, for most of us, probably an item to take on trust. Trust us: It's worth it. Roasting mellows the root, caramelizes its sugars a little, and softens it so when it stretches out on a slice of toasted bread, it relaxes, waves, and murmurs, “Eat me,” just as if we were Alice visiting Wonderland. We tried a plate of house-made charcuterie, which was fun. Various smoked meats, some tangy, some almost sweet, all tender and flavorful and leaving us offering silent praise to those who have decided that salume is an impressive preparation of meat.
But the dish that made us gasp and wish we'd ordered two, was some gnocchi. Small and quite tender, they rested in brown butter seasoned with bits of sauteed fresh sage and minced pancetta. But this pancetta was made with lamb, which upped the flavor quotient even more. The chewy bits of meat snuggled up to the pasta, the brown butter pulling things together,and it was fabulous.
The other don't-miss is the pigwich. (The house emblem, a butcher's chart of a hog, clearly wasn't chosen just for its aesthetics.) Two thin chocolate cookie wafers, recognizable as a pig, are sandwiched with a bacon-flavored butter cream. There's a discussion currently afoot on a food website about people who can't eat food shaped like something that's alive, but that's a clear case of leaving more for the rest of us.
Ten wines by the glass, but a fine cocktail menu from Kilgore, as well. We applaud him particularly for not calling every drink a martini; anyone with his obvious sense of alcohol history knows better. We succumbed to a Gateway Caipirinha, the cachaca pumped up with cinnamon syrup, lemon and a little peach preserve. We feared the cinnamon might make things overly sweet, but no, it was in good control. The punch du jour was a Hemingway Royale, with rum, cherry, lime, grapefruit juice and some bubbly, available as a single glass or a punch bowl, a nice concept for a group at the long table. The Hemingway was surprisingly dry and light, considerably less alcoholic than ol' Ernest would have concocted.
For a small room, it seems server-dense, with everyone multitasking to one degree or another. Very casual but properly interested, is how we'd describe them.
There's a chalkboard at the door to create a waiting list if that's necessary, but they now take reservations.
Taste by Niche
1831 Sidney St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No