An investigation into St. Louis fine dining restaurants won’t generate many results, but the city lays claim to a few high-end destinations. The best-known of these is Niche, whose executive chef, Gerard Craft, stands fresh off winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. My brother and I have eaten at Niche on several occasions over the last 6 months and so have developed a degree of familiarity with the cuisine and staff; unfortunately, the academic year exerted too many demands on my time to chronicle those earlier meals and so this post will have to suffice.
Niche has resided in its current location on Forsythe Street only recently, and at our first meal, the GPS led us to the old location. The dining room boasts a spectrum of brownish hues and an attractive open layout. The only aspect of the interior design that leaves me wanting is the floor; in lieu of hardwood floors, I believe Niche uses one of those cheap floor mats designed to simulate the look of real wood. I imagine this fabric goes unnoticed by most, particularly since the lighting is relatively low, and so I doubt they’re planning to overhaul the floor anytime soon.
Niche features a refreshingly transparent menu structure, with no blind tasting progressions. One chooses from either a 4-course prix fixe or a longer tasting menu comprised of dishes from the prix fixe. The prix fixe features a grid of three options for each course, so at any point in time, the restaurant offers 12 courses from which to choose—this is compact enough to suggest that nothing is on offer just to take up room. There are also some ‘snack’ offerings to punctuate the opening chapter of the meal. We always go with the prix fixe as that is now my favorite format in which to dine—long enough for a variety of flavors, but with course selection still in the hands of the diner.
Before ordering, we were served gratis cocktails (mine was non-alcoholic, my brother’s was not.)
One of the big calling cards of this restaurant is their policy of sourcing everything from a 300-mile radius. According to the website:
“To take the common and remind you how beautiful it can be. We look to the past to see what was here long before us and we look to the future to see what might be possible. As chefs we are never satisfied and always evolving. We are more in awe of a carrot or potato, grown by one of our trusted farmers, than we are by a white truffle flown in from Italy. To us, this is what defines cooking in Missouri.”
Conceptually, this is easy to admire and clarifies that Niche isn’t just copying what restaurants in other states are doing. But, this isn’t Conceptual Art we’re dealing with; the high degree of geographic specificity also raises the same question that any other farm-to-table restaurant poses: would the cuisine benefit from a wider geographic base? At any rate, this is not a seafood restaurant (the only fish I’ve seen on offer is trout)—lots of root vegetables, grains, and poultry instead. We began by ordering the potato beignets with a smoked trout dip, as well as house-cured ham and cheese bread. For the prix fix courses, I chose the swiss chard dish, then a mushroom course, and the lamb as my main dish. Dessert was pecan financier My brother went with a butternut squash soup and then the same mushroom preparation. His main course was a local ribeye, and then the same dessert.
The first items delivered were ‘tea’ (a pork broth) and English muffins topped with house-made camembert.) When one is served a deconstructed tea like this, it’s hard to know the spirit in which it is presented. Was this a genuine act of hospitality or an ironic joke? At Alinea, this would certainly have been the latter, served with a sneer. At Niche, it felt more genuine—a joke for us to enjoy, but also a welcoming gesture at the start of the meal. Sadly, while the English muffin was great, I couldn’t handle the tea—way too one-note with the fattiness, and the broth had coagulated anyhow.
Niche prides itself on its bread offering, which makes good use of local grains. In this article, the sous chef went so far as to claim that “I think where we’re at now, the bread tells as much of a story as any other dish on the menu.” The bread was awesome and enhanced by the accompanying butter and fleur de sel.
Next were the potato beignets and charcuterie. This latter offering was served with cheese bread, which my brother likes but which became rather redundant with the bread service. I’d still recommend either of these offerings.
The complete title for my first plate was “Swiss Chard: egg yolk, fromage blanc, green garlic.” This was plenty rich without the egg yolk (poured tableside), which took everything to another level. I knew from experience that Niche has great facility with vegetables and this was another winning preparation.
My brother always orders soup to start and he enjoyed this one. Given that this was mid-April, butternut squash soup was a bit out of season (replaced with asparagus not long thereafter.) Ordinarily, squash soups can get a bit sweet, but this one was spiked with local miso (and pecans), which cut through the cloying flavors. Very good.
The mushroom are the only plate that never leaves the menu and this execution was great as usual. Oyster and maitake mushrooms are plated on a bed of grits, alongside a chorizo/butter/paprika sauce, carrots, and a superfluous herbal garnish. We love this rich and complex way of foregrounding the mushrooms.
Next were blackberry popsicles; my brother’s was enhanced with bourbon.
My lamb course offered loin and (if memory serves) sweetbread. The composition here didn’t carry the same level of precision as the other offerings and there was a lot going on here. Everything was perfectly-executed; this brought a sigh of relief since on occasion, meat has been overcooked in the past (also, just parenthetically, fish has been over-citrused.)
The steak was served with potato, onion, malt, and ramp hollandaise (poured tableside.) Niche has always done an awesome job sourcing their beef and this was cooked sous-vide at the requested medium-rare. Very satisfying.
We each ordered pecan financier for dessert; this was served with a bourbon anglaise, blueberry, and meringue. The preparation sounded interesting, but the anglaise had some kind of elemental technique that solidified the cream—a major disappointment as everything was dry. This preparation rehearsed my frustrations with the pastry program from past meals, as they invariably mar the desserts through gratuitous techniques. To a certain degree, this complaint applies to the state of desserts right now, which seem overly obsessed with techniques and deconstruction. I’ve remarked on this in past blog posts, but pastry programs have become disproportionately more abstract and technique-driven than savory, to the point of diminishing returns.
A couple of candies ended the meal.
If the dessert rehearsed extant frustrations with the pastry program, the rest of the meal reprised pleasures that compel us to return every other month or so: a dexterous hand with vegetables, top-notch steak preparations, and gracious service. Remaining grounded in hyper-local ingredients has not compromised the cuisine. I’d also say that Niche’s cuisine and culinary ethos comport with what has come to mean “contemporary American” cooking: on the one hand, a principle of spatiality that involves excavating local ingredients, to the point of also growing local variants of international staples; and on the other hand, a principle of temporality shown through the careful selection of time-honored Missouri ingredients like grains and earthy vegetables. The executive chef seems to be aiming for these principles, remarking in reference to the localism of the recent winter menu that it “gives the restaurant a sense of time and place; it gives a sense of the winter of Missouri in 2015.” Yet as the quote cited early in this post makes evident, the emphasis on time and place is dialectical, bringing past and present together and even placing Missouri ingredients in dialogue with international cuisines through, for example, the Missouri miso included in the soup. Niche might confuse first-time visitors since the uber-local focus perhaps suggests a simple culinary approach rather than the technique-driven cuisine on display at points in this meal, but a clear culinary voice still governed this meal. Of course, we knew in advance that red meat and vegetables were areas of strength and so there is always the chance that ordering other items might have resulted in less sanguine impressions. But with its regional focus and culinary foray into Missouri’s past and present, Niche occupies a worthy place in ‘contemporary American’ fine dining.