Posted On: 12/01/2005
Among the top five overall favorite restaurants in the 2005 Sauce readers’ poll, the winners – Eleven Eleven Mississippi, Sydney Street Café, Harvest Seasonal Market and Cuisine, Monarch and Trattoria Marcella – all come large. Some large in square footage; some large in number of tables; some large in air between floor and ceiling; some large in number of rooms (wine cellar, loft, patio, bar, etc.); some large in menu or wine list; some large in number of staff; and some large in all of the above. On average, the top five seat 152 people in about 4,000 square feet of dining room space. Large.
In October, Niche broke the established large trend when it opened in a miniscule storefront under the Sidney Street Lofts. The fact that the build-out took a mere five months is a testament to its size. Small.
Niche’s stats: one (yes, one) rectangular dining room of less than 1,000 square feet; 20 side-by-side two-top tables in one and a half rows, seating at most 40 diners; no TVs; no tip-or-feel-guilty bathroom attendant; no singles on the make; no smoking; two friendly and attentive servers; one young, sweet-talking buser innocently flirting with the blue hairs; one sociable bartender eternally polishing stemware; one jack-of-all trades manager; little to no exclusive bar business; few beers; a weekly signature martini/cosmo; a one-page, inexpensive, ever-changing worldly wine list of red, white and sparkling libations (though a more expansive cellar list will appear this month); chef/owner Gerard Craft and pastry chef Matthew Rice’s extraordinary, affordable seasonal dinner and dessert menu of a mere 25 or so items simply divided into four basic categories (five, counting the sides); a buzzing ambiance of impeccable contemporary class; and, hopefully, one hot date a mere three feet in front of you noticing none of the above and instead only you.
Thus far, area foodies adore Niche, so reservations are an absolute must. The genuine intimacy is a hit, thus the great atmosphere is a direct result of many diners in a small space. (Nosey eavesdroppers can hear just about every conversation in the room.) You’ll see three generations of well-dressed diners; the older taking the early shift and the younger the last. Final calculation: packed house = buzzing ambiance =
As of now, Niche easily tops my list as the best-place-to-impress-a-date restaurant. And when the Veruca at Niche (the name is taken from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) dessert bar debuts in late December – where the floor will be cleared of some tables, a DJ will spin French hip-hop and dynamo pastry chef Rice will offer special tastings of desserts paired with wines after dining hours until 1:30 a.m. – it could also top my list of unique weekend nightlife spots.
The straight 411 …
In everything – floor space to menu items – Niche proves that less is sometimes more.
Clean, sharp and understated are the first words that came to mind when I walked into Niche, one of the newest restaurant/bars to pop up in the up-and-coming Benton Park area. The understated elegance of Niche makes you feel relaxed-ly hip among the well-dressed but none-too-haughty crowd.
Niche is located in an extremely small yet somehow lofty space right on the border of Benton Park and SoulaRoad The minute dwelling that houses Niche was remodeled from what seems to have been a shanty, as depicted by the black-and-white photographs displayed proudly on the wall by the bar. Now it is a contemporary, vibrant spot filled with white tablecloths and rich wood accents.
Present at the pristine bar, located just inside the entrance, were several members of the Benton Park Neighborhood Association, gathered for a monthly happy hour. I was immediately disappointed that I wasn’t a neighborhood resident – I wanted to be able to hang out with the lively bunch as one of their own. The group was an enjoyable representation of how eclectic and entertaining Benton Park can be.
I was surprised to find that many of the other patrons at Niche on a Wednesday night were of the 50-and-up age group. The bulk of the clientele, however, was the thirty somethings you tend to find at the first rustlings of the hottest new locales.
The wine list at Niche is not extraordinarily large, but it does provide a nice assortment at several different price points. I ordered a glass of red ? the Bonny Doon Big House Red is one of six by-the-glass selections ? that enveloped me with a warm sensation with every swallow.
Unlike many venues in town, at Niche, wines are served in stemware designed to complement and enhance flavor and aroma. My red came in a proper balloon glass that gave it room to oxygenate before reaching my palate, and whites were also served in the appropriate vessels. The glasses appeared to be crystal, though it was hard to hear the distinctive ring over the hum of the vivacious crowd.
The dining menu at Niche continues the same low-key/high-class feel as the bar. Culinary delights were offered without too many froufrou descriptors. The “to nosh on” section of the menu offers bar-goers white anchovies on toast with tomato jam, marinated olives, spiced nuts, Dia’s cheese bread and chicken confit with baby greens and potato purée. If you’re inclined to eat a full meal, Niche offers three courses for $30, and diners may choose from items like baked goat cheese with red pepper, baby beets and olive oil; roasted ono with salsify, braised leek and a fennel emulsion; or a sweet potato-wild mushroom risotto.
Niche is a stylish place to take a date or perhaps a girlfriend visiting from out of town for a drink or a quick bite. The place is meant to be cozy and not necessarily a group hangout. I would definitely recommend making reservations, as Niche seems to have caught on like wildfire and seats are at a premium.
The straight 411 …
For a trendy feel without the clichéd heels, stop by Niche for a quality nosh and quick drink before heading out.
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