Posted On: 05/01/2013
7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.773.7755, nichestlouis.com
Did Gerard Craft break your heart when he moved Niche from the city’s quaint yet quirky Benton Park to the county’s corporate yet classy Clayton? Did you sigh with resignation when you learned the new Niche dropped a la carte entrees in favor of its four-course prix fixe and nine-course tasting menus? Craft offers no apologies. As the owner of four top St. Louis restaurants, he doesn’t have to.
If you think this makes Craft sound arrogant, just sit at one of the four chef’s table seats. Order the tasting menu (the only option available at the counter) and watch the 33-year-old, shaved-head, tattooed über-chef calmly move about the kitchen, quality-check over the shoulder of a cook, arrange food on a plate with painstaking precision. Watch him present the dish like the shy, humble, unassuming man he is. Listen as he describes, without a hint of pretention, what you are about to eat. Those airy, raw garlic “marshmallows” topping the spring garlic soup seem downright normal when Craft explains the process. Same with a shot glass of nettle tea laced with rendered chicken fat at the start of the meal, a little something from the kitchen to, according to my server, “get you in the mood,” that sounds absurd until you sip the slick, warming potion. It’s an approach – no, an attitude – that permeates the kitchen: Seemingly incongruent ingredients and flavors coaxed into a harmony meant to surprise and excite.
For me, it started at the front bar with a Beets Knees cocktail, an outrageous take on the classic prohibition-era Bee’s Knees. Sip after sip, complex layers emerged: The earthy hit of gin (Missouri’s Pinckney Bend) infused with golden beets, giving way to the ringing tartness of fresh lemon juice tamed by the sweet, floral notes of lavender-infused honey. Another new drink, the In Fashion, turns the Old Fashioned on its head with cherry-and-date-infused bourbon and rosemary bitters. A tin of what looks to be caviar, and is labeled as such, accompanies the drink; the trompe l’oeil effect created by spherified beads of rosemary oil, cherries and dates that are made to resemble roe.
Once seated at the kitchen counter, more surprises. Pop-in-your-mouth coxinha, a flash-fried savory croquette filled with cream cheese and dried chicken skin, was gone in one crunchy bite. An eggshell filled with lemon-maple custard and shiitake mushrooms came topped with bonito caviar (the real stuff this time), for a flavor combination that had me scraping the shell with my little spoon. Dia’s cheese bread, a course of buttery, doughy cheese biscuits, made more addictive by the accompanying creamy-white whipped lardo, included thin slices of aged country ham and a smattering of pickled vegetables.
The fun of eating at the counter is watching and chatting with the cooks. Like observing chef de cuisine Nate Hereford pull tweezers from his sleeve pocket and meticulously arrange Brussels sprout leaves in a bowl, nestling them into soft, fresh ricotta and caraway crumbles so they become little bowls for the steaming smoked trout broth. A spoonful of everything gives the full effect all in one bite: bitter, smoky, salty, sweet flavors and creamy, crunchy textures. This is why we dine out.
That spring garlic soup – the one with those inexplicable garlic marshmallows magically floating to the top when hot liquid hits the bowl – was no mere soup. It was an elixir, made even more intoxicating by the addition of fragrant, citrusy-spicy bergamot leaves, preserved lemon purée, and bits of dried beets and carrots.
Meat courses included braised pork belly served alongside puffed crispy skin perked up with a rub of Japanese chile pepper, and filet beef prepared sous vide and finished on the plancha. See-through slivers of radish, a radish purée, fava beans and a melon-ball scoop of chervil ice cream (another unexpected taste sensation) tamed the richness of the belly, while kohlrabi prepared three-ways, micro mustard greens, and crunchy wheat berries provided the needed pop and texture to the filet. Somewhere along the way, I was presented with a bowl of lemons and celery. Somewhere in that bowl was an intermezzo in the form of an adult freezer pop: a refreshingly tart, savory blend of dill, lemon, celery and Hendrick’s gin.
Pacing nine courses can feel either like a horse race or a cricket match. My courses were paced so well that I actually wanted dessert. Pastry chef Alex Feldmeier got whimsical by granulating bay leaf ice cream and sprinkling it over lemon-fennel custard. A trifle was trumped up with coriander, dandelion root, orange and Missouri black walnuts.
In the main dining room, both the chef’s tasting and the four-course prix fixe menus are available. Vegetarian options and wine pairings are available with each. I typically avoid wine pairings with large tastings mostly due to palate fatigue, but the four-course menu was a good way to explore a few interesting wines as well as what all the fuss is about regarding Craft and his Niche, all without making the monetary commitment to the chef’s tasting and wine pairing, which, together, will run you $130 per person.
Val de Mer, a French Chablis – unoaked, steely, mineral-ly, buzzing with acidity – was the proper foil for pieces of Meyer lemons in a beef-fat caper vinaigrette sauce dotting the plate of bite-size cubes of crimson tuna crudo along with triangles of olive oil-poached tuna. I’m easily bored with most Spanish reds, but my interest was piqued when a mencía, unfamiliar to me, was poured with the game hen course. Somewhere between cabernet Franc and Garnacha, its spice and floral characteristics accented both the griddled hen and the earthy chicken liver mousse.
Where both the chef’s tasting and prix fixe four-course menus were comfortably filling, the vegetable option, at least the prix fixe version, was best suited for those practicing hara hachi bu, or roughly, “belly 80-percent full.”
None of the courses during any of my meals at Niche seemed self-indulgent or intended to flaunt technique over substance. While every dish arrived exquisitely plated, it never felt like there was too much eager ambition on display. As at the old Niche, staff is highly skilled, if not precocious. As for that broken heart, the new Niche is your only anodyne.
Niche, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.773.7755, nichestlouis.com
Don’t Miss Dish
Menus change regularly. The chef’s tasting menu has no options; options are limited with the four-course prix fixe. Just eat. Veg menus are available for both.
Everyone, from the haut monde to the hoi polloi, is drawn to Niche. The new space is sleek and modern.
Prix fixe menu: $55; $90 with wine. Chef’s tasting menu: $85, vegetable tasting $80; $130 and $125, respectively, with wine.
Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m.
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