Review: Niche

Niche is one of our city’s premier restaurants in terms of accolades and chef reputation, but what does it offer the diner during a pricey, two-hour-plus meal? One of the benefits is just that: a leisurely, drawn-out, culinary experience that is formal (new silverware with every course, constant water and bread refills, re-folded napkins when you get up, palate-cleansing sorbet before the main course) without being stuffy. The element, however, that helps Niche transcend most dining experiences is this: uber-knowledgeable servers who can explain every aspect of a dish, down to how each ingredient affects the symphony of flavors in your food.

And that is no small feat, since the dishes are ‘artistic compositions’ that showcase culinary skills in the kitchen and, if done well, delight palates in the dining room. This is year 10 for Niche, which started out modestly in a small space in Benton Park and quickly gained national acclaim through the skill and vision of executive chef-owner Gerard Craft. Now that Craft has grown into several restaurants (including his Pastaria next door and a soon-to-be Nashville Pastaria), he has handed over the executive chef duties to his chef de cuisine, Nate Hereford.

Do not expect anything to change, though, since the mission of the restaurant is clearly stated on the menu: to work with humble (albeit local and sustainably grown) ingredients and serve them in a way that shows their real potential. As you can see, cooking is a challenge and a passion for those at Niche and an adventure for us, the diners.

When Niche relocated to Clayton three years ago, it was prix fixe only; now you can order à la carte, although diners are encouraged to embark on a four-course journey for the full experience. Price-wise, it works out to basically a free dessert. Each course has three options, and only the key ingredients are listed on the menu, so listen very closely to the server.

First Course ($16) included Rutabaga Soup, a puree of intensely flavored root vegetable with brown butter cake ‘croutons’ (sweet and buttery) and horseradish bits rising to the top when the liquid was poured over them. In flavor, it combined earthy with sweet and salty. The Sweet Potato dish, another first course, had roasted chunks of the vegetable, beautifully caramelized and, mixed with salty feta and creamy rich bone marrow, all sitting on sweet potato puree and encased (rather awkwardly) by very thin wheat crackers.

For the Second Course, the standout dish was the Local Mushrooms. It sounded the simplest: potato, sour cream, thyme. The medley of shiitake, portobello, crimini and oyster mushrooms was deliciously prepared with butter, well-roasted potato wedges, bits of pungent thyme and crushed potato chips made from the potato skins. Beef Sweetbreads was another highlight, with tiny round apple balls and crunchy caramel corn topping the roasted organ meat, and tiny cubes of sweet and sour sorghum vinegar gelée scattered about for pops of flavor.

The rest of the meal continued along these lines, with sweet and savory, crunchy and creamy, salty and earthy playing off one another to delight admiring diners. But a special shout-out goes to the palate cleanser, Blueberry-Fennel sorbet, prior to the Third Course, which was deliciously dense in blueberry flavor with a hint of the savory fennel. Also notable were the complimentary pates de fruits after dessert. This was a small plate of housemade elderberry confections alongside housemade persimmon marshmallows—an excellent way to end an excellent meal.

amuse bouche
the scene | Intimate, contemporary fine diningNiche_Hereford_23
the chef | Nate Hereford
the prices | $70 to $100 per multi-course dinner
the favorites | Rutabaga Soup, Local Mushrooms, Aurora Strip Loin, Blueberry-Fennel Sorbet, Elderberry Confections, Persimmon Marshmallows

chef chat » nate hereford
culinary pedigree | Oregon Culinary Institute
favorite ingredient | Housemade Missouri fish sauce
favorite cookbook | The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
favorite st. louis restaurant | Mai Lee
most memorable dining experience | Rafa’s in Roses, a small town in Spain. Super simple, extremely fresh seafood.
guilty pleasure food | Macaroni and cheese

Photos: Bill Barrett