Of Wee I Sing

At Niche, smaller isn't just better -- it's nearly perfect

There can be no more aptly named restaurant in St. Louis than nine-week-old Niche. It is the cutest little bistro to debut in 2005: a mere twenty-one two-tops of small-scale splendor tucked away in the Benton Park neighborhood — itself a niche sandwiched between Gravois Avenue and Interstate 55, a shot glass' throw from the sprawling sudsburb that is Soulard. Niche also happens to be located down the street from the Sidney Street Café, one of the most prominent personifications of St. Louis restaurant lore writ large. But bucking recent restaurant trends (Lucas Park Grille, 1111 Mississippi, An American Place), Niche opts against five-figure square footage and fourteen-page menus. Niche could fit in the coat closet of, say, Maggiano's Little Italy. And Niche chef-owner Gerard Craft, who moved here from Salt Lake City along with his wife, his old pastry chef Matthew Rice and his old manager Christian Schnurr (Craft and Rice once worked together at a Salt Lake restaurant called Metropolitan), could probably whip up better food than they do at Maggiano's using only a few wooden hangers, some plastic claim tickets and a tip bucket as cooking utensils.

Niche's menu is one page long (or short, you might say), as is the wine list. The former changes now and then depending on what's available from local purveyors, but it typically comprises about ten appetizers, six entrées, a trio of side dishes and four desserts. As an alternative to standard à la carte dining, Niche offers a three-course prix fixe in which you choose any starter, any entrée and any dessert, for $30.

To repeat: Niche offers a three-course prix fixe meal — which any customer can curate for himself from the entire menu — for thirty dollars. This is nothing short of an amazing deal, and if there is but one diner who has passed through Niche's doors and opted against the prix fixe, I'd like that person to write in to this newspaper and give me a damn good reason why. Prix fixe meals are usually offered in the touristy parts of larger cities (and often as a quick pre-show dinner option in theater districts). Here in St. Louis, $25 prix fixe lunches were famously offered over the summer as part of a downtown dining promotion. They usually consist of pre-selected plates and downsized portions, which allows the house to serve whatever is most cost- and time-efficient. The prix fixe at Niche ranks the restaurant in a niche of its own. Better still, Craft and co. back up the gimmick with solidly prepared — and often fantastic — food.

Finding their Niche: (left to right) Susan Craft, Gerard Craft and Christian Schnurr
Finding their Niche: (left to right) Susan Craft, Gerard Craft and Christian Schnurr

A pair of sea scallops plated on a pile of stem-on spinach leaves with a scattering of pineapple slices produced mellifluous three-note harmony in an appetizer. The scallops were lightly seasoned and just a little firm. Riding the latest crest of what's in in produce, a pomegranate salad with chicken confit showcased individually tasty elements (the pomegranate seeds, the greens below, the confit) but couldn't coalesce; absent any evidence of dressing, the little pomegranate seeds were left with the burden of bringing the disparate dry elements together. A modest "bistro steak," a chuck tenderloin cut nearly blackened on the outside but still bloody within, was served with two nifty and audacious dipping sauces: a sweet-and-sour soy caramel and a sweet-and-sweeter pear port sauce. I'm told the pork loin has already proven to be one of Niche's most popular main courses, and it is a standout, thanks in part to the blushing cut of meat, but due mostly to the accompanying carrot purée, which looks like a puddle of butternut squash soup, or maybe a sweet potato bisque. It sort of tasted like sweet potato too, what with its natural sweetness, but then again, it may just have been the visual trompe l'oeil.

Pastry chef Matthew Rice has been around the block a few times, if not the nation (he's clocked time at Gramercy Tavern and Craft in New York City), and his handiwork evidences his ability to turn the old into the new. At Niche the molten chocolate cake — or chocolate lava cake, or warmed, ganache-filled cake, or whatever you want to call it — is labeled "liquid" chocolate cake, which is as silly a synonym as any of those others. What set Rice's cake apart when I tried it was its luscious, refreshing side scoop of candy-cane gelato, with real bits of candy cane mixed in. (This has since been swapped out for a Nutella gelato.) His pumpkin bread pudding, meanwhile, is one of the best bread puddings I've ever had, which is also off the menu for the season: Eggy, quiche-y, spongy and squishy, it was served in a cup but would stand on its own without that architectural support. (Schnurr says the newly introduced Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée with Meyer lemon shortbread cookies might make a suitable substitute.) At 11 p.m. on weekends, Niche transforms itself into a dessert and drinks bar, showcasing Rice's creations alongside paired wine tastings.

On the topic of architecture, Niche's small, single room has been carved out of the heretofore unused ground-floor space in the Sidney Street Lofts. The design is sleek and uncluttered, with large, inviting windows along the storefront façade and a black-and-white color scheme offset by splashes of velvety red. Despite the minimalist décor, it can feel cramped inside Niche. To prevent the entire restaurant from feeling a draft during winter months, a glass partition that kind of feels like a penalty box has been erected just inside the front door. The hostess stand, a handsome antique desk, abuts this partition on the other side, resulting in the awkward situation of receiving your initial greeting from the hostess through a pane of glass. So abbreviated is the bar, meanwhile, its tail end diminishes into a mere drinking ledge nailed onto a wall. In order to save precious counter space for quaffers, there's also no eating at the bar after 7 p.m. on weekends, which is a buzzkill. (On occasion the house will take reservations for dinner at the bar.) Customers need to play nice with one another at Niche; there's a lot of scooching of chairs to clear a path to the restroom, a lot of de facto eavesdropping and shared piles of stacked coats along the dining-room-long banquette. Parties are packed in so compactly in the dining space that on one visit some crewneck-sweater-and-pleated-khakis blowhard at the table next to ours felt justified in shoving an empty bottle of wine under our server's nose as our order was being taken, demanding that two more such bottles be brought for him and his buddies.

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