Fat City, Baby!

Is a meal at Niche better than sex?

For a lighter, but still striking, dish, the ahi tuna crudo appetizer offers very thin slices of impeccably fresh raw tuna served with arugula, croutons, celery root and fregola pasta in a crème fraîche vinaigrette. The contrast between the clean, sweet tuna, the bite of the arugula and celery root is lovely, while the fregola — which looks like couscous but has a doughy chew — gives the dish a little bulk.

Do the more inventive dishes always succeed? No. Roasted beets with slices of beef tongue and arugula needed something more to balance out two very earthy flavors. The horseradish aioli slathered over the tongue should have given the dish that spark, yet it was uncharacteristically tame.

Still, I can't think of another restaurant that takes so many chances and hits the mark as often as Niche does. And I mean it as a compliment when I say that when on one visit a waiter mentioned the evening's special entrée — duck breast with a cranberry-port reduction — I was a little disappointed at the predictable (though delicious) pairing.

Niche has carved out 2007's top spot.
Jennifer Silverberg
Niche has carved out 2007's top spot.

Location Info

Map

Niche

7734 Forsyth Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Clayton

Details

Niche
Pork cheeks...$10
Pappardelle...$21
Pork belly...$22
Toasted marshmallow semifreddo...$8
1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755.
Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5:30-9 p.m. Sun. (Closed Mon.)

The more creative dishes are impressive, yes, but so is the care Niche gives such reliable bistro dishes as short ribs, a rib eye steak and butternut squash soup. The short ribs are braised almost as long as the pork belly, resulting in an incredible depth of flavor and remarkable tenderness. You might balk at the $32 rib eye, especially when you see that it's served off the bone and sliced, but note that it's pasture-raised beef, which has a more complex flavor than your typical corn-fed steak. (Here, too, Niche distinguishes itself from many area restaurants, trading portion size for ingredient quality.) And that butternut squash soup, now dotted with smoked paprika oil, remains autumn in a bowl.

Like Craft's dishes, Matthew Rice's desserts — whether something as familiar as molten chocolate cake or as Willy Wonka-elaborate as a toasted marshmallow semifreddo with house-made graham crackers and salted hot fudge sauce — continue to wow. I'm especially fond of the tollhouse pie à la mode. (Full disclosure: Rice made the cake for my wedding. We paid full price for the transaction, and to my knowledge he wasn't aware the cake was for me until after all was said and done.)

I hesitate to call Niche the best restaurant in St. Louis only because it seems as reductive as assigning it four stars or an A+. Let's say this, then: At no other St. Louis restaurant am I this excited about the food before, during and even after the meal. It's a beautiful space in a great location, but those aspects are secondary to the food.

To me, at least, that's the very definition of a topnotch restaurant. And as I look forward to the newcomers 2008 will bring, it's a benchmark I hope to reacquaint myself with elsewhere in town.

Have a suggestion for a restaurant the Riverfront Times should review?E-mail ian.froeb@riverfronttimes.com.

For more about food and St. Louis restaurants, visit Gut Check: blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck.

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