Fat City, Baby! 

Is a meal at Niche better than sex?

A chilly September night. My girlfriend and I are standing outside Niche, waiting for a cab that won't arrive. We're tipsy from the wine pairings that accompanied executive chef Gerard Craft's seven-course tasting menu. The meal itself has left us in a reverie. My girlfriend wanders down the block and takes a camera-phone picture of a For Sale sign in a window. I call a different cab company and crave a cigarette. I don't smoke. Never have.

Butternut squash soup with chanterelle mushrooms. Pork belly with bacon ice cream. A steak served with a dulce de leche sauce. The details of each dish aren't fading, exactly. Instead, they coalesce into a single heightened impression. The soup's warm orange hue, like autumn leaves. The bacon ice cream's flavor, like woodsmoke.

My gut trembles. Not because I ate too much. (Though I did, of course, with no regrets.) Later I plan to propose to my girlfriend on this, our fifth anniversary.

That was over a year ago. As much as I wanted to return to Niche, I didn't. In part because there were so many other restaurants to visit. But mostly, I didn't want to mess with a perfect memory.

Yet I couldn't stop thinking about that meal. It was a problem. It hung unspoken over even the most glowing review I wrote. Yes, this is very good. But still not as good as Niche.

One of the great things about reviewing restaurants for Riverfront Times — as opposed to other publications, that is, in St. Louis or elsewhere — is that I don't have to assign stars or letter grades or whatever to the places I visit. I find the practice reductive. I mean, it's obvious that, say, the Cherokee Street taqueria La Vallesana isn't a "four-star" dining experience, but as I wrote in my review of La Vallesana ("Cherokee Pastoral," July 11, 2007), if I weigh cost against benefit, it might be my favorite restaurant in town.

On the other hand, a rating system would solve my Niche problem — albeit simplistically.

I decided to split the difference. I didn't want to assign ratings, but I thought it only fair to provide some sense of why I find Niche so appealing. So only two years after it opened to very strong reviews from this and just about every other St. Louis publication, I grabbed my reviewer's notebook and headed back to Benton Park.

The restaurant has grown somewhat. There is a new private dining room, and Niche pastry chef Matthew Rice has opened Veruca, a bakeshop and café in a small space next door to the restaurant.

The menu's format has undergone a few changes, too. The chef's tasting menu is now five courses, not seven. The prix-fixe menu no longer lets you build a three-course dinner for $35 by choosing any appetizer, entrée and dessert. Instead, for the same cost, you build a three-course dinner by choosing one of a few designated selections in each category.

Those details aside, Niche remains a showcase for the extraordinary talent and dedication of Gerard Craft, Matthew Rice and their staff. That's the other reason I decided to return now. This has been an odd year for the St. Louis dining scene. I've reviewed several very good new restaurants over the past twelve months — and next week I'll look back at my ten favorite dishes of 2007 — but too many of the places I've visited, great and not-so-great and somewhere in between, seemed to exist first as a location or concept. The chef and (it must follow) the food are secondary.

Of places where the food is paramount, Niche stands out because Craft's interests are so varied, his imagination so inspired, his love of good food — in any form — so strong.

So here you might begin dinner with pork cheeks, a cut of meat as homely as it sounds and one you might ignore on the basis of its presentation alone. To Craft's credit, he doesn't try to disguise the meat. He serves it as a cake (as in a crab cake), letting the cheek's fat soften the deeply flavored meat. When I say "deeply flavored," I mean the flavor is clearly pork, yet stronger, richer. If not gamey, then close. Think the difference between white- and dark-meat chicken, intensified. When I tried this dish in September, it was paired with a light, sweet peach sauce; now it is served with quince, a logical variation.

For an even more indulgent version of this effect, try the pork belly entrée. The sinfully fatty meat — you know it in its cured form: bacon — is braised overnight for ten hours and then served over baby Brussels sprouts and chopped apple in a cider jus. The amount of fat might strike you as overwhelming, but it acts as a second sauce, seeming to melt over the meat as you chew. The crisp apple and the sharp, but not at all bitter, Brussels sprouts provide the ideal counterpoint to all this richness.

It's safe to say that if you remove barbecue from consideration, Niche is now the mecca for pork lovers in St. Louis. Excellent house-made pappardelle pasta with mascarpone, lemon, pear and parsley is taken to a nearly ethereal level by the addition of smoked pork shank.

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.

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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