Tossed up on the shores of Niche, Malcolm waxes ethereal over Gerard Craft's half a pig's head

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Tossed up on the shores of Niche, Malcolm waxes ethereal over Gerard Craft's half a pig's head

No doubt, the arrival of a Trader Joe's improves a city's dining life immensely. One area that's usually overlooked, though, is the supermarket's salubrious influence on the local art scene.

No, I'm not talking about how the California company has single-handedly doubled the otherwise flagging market for chalk artists. I'm talking about the sweet poison. The monarch of the vine. The milk of Venus.

You know, jug wine.

B.T.J. (Before Trader Joe's), local art-gallery owners faced a dilemma: On the one hand, opening night means you're supposed to provide wine to the gallery-going public; on the other, the key word here is public. This is an art-gazing crowd, not an art-buying crowd. So buying a case of, say, Coppola Claret isn't going to put you in the black anytime soon.

Still, you don't want to look like a total cheapskate. You have to play the angles: chill your Sam's Club chardonnay into frosty submission, open the reds early so that they may respire (or, as is often the case, expire).

But Trader Joe's changed all that with Charles Shaw — a quaffable (if not exactly memorable) wine that weighs in at $2.99 per bottle. It's a gallery owner's dream.

Unfortunately, not every St. Louis gallery owner has heard the Gospel According to Chuck, and many are still toiling among the syrupy fields of Boone's Farm.

So it was that after a recent evening spent swilling gallery wines that ranged from bad to execrable, I found myself, with sour belly and full appetite, darkening the doorway of Niche in Benton Park.

As anyone with a gullet in St. Louis can tell you, Niche is on a roll. The place gets serial plaudits from the town's slow-food set, and last month Food & Wine magazine named executive chef and co-owner Gerard Craft one of its ten "Best New Chefs" for 2008.

We were looking for a little yin to smooth over the Franzia's yang, and Craft's cooking — featuring pasture-raised beef, raw kampachi, roasted rabbit and abalone mushrooms — seemed like just the ticket.

Once I settled in, though, Craft's gorgeous menu gave me a culinary strain of Stendhal syndrome. Maybe I was still a little addled by all that Ripple, but everything looked good. I couldn't decide what to eat. So I did what any self-effacing diner would do: I threw myself on the mercy of the kitchen.

In addition to its fine menu — certainly the most adventurous in town — Niche has a shadow menu, one that's unadvertised and available only to those who know to inquire.

So it was that about 40 minutes and several appetizers later, Craft emerged from the kitchen holding aloft half a Roasted Pig's Head, split down the middle, roasted to a hue of smoky mahogany and presented on a bed of mixed baby greens. One part anatomy lesson, one part bacchanal, the pig's noggin was accompanied by house-made white bread, house-made pickles and a Brussels sprouts slaw.

I'm tempted to describe the dish as a sort of DIY pulled-pork sandwich, but that would hardly do it justice. For starters, the caramelized skin was crackling crisp and delivered an earthy depth of flavor that was at once savory and sweet. The skin floated like a thin tectonic crust above an inches-thick mantle of nearly molten fat. Then, just below this lipoid layer, the sweet core of cheek, snout and temple.

Nestled between fat and bone, the meat had bathed, almost sous vide–style, in its own fatty juices for hours. That borderline-poaching process rendered the meat moist, tender and ineffably rich, imbued with a flavor that was at once smoky and sweet. Using what can only be called a Socratic method of cooking, it seems that Craft managed to uncover the pig cheeks' natural flavors. The richness, the smokiness, the subtle maple sweetness was there all along; it just needed Craft to coax it to the fore.

It's a remarkable dish. Now, if only I could pair it with a decent wine.

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to [email protected].

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