Pasture Raised Beef Duo
niche (St. Louis, Missouri)
I’m imposing a brief intermission on my eating tour of Europe and taking you to a more humble location, one closer to where I live.
Gerard Craft opened niche, a small restaurant in St. Louis’s historic Benton Park neighborhood, in 2005.
Embracing the farm, he’s turned the tiny wonder into a hot dining spot for food enthusiasts in the Midwest and beyond.
As far back as early 2006, his name had traveled upriver, along the Big Muddy Mo, to my doorstep on the other side of the state. And since, I’ve been watching his star rise from the sidelines.
He was chosen the best chef of St. Louis by Sauce, a local magazine, in 2007 and 2008. In July of 2008, he was named one of Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs, an honor rarely bestowed on a Midwest chef outside of Chicago.
But all of that is just talk. And, up until a few days ago, so were my self-imposed promises to visit the restaurant.
Checking off one of my new year’s resolutions early, I cleared my schedule for two days and took the four-hour road trip down I-70 to St. Louis.
My companion on this eating trip was a trusty veteran of my dinner table. Mini Me is a selfless eater. His appetite has known very few boundaries. He proved to be the perfect recruit for this trip.
We showed up hungry and eager to try everything that appealed to us. That ended up being just about everything on the menu.
Deciding against the 3-course prix-fixe ($35) and the 5-course tasting menu ($65, with $5 being donated to charity), both of which seemed like fantastic deals, we conveyed our enthusiasm for the regular menu to our server and asked if anything on the menu could be ordered as a half portion.
Given that the restaurant was full, with people stacking up at the bar waiting for tables, I was fully expecting and willing to accept a flat refusal. Instead, our server informed us that the kitchen was happy to halve anything on the menu for us.
After picking my jaw off the floor, we studied the selection and settled on the following (* indicates half portions):
Maytag blue cheese, apples, candied nuts, champagne vinaigrette.
Parmesan, brioche, herbs, lemon vinaigrette.
Hamachi, sweetbreads, capers, bonito, and lemon.
Slow Roasted Pig’s Head*
Green apple, arugula, lemon jus.
Stuffed Pig Trotters
Pig trotters stuffed with chicken mousse, sweetbreads, and mushrooms.
Served with wild mushrooms (shiitake and oyster) and greens.
Pasture Raised Beef Duo*
Ribeye, oxtail cannoli, potato puree, leeks, mushrooms, soy caramel.
Fennel, greens, polenta, olives, bacon.
Parsnips, pancetta, Swiss chard,
Goat cheese bread pudding, violet mustard.
Belly, loin, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms,
Polenta, arugula, hazelnut demi-glace.
Salted Milk Chocolate Pudding
Sandwich cookies, malted candy.
Candied Pistachio Semifreddo
Spiced pomegranate granita, rose meringue.
Coffee-Orange sorbet and White Chocolate sorbet.
Blood Orange Puffs
Citrus marmalade, white chocolate caramel.
* * * *
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or, click on the hyperlinked courses for the individual photos.
Nothing about niche is fancy. It’s upscale and stylish but utterly unpretentious. Tables are lined with butcher paper. It’s festive without being a party. It’s strong enough for business dinners, but made for dates and friendly gatherings.
The service here is extremely polished. Every staff member we encountered – especially our server – was knowledgeable about the menu, upbeat, patient, and friendly. By the end of the meal, Mini Me and I felt like regulars.
The food at niche isn’t fancy either. It’s comfort food presented in a semi-fashionable way.
The familiar stack-and-lean approach to plating is employed here. Sauces streak across plates and foams do their part in lending a sense of coyness to the food. But you won’t find haute china pushing the 16” diameter limit. Most of the plates here are of a pattern I would call “nineties square.”
The food seems straightforward. You think you know the dish by its description – like Mixed Greens Salad with Maytag blue cheese, apples, candied nuts, and champagne vinaigrette – but you don’t. Craft manages to throw a curve ball into nearly every plate.
Most of the time, like with the “Mixed Greens” salad ($9), he’s successful. The bundle of lightly dressed greens was banded together with a “ribbon” of blue cheese. Velvety and pliable, I’ll admit, the texture of the “ribbon” seemed foreign at first. But whatever additives were incorporated (a touch of gelatin and cream, perhaps?) to make the cheese behave in that manner didn’t compromise the flavor or mouth-feel of the cheese.
The gentleman at the next table commented that he would be happy with just a bowlful of the candied pecans that dotted the salad. I agreed.
But the blue cheese ribbon was just an example of cosmetic fun. Craft demonstrates a more sophisticated level of thought in dishes like the “Vitello Tonnato” ($14 for full portion). Traditionally, a cold plate of poached veal with a tuna mayonnaise sauce, Craft cleverly switches out the veal meat for veal sweetbreads – a molten nugget with a crunchy breadcrumb shell – and replaces tuna with thinly shaved carpet of hamachi.
Beyond the playfulness and unimpeachable execution and quality of the ingredients, there was an exciting interaction of flavors in this dish. The hamachi mimicked the flavor of tuna quite well – an experience that was intensified by the concentrated fish flavor in shaved bonito flakes that decorated the plate.
I have never been keen on the texture of hamachi. Raw, I find it limp and wimpy. Shaved thinly, however, as it was here, it took on a silkiness that I found very appealing.
Perhaps the most interesting element was the hit of smoky flint that the bonito contributed. Capers added a touch of acid (there might have been a spritz of lemon too). This was a great dish.
Sometimes, Craft’s curve balls didn’t quite hit the mark for me. The bright lemon vinaigrette coupled with the salty strips of shaved Parmesan in the “Arugula Salad” ($9) was the type of saliva-inducing combination that made me march right through the peppery greens. But the cubes of olive-oil drenched brioche were confounding. Notwithstanding the fact that I had expected crunchy brioche croutons, these greasy pieces were so soft that they disintegrated into little wet crumbles easily. I know that brioche is the new darling carb, but this wasn’t the place for it, nor the way to serve it.
Our meal started off with an attack of Baader-Meinhof when our server told us about the day’s specials, one of which was a classic dish that I had just studied a couple of weeks before: pig trotters stuffed with chicken mousse, sweetbreads, and morels ($13).
While I’m not sure that Craft used morels in his filling (the bits I saw looked more like shiitake), the reference to Pierre Koffmann was undeniable. The Gascon chef, formerly head of London’s esteemed La Tante Claire, authored this dish, whose renown has been spread by his student, Marco Pierre White of – well – Marco Pierre White fame.
I’ve never had the original version (though I have been tempted to make it at home; the recipe is in the latest edition of White’s cookbook, “White Heat”) so I have no idea what Koffmann intended. But, I can’t imagine it could be much better than Craft’s version.
The rubbery, tough skin of the deboned trotters had been rendered into a supple rind of gelatin, which was stuffed with a fine and fluffy chicken mousse flecked with bits of sweetbreads and mushroom, both of which melded seamlessly, in texture and flavor, with the mousse. Though savory, the mousse had a clean, subtle sweetness that was echoed in the accompanying shiitakes and oyster mushrooms, which also gave off a robust, beefy flavor.
Every plate at niche comes with some fresh greens dressed brightly in acid. I loved that. Here they did their handiwork, cutting through the richness of this dish efficiently.
The gelatinous potential of the collagen had also been fully realized in the “Slow Roasted Pig’s Head,” ($12 for full portion). Surrounded by a generous layer of softened connective tissue, the cheek meat was full of flavor and moist. The green apple slice beneath the sliced pig’s head terrine was meaty and drunk with sweet syrup twitching with fresh lemon. I’ll admit that this dish was a tad greasy, but not unduly so for what it was. What surprised me the most is that this dish was served warm.
Our first main course, “Seared Scallops” ($29 for full order), was technically flawless – the scallops were caramelized on the outside, velvety within; the greens and fennel were rendered silky; the foam was full of smoky bacon flavor; and the slivers of Picholine olives were uniformly sliced and warmed through.
But this dish lacked a sense of control. The plate was busy with competing flavors, all of which covered up the natural sweetness of those beautiful scallops. One or two of the elements might have made a lovely complement or counterpoint, but all together, it was distracting. My only other quip about this dish is that the polenta had congealed to the plate, as it is wont to do when spread thin and left to cool. I peeled it back with my fork.
Craft seems tirelessly fascinated by twosomes. The 5-course tasting featured “Duo of Bacon” and “Duo of Duck.” On the regular menu, there were “Pork Duo” and the “Pasture-Raised Beef Duo,” both of which we ordered.
For pasture-raised cattle, the cut of rib eye on the “Pasture-Raised Beef Duo” ($28 for full portion) was incredibly marbled and immensely tender and flavorful. The four generous slices came on a bed of roasted wild mushrooms (shiitake and oysters) with melted leeks. This was sided by a very fine potato puree and soy caramel, which was not as thick or sweet as I was expecting. The soy caramel was more like a slightly caramelized essence of soy sauce.
The shell of the oxtail “cannoli” was somewhat tough and doughy – not the crisp, flaky shell I imagined it would be. The oxtail meat filling, however, was excellent – it was flavorful, incredibly moist, and not the least bit stringy.
The loin meat on the plate of “Pork Duo” ($24 for full portion) looked dry and dense. Unfortunately, it was. Thankfully, it wasn’t tough. It was flavorful, but the lack of moisture was disappointing.
The belly, however, was the paragon of perfection and the true star of the plate. The large cube was capped with a generous layer of collagen and fat and layered with soft strands of pork belly meat.
Everything else on the dish was perfectly cooked – the Brussels sprouts were firm, but not hard; the polenta cake was nicely crisped atop and had a nice, moist, grainy crumb; and the greens sported a tangy mustard dressing.
Toasted hazelnuts were an unexpected but welcomed addition, adding crunch and flavor. But I failed to taste them in the hazelnut demi-glace.
The gentleman sitting at the table next to ours ordered the “Roasted Chicken” ($25 for full portion). It was sizable – he received what appeared to be half a chicken’s worth of meat.
In our (very) generous half-portion, there were six nice slices of breast meat with the crispy skin still on. The center slices were a bit more tender and juicy than the end pieces, but overall, it was very flavorful and by no means over-cooked. The chicken came with a scoop of bread pudding, which had a crispy, toasted top and a soft, warm core perfumed with chevre (I had expected pockets of goat cheese, but the goat cheese had been thoroughly incorporated into the bread pudding).
I missed what violet mustard there was in the sauce, though, admittedly, Mini Me had already sopped up most of it. It didn’t matter – the chicken didn’t need any sauce.
We had been warned that parsnips came with this chicken dish (they were tucked into the bed of Swiss chard). But that didn’t dissuade me from ordering a side of “Honey-Glazed Parsnips” ($5). For the price, I was expecting a modest portion. Instead, we got a heap of beautifully roasted nuggets glistening with a sweet, honey glaze and completely infused with butter. It was enough for four to share. I finished most of it.
One of the best desserts I’ve ever had is Claudia Fleming’s Coconut Tapioca with Passion Fruit Sorbet at Gramercy Tavern. Since having that dish back in 2007 (Nancy Olson, the current pastry chef revived the recipe as a pre-dessert), I have tracked down a copy of Fleming’s out-of-print cookbook, “Last Course, The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern” and read it cover to cover.
So, I was excited to find a fellow Fleming admirer in Matthew Rice, the pastry chef at niche.
Mini Me was intent on having the “Salted Milk Chocolate Pudding” ($8) which came with malted milk chocolate sandwich cookies. The pudding was more gelatin-like in texture than I had expected – it looked like pot de crème and had the consistency of panna cotta.
I wasn’t thrilled with this dessert. I found the flavor weak – lacking that certain salt and chocolate contrast I was hoping for – and became monotonous after a couple of spoonfuls. But I generally shy away from puddings, pot de crèmes, panna cottas, and milk chocolate, so I recuse myself from further commentary.
Orange-Coffee sorbet caught my attention, so I ordered a scoop of that. With it came a scoop of White Chocolate sorbet ($6). The term “scoop,” here, is underestimating. These were boulders.
Served at the perfect temperature – my spoon met little resistance – both sorbets had a fine, creamy texture.
The orange-coffee sorbet was fantastic. I love a twist of lemon with my espresso. So orange with coffee was a natural leap. It tasted two parts coffee and one part citrus, which I found to be the perfect balance.
The white chocolate sorbet was neither here nor there for me. If one is to make sorbet out of white chocolate, this is just about as perfect as it will get for me – smooth, light, and not too sweet. Amazingly, it did taste like white chocolate. Usually, such abominations just taste like sugar.
Not expecting the sorbets to be so well-portioned or so good, I ordered another dessert. I couldn’t decide between the “Blood Orange Puffs” ($8) and the “Pistachio Semifreddo” ($8) so I let my server choose. She chose both (*comp disclosure*).
When something comes with the “pistachio” tag, I expect PISTACHIO in ALLCAPS.
The “Candied Pistachio Semifreddo,” though perfectly made (smooth, velvety texture), had very little pistachio flavor, thought it was flecked throughout with whole pistachio nuts. The spiced pomegranate granita was pretty, but, like the pistachio flavor in the semifreddo, did little to stand out.
The best thing going for this dessert was the rose meringue, which, together with the candied bits of pistachio nuts garnishing the plate, skirted the Turkish/Middle Eastern theme that I suspected was being attempted here.
The “Blood Orange Puffs” were, in fact, three profiteroles stuffed with blood orange sorbet. The choux-pastry crust was a bit hard, but, at least not leathery like most that I’ve had to endure.
I’m not sure I like sorbet inside profiteroles. This sorbet, which, as I described above, was the perfect consistency (i.e. soft), didn’t own up to the job the way ice cream would have. It just oozed out of the middle when we tried to cut the fat puffs.
The accompanying blood orange marmalade, however – a generous spread of diced, candied citrus peel flecked with vanilla beans – was awesome. Like the candied pecans in the Mixed Green Salad, I’d be happy with a bowl of it.
There was also a strip of white chocolate caramel on the plate. It didn’t taste like white chocolate at all. It was thick and sticky and incongruous with the mostly water-based items on this dish.
This was a strange dessert. Not bad. Just strange. If nothing else, it was light and refreshing – though, being added to the four other desserts we had between the two of us, it was certainly not helping to trim our waists.
Two little coffee cups arrived (*comp disclosure*). They contained a thick spiked hot chocolate. It wasn’t as aggressively spiced as, say, Christopher Elbow’s Venezuelan Spice Hot Chocolate, but the heat was noticeable. Perched on the rim of each was a hot chocolate brownie – the fudgy, moist kind that is dark, rich, and buttery. It’s the kind of black-out you need to close out such an indulgent meal.
The restaurant’s crowd gained momentum throughout the evening. It was more lively when we left than when we arrived.
The chef seemed like an amiable fellow. He manned the pass, which gains the dining room a view of the kitchen, most of the night, expediting dishes as they were plated. He occasionally escaped to visit with a few tables.
St. Louis is lucky to have niche. I am envious. We have a few similarly situated restaurants (i.e. casual, stylish, ingredient-driven, farm-to-table comfort food) on my side of the state, but, based on my one dinner at niche, I can’t say that any of them are operating on the same level. The service at niche is spotless, the atmosphere is lovely, presentations are neat and tidy, and flavors – for the most part – are properly tuned. The food isn’t pitch-perfect, but I’m not sure it needs to be. It’s creative and thoughtful – they served us a refreshing pamplemousse sorbet as an intermezzo between our last two savory courses (I think it’s customary for the five-course tasting). The ingredients are fresh and, where possible – like the parsnips, which came from a nearby farm – they’re locally raised.
Where will I see Gerard Craft’s name next? Perhaps it’ll be among the nominees at this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards. Or, maybe I’ll see him in Stadium Kitchen one of these nights on the boob tube.
Regardless, Craft’s food is certainly a solid representative of contemporary Midwest cooking and I am happy to have him as an ambassador for our region.
Executive Chef Gerard Craft
1831 Sidney Street
St. Louis, Missouri 63104