Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Niche in St. Louis

The hostess at Niche was friendly when I called to check on availability, and I had no trouble getting in at the last minute without a reservation. The dining room was decorated with warm colors, and the staff appeared professional - even clean-cut compared to your average scruffy, inked Chicago restaurant worker. It’s a wonder that despite those characteristics, the closest comparison I can think of for Niche is Schwa. Creativity at Niche abounds, but as at Schwa, it tends to take the form of unique, surprising ingredient combinations that don’t just work into a delicious dish, they change the way you think about food. Though Niche (and probably Schwa too) had a couple of modern things such as an “espellete soil”, for the most part the cooking was straightforward and recognizable. Execution and ingredient combinations were what made it special.

The staff was a chatty bunch on a not-too-busy Sunday night, and after hearing that I was from Chicago and chatting with me a bit about related things, they peppered me with generous helpings of stuff I didn’t order. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gets treated this way at Niche, but it did feel special. First came an amuse bouche of an egg shell that had been emptied, then re-filled with a rich egg custard and small-diced shitakes, then topped with briny Missouri caviar that literally popped in my mouth. A fantastic start.

Before I ordered, I mentioned that I was teetering between two appetizers. So, of course, they brought a taste of the one I didn’t end up ordering. “Carrots three ways” one variety lightly pickled, a second variety roasted, and a third variety prepared some way I can’t remember. Each had it’s own sauce or accompaniment, a cumin-flavored yogurt and the aforementioned espellete soil being the only two I can recall. I’ve been a food soil hater, but this dish made a compelling case. The espellete soil was a lot crunchier than the potting-soil-textured stuff I had recently at Blackbird, among other places.

Next came a real highlight: the “BBQ Trotter”. Pig trotters had been thoroughly smoked, then the meat was pulled and compressed into a cylinder before being poached a la torchon. Half-inch disks were sliced from the log, rolled in brioche crumbs, and then deep fried until crisp. In case that doesn’t sound rich enough, these deep-fried trotter disks were plated with overlapping same-sized disks of foie gras terrine. A fascinating array of bitter, acidic components – tobacco, calvados, and grapefruit - snapped the dish back into amazing balance.

After some palate-cleansing lemon-thyme sorbet from the kitchen, my final dish arrived: White and dark meat chicken compressed together in a visually interesting way, then cut into a rectangle and topped with crisped chicken skin that adhered so well it seemed to have been placed that way by nature rather than man. Dueling sauces sat under the chicken: on one side a foie gras-sherry reduction, and on the other, one of the most interesting and delicious things of the night - parsnip-picholine olive puree that apparently contained little more than olives and parsnips, yet was so compelling and unique, it really stuck with me. A scattering of house made, maple flavored granola garnished the plate, and provided crunch and a little pleasant sweetness.

I’ve put the address below, but apparently Niche is moving to a St. Louis suburb some time soon. Go, but check where it is first.

Niche
1831 Sidney Street St. Louis, MO 63104(314) 773-7755


P.S., Apparently a bunch of Niche alumni are now cooking in Chicago. Most at places with names like Blackbird – no surprise there. It did surprise me to hear that someone who had a prominent place in the Niche kitchen is now running the kitchen at Public House. For no good reason, I had written that place off as another mediocre downtown bar with food-as-afterthought. This news begets a reconsideration.