You likely need no introduction to Gerard Ford Craft. Since opening Niche in 2005, Craft has ascended to the summit of the St. Louis dining scene, earning accolades not only from local diners and critics, yours truly included, but from national observers as well. In 2008 Food & Wine included him in its annual list of "Best New Chefs" and in a subsequent issue featured him cooking for Napa winemakers. Earlier this year Craft was one of five finalists in the "Best Chef — Midwest" category of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards. Though he didn't capture the honor, he was the first St. Louis chef ever to make the final cut.
Not content to rest on these laurels, Craft has undertaken two new projects. As we reported last week, he recently purchased the venerable Central West End French restaurant Chez Leon, which he will reopen as soon as November as Brasserie by Niche. This only two months after debuting one of the best new restaurants St. Louis has seen in the past few years — and without doubt the most intriguing one — Taste by Niche.
Actually, to call Taste a restaurant is misleading. Located in a space adjacent to Niche — formerly it was Veruca Bakeshop & Café, featuring baked goods from Niche pastry chef Mathew Rice — Taste is roughly the size of a walk-in closet. It seats eighteen: eight at the bar, eight at a communal table and two at a bar table pushed against one wall. At one end of the bar, master mixologist Ted Kilgore crafts his award-winning cocktails. (We'll get back to him in a bit.) At the other end of the bar, two cooks, James Peisker and Nick Blue, prepare the food. Some dishes — the housemade charcuterie, a cheese plate — require only slicing and plating. For the hot fare, there are two freestanding induction burners and an immersion circulator that cooks food in a heated water bath, the method known as sous vide or "under vacuum" cooking.
Taste serves small plates, with each savory dish priced at $8. Diners can easily and affordably build a meal out of a succession of these appetizer-size dishes, but you don't have to do so. Taste is casual by design: The staff won't blink if you stop in for nothing more than a drink and a snack — in fact, there is a section of the menu titled "Snacks" that lists almonds, olives, pickles and an egg; you choose any three of the four for $4.
Of course, once you're seated in Taste's close quarters, at the bar or the communal table, you'll find it difficult not to order more than you'd planned. The dishes being set down in front of diners mere inches from you, the aromas wafting up from sauté pans, a gorgeous pink Burger ham being sliced tissue paper-thin, the running conversations between diners and cooks — What's good? How did you make that? Where else have you eaten lately? — it all generates an infectious enthusiasm for good food.
And the food is very good. Specific dishes come and go from the menu, but if available, the octopus is a must. I ordered it on two separate visits, and though the preparation was the same both times, each serving — each bite — was a revelation. I didn't know octopus could be this delicious, or this tender. The tentacles are roasted with onion and olive oil before service. They shrink considerably and take on a texture closer to buttery scallops than their own chewy nature. They are served chilled in a light red-pepper oil with slices of potato confit and a garnish of pea shoots with preserved-lemon sauce.
Another dish so good that I ordered it on multiple visits was the "Moroccan" braised lamb, whose wonderfully gamy flavor was amped up with a funky mélange of spices. The meat was so luscious that another patron was shocked to learn it hadn't been cooked sous vide. The only sous vide meat I sampled (to my knowledge, anyway) was a pork meatball. This was exceptionally tender — which is the point of sous vide cooking — with whole pine nuts to give the meatballs a little backbone. These were served in a tomato sauce enriched with bacon fat and given a strong kick of heat from jalapeños.
One dish each day features gnocchi. When I ordered it, the gnocchi were paired with braised rabbit; it was a rich, comforting dish that received a welcome spike of added flavor from a lemon sauce.
The charcuterie is excellent, none more so than the house-cured Burger ham. Unsmoked (a smoked version is in the works), it possessed a deeply porcine flavor with a slight salty tang. Other standouts included a simply spiced saucisson sec and a pepperoni much more complex than the average pizza topper. The cheese selection, on the other hand, is unremarkable: Maytag blue, Morbier and a St. André were three of the four choices when I put together my plate.
If you haven't guessed, Taste is a celebration of the pig, with a butcher's diagram decorating one wall behind the bar. Vegetable dishes were available on my visits, though, and one of these elicited as many approving coos from diners as anything oinky: Thickly sliced bread that was toasted, rubbed with garlic and topped with roasted radishes. It was the taste of autumn, root-rich and, thanks to the garlic, with a hint of winter's oncoming sharpness.
Mathew Rice provides a brief selection of desserts, including seven-layer "Taste Bars," which are rich with house-made sweetened and condensed milk and, on one visit, a decadent tollhouse pie that was something like the cake equivalent of cookie-dough ice cream, a dessert within a dessert.
My reviews are about food, first and foremost, which is a shame in this case because Ted Kilgore is as much the focal point of Taste as Craft or his lieutenants. His drink menu is beguiling, liable to prompt one or two questions about specific ingredients before you decide which to order. I was taken with his use of the herbal liqueur yellow Chartreuse, which added a lovely, mysterious note to the "Compadres Fall," a potent tequila drink flavored with ginger, pear and lime and served with a wedge of pear as a garnish. I suppose I was in a tequila mood on my visits because another memorable cocktail was the "Afterthought," flavored with rhubarb, the citrusy Italian aperitif Aperol and St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
Taste's size lends itself to a couple of...quirks. (I hesitate to call them "problems," because they're unavoidable, and some people — myself included — won't mind them at all.) The only restrooms are located in Niche proper, which you can access only by walking out Taste's front door and entering Niche's next door. Also, Taste is first-come, first-served. If there is a wait, you have to go next door and sit or stand at Niche's bar. As the crowd around that bar grows, pushing you ever closer to diners' tables, you might feel self-conscious.
I've avoided any direct comparisons between Niche and Taste simply because, though separated only by a wall, the two spaces have very different aims. Taste isn't meant to be the epitome of fine dining, and those whose affection for Craft is informed by their great experiences at Niche might be taken aback by how casual the Taste experience can be. Those who appreciate Craft's deeper commitment to great ingredients and pure flavors will welcome another venue to enjoy his cooking. And for those who have yet to visit Niche — or don't have the wallet for a full-on Niche treatment — Taste is a welcoming, and welcome, introduction.