For his next trick, Gerard Craft will reinvent French cuisine in St. Louis.
I overstate, though this should be understandable. Over the past five years, first at his flagship restaurant, Niche, and then at Niche's small but mighty offshoot Taste by Niche, Craft has become the most celebrated St. Louis chef — a Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef," a James Beard Foundation "Best Chef-Midwest" award nominee — the vanguard of a new generation committed to the chef- and ingredient-driven restaurant. His success is the result of, if not magic, then a sort of alchemy: He possesses the ideal blend of talent, imagination, determination, ambition and, frankly, cojones. In the teeth of the recession, he has opened not one, but two new restaurants.
The first of these new ventures was Taste, which opened last summer. A few months later, news broke that Craft had purchased the venerable Central West End French restaurant Chez Leon, which he would reopen in November as Brasserie by Niche. (Chez Leon itself reopened in Clayton just before the new year.) The space hasn't been renovated so much as spruced up, with new coats of paint and a brighter ambiance. The bar remains a narrow space immediately inside the entrance. The dining room features a high, pressed-tin ceiling, checkered tablecloths covered with butcher paper and the expected illustrated posters for liqueurs. When crowded, it's quite loud.
By tradition, a brasserie is a modest restaurant, a place where you can enjoy a good, unpretentious meal at almost any time of day. As Alan Davidson writes in The Oxford Companion to Food, "Drawing a line between a brasserie and a bistro is no easy matter." Of course, here in America, where anything other than a strip club can call itself a bistro and not raise eyebrows, the question might be moot.
One distinction is that originally "brasserie" was synonymous with "brewery." Brasserie by Niche doesn't make its own beer, but it does pay more attention to craft beer than most area restaurants. The list is curated by Mike Sweeney, author of the beer blog STL Hops (www.stlhops.com) and (full disclosure) a personal acquaintance of mine. His selection offers a range of styles and price points both on draft and in the bottle, with emphasis on Belgian and Belgian-style beers. The staff seems well versed in both the list and the nuances of pairing beer with food. When a friend expressed curiosity in a glass of Duchesse de Bourgogne, a tart Flemish ale, our server brought him a sample and noted that its quenching qualities would pair well with the menu's hearty fare.
As executive chef, Craft has installed Perry Hendrix, who was Craft's boss in Salt Lake City; most recently he worked in North Carolina. Hendrix and sous chef James Peisker, who has moved over from Taste, oversee a menu of casual French favorites: onion soup, duck confit, pâté, mussels, steak frites. The dessert list even includes — quelle shock! — crème brûlée.
In restaurants, unlike in literature, great execution trumps cliché, and for the most part Brasserie by Niche delivers. Consider the onion soup: It appears ordinary, with its thick blanket of melted Gruyère spilling over the edges of its crock. Break through the cheese and you'll find onion cooked to the point of maximum depth and sweetness, but not (as so often happens) pushed so far as to taste burnt. The texture is uncommonly rich, almost silken. Hands down the best onion soup I've eaten in St. Louis.
My visits coincided with all three of Craft's restaurants sharing the spoils of a butchered hog, so the pâté selection included forcemeats of both pork tenderloin and pork liver. The latter was outstanding, with a lingering porcine funk. As if that weren't enough, there was also headcheese, a special, lighter and sweeter than the pork-liver pâté but with the same inimitable porkitude, a quality (let's be honest) that's especially keen in the pig's "lesser" parts.
If you're lucky, cassoulet will be available on your visit. Here the classic white-bean stew is served with a hunk of pork belly, a confit of duck leg and a pork sausage. The beans are the perfect texture, firm to the first bite but ultimately yielding. Each meat adds a distinct note — luscious belly, salty duck, lightly peppery sausage — that combines with the beans to form what might be the Platonic ideal of hearty fare. Though a challenger for that title might be the beef short ribs, braised until they seem to melt into their own juices.
Duck confit is available as an entrée. Here the wonderful, ever-so-gamy meat is offset with, on the one hand, earthy turnips, and on the other, the sophisticated sweetness of quince. Likewise the salmon entrée, pan-seared and then finished in the oven to a lovely medium temperature. It's served on a bed of lentils (again, earthy) and topped with braised leeks (a touch of sweetness cut with an onion's verdant bite) and a beurre rouge.
None of these dishes is complicated, nor do you need a doctorate to dissect what makes them work. They are simply good food. That works to the advantage of both chef and diner. Unlike a more adventurous dish — the sort of thing Craft might serve at Niche, for example — here even when the different elements of a dish don't quite work together, the parts can still be enjoyed. For instance, scallops with roasted beets and orange. The dish lacked textural contrasts, but those scallops were still pretty tasty.
Another example: The "plat du jour" on one visit was a single plump veal sweetbread served with potato purée, arugula and a truffle-spiked sauce. With the exception of the sauce, the accompaniments added nothing to the sweetbread, but it hardly mattered: The sweetbread offered considerable pleasure of its own, its crisp exterior yielding to its unique flavor and texture (something like congealed cream). Contrast that with a dish (now retired, I think) at Niche, in which sweetbreads were served with a popcorn foam, an odd substance that overwhelmed the sweetbreads' glories.
And now a word about the French fries. I don't think I've ever said this about an item at one of Craft's restaurants, but Brasserie's fries are no good. Thin, all crunch, no flavor. They might pass muster at a sports bar, but when you're tucking into a good strip loin steak (medium rare, doused with shallot butter), you want — no, you need — medium-thick fries, golden brown on the outside, pillowy soft within.
Service is very good, brisk but not rushed. I'm compelled to single out sommelier Andrey Ivanov, who with enthusiasm helped me choose a dessert wine — which ended up being a liqueur — that would hold its own against a very sweet dessert of profiteroles. The wine list is mostly French (Bordeaux dominate the reds), with many bottles priced under $50.
Aside from those profiteroles, desserts include the aforementioned crème brûlée, a very good apple tarte tatin (essentially apple pie, upside-down) topped with crème fraîche and chocolate cake with, yes, a molten-chocolate center — though a scoop of toasted-almond ice cream rescued this last dish from cliché.
If not as whimsical or indulgent as the desserts served at Niche or Taste, these desserts fit Brasserie perfectly. They are slam-dunk dishes executed with skill and grace and — and this is vital — priced very reasonably. Here, by design, Craft doesn't need a trick up his sleeve. Here that sleeve can display the magician's heart.