Allow me to conclude my tenure as Riverfront Times' restaurant critic with a statement that is neither original nor bold, but that nevertheless bears repeating, with emphasis: Niche is the best restaurant in St. Louis.
Niche is not one of the best, or the first among equals or any other piece of mealy-mouthed, bet-hedging praise. Nor is Niche the best simply because the national media has showered praise on owner Gerard Craft, a Food & Wine "Best New Chef" and four-time James Beard Foundation "Best Chef: Midwest" nominee.
This emperor wears clothes. They fit him well.
And Niche certainly is not the "best" in the way we too often mean it, a lifetime-achievement award for consistently catering to our bottomless appetite for nostalgia. I've returned to Niche precisely because Craft refuses to rest on his laurels. Last year he uprooted Niche from the cozy Benton Park address that had been its home since 2005 and installed it in a bigger, brighter spot adjacent to his smash-hit Italian concept Pastaria in Clayton.
Now, of course, moving St. Louis' most acclaimed restaurant to the heart of its white-collar capital is not exactly walking a high-wire between skyscrapers. But with the change in locations there has also come a change in format. Niche no longer serves an à la carte menu. Instead diners choose either a four-course prix-fixe meal (an amuse-bouche followed by your choice of one of two options for the next three courses) or the eight-course chef's tasting menu. This places Niche firmly in the current moment of American restaurants: progressive, ambitious and chef-driven — or, rather, chefs-driven, as Craft has assembled a topnotch team around himself, led by his co-chef and business partner, Adam Altnether, and his chef de cuisine, Nate Hereford.
Niche is not the only St. Louis restaurant to focus on tasting menus. In the past year alone, Mike Randolph's Little Country Gentleman and Ben Poremba's Elaia have opened with tasting menus as the primary focus, and Niche itself has offered tasting menus of varying lengths over the years. (In fact, my first visit to Niche, in 2006, featured a seven-course meal.) Yet the "new" Niche's tasting menu feels different. It is not a parade of greatest hits. Nor is it, as with the two new restaurants I mentioned, an admirably ballsy opening statement.
It is, instead, both a summation of everything that has earned Niche so many plaudits over the years — and a natural and necessary evolution.
Slideshow: Inside Niche in Clayton
First, though, the new space. The original location lived up to its name. The main dining room was narrow, with the tables close together, especially along the banquette. The kitchen, too, was tiny — remarkably so, given the quality and consistency of the food that came out of it. Niche 2.0 is exponentially more expansive. Not only are there more — and more spread out — tables, but the ceiling is twelve and a half feet high, and the large kitchen is open to the dining room. The overall effect is undeniably impressive, but while I'm glad no longer to be privy to my neighboring diner's innermost secrets, I do think the new space skews a tad too far away from intimacy.
Ultimately, though, the food at Niche is what commands your attention. You could be eating it off a paper plate in a public park and not give a damn. The prix-fixe meal is a good value, but if you can swing the cost ($85 per person), the chef's tasting menu is the way to go.
My tasting menu began with an unexpected and wonderfully weird amuse: a cup of hot stinging-nettle tea poured tableside into a cup with a shmear of chicken fat inside of it. The flavor was bracingly, appetite-whettingly herbaceous, yet the chicken lent it an undercurrent of soul. A second amuse followed: coxinha, a tiny Brazilian fritter of cream cheese and chicken skin — one of Craft's childhood favorites, my server said, prepared by his nanny — set atop a thimble's worth of sorrel aioli. Scoop the coxinha through the aioli for a single bite of savor, salt and verdant spring.
The next small course has become a Niche signature dish, with good reason. Layered inside an empty eggshell, from bottom to top, are a maple-lemon custard, shiitake mushrooms and bonito caviar. The wildly contrasting textures make the interplay of sweet, earthy, fishy and salty elements as exciting as it is unusual.
The presentations are gorgeous. My soup course began with an abstract-expressionist arrangement in the bottom of a shallow bowl: a scoop of aged-buttermilk sherbet, scattered buckwheat groats, a few dots of rhubarb purée. Over this the server pours a vivid green spring-onion broth. The soup's bright, tangy essence and silken texture, interrupted here and there by the buckwheat groats' crunch, speak to the essence of late spring. A Brussels sprout dish was almost too beautiful to touch: Individual leaves painstakingly floated like lily pads around a dollop of ricotta cheese and a sort of caraway cracker in a smoked-trout broth, with a sprinkle of Thai chile as an accent. Here you must nod to the kitchen's brilliance. I can't rationally explain why the dish worked. It just did.
The tasting menu builds gradually toward heavier — though not heavy — courses. Crucially, with the exception of the final two courses, meat and seafood serve as accents, not centerpieces. This keeps the meal from tipping from indulgence into gluttony. It also represents yet another evolution in how we think, or should think, about food.
For that matter, I remember the seafood and meat less for the proteins themselves than for the overall dish. A buttermilk panna cotta further enriched a small piece of buttery escolar, while Meyer lemon and asparagus gave the fish a vital spark. A four-ounce piece of sous-vide rib eye was incredibly tender, but I found myself happily distracted by all the green on the plate: a braised leek, a chive purée and a chive meringue like a cookie grown in a garden.
Your tasting menu concludes with two desserts as well as petits fours. (Overall, you will likely end up with a dozen courses.) Unusual ice cream was the theme on the night I ordered mine. One course brought a version in which the kitchen had steeped toasted oak, lending it smoky vanilla character. The second dessert course created "powdered" crème fraîche ice cream by freezing it with liquid nitrogen and then crumbling it in a blender. The kitchen paired this powder (still quite cold) with lemon curd. The ice cream was interesting, but I couldn't help but think of Dippin' Dots, perpetual ice cream of the future.
Is Niche a perfect restaurant? Of course not. Other restaurants have deeper, more interesting wine lists — though Niche has improved considerably on this front since it first opened — and its beer selection is anemic. And Craft, Altnether and Hereford pulled back a bit on those final two savory courses, defaulting to more conventional luxuries in the escolar and rib eye rather than more innovative or surprising approaches.
Still, from beginning to end, Niche remains the most consistently appealing, engaging and — above all else — delicious dining experience in St. Louis. More important, as the dining scene here continues to gain steam, it should serve not as target at which other chefs should take aim, but an inspiration.
You work hard. You surround yourself with great talent. You innovate and experiment, even at the risk of falling flat on your face. And you never just do the best you can. You do better.
Slideshow: Inside Niche in Clayton