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Wednesday, June 11, 2008 03:41 pm

Finding a Niche in St. Louis

The décor is inviting, but the real excitement is on the plates

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Untitled Document My husband and I always seek out new restaurants. Sure, we have favorites, but mostly we enjoy trying new places. That’s true in Springfield but even more so in larger cities, just because the selection — old, new, ethnic, upscale, downscale — is much greater. So why, on our last four trips to St. Louis, have we eaten at Niche? Why are we going there again this month for our 35th anniversary? It’s not because there aren’t other St. Louis restaurants worth trying — a fairly long list awaits us. It’s not because Niche isn’t busy, simply a convenient last-minute choice — reservations are a must. We just can’t seem to resist the place. In early 2007 I got an e-mail from St. Louis friends, Joe and Phyllis Oder: “We’ve just been to Niche, and you have to go!” The Oders have given us good restaurant tips since moving to St. Louis. Joe was a server at King Louie’s. We loved King Louie’s — the food was seasonal and excellent, and we got special treatment from Joe. Even without Joe, though, it’d have been a favorite: the food was good and the space gorgeous — an old restored neighborhood tavern with an outdoor patio and kitchen so beautifully landscaped that it was the loveliest al fresco dining spot I’ve ever seen, period. Sadly, not long after the Oders’ e-mail, King Louie’s closed. By our next trip to St. Louis, Joe was working at a new restaurant, Franco’s. We debated between the two and finally settled on Niche. I’m sure we’ll get to Franco’s someday, Joe. Niche’s décor is elegantly contemporary, yet warmly inviting. There’s no outdoor seating, landscaped or otherwise. It’s lovely, but frankly I couldn’t care less: The real excitement is on the plates. Take our last dinner. We ordered the chef’s tasting menu, five small courses that provided a panoply of flavors and textures. First came cauliflower soup. I generally don’t regard cauliflower as delicate, but this was. Halfway between soup and mousse, it was airy, the texture like warm whipped cream. Garnished with apple, bacon, and walnuts, it was sophisticated comfort food. A brandade appeared next. It’s a French bistro classic, reconstituted salt cod cooked in herb-scented milk, mixed with garlicky mashed potato and spread on toast. At Niche, fresh cod is combined with the brandade and formed into a cake that’s crispy outside, creamy within. It’s served on arugula, topped with poached egg and ramps — another dish simultaneously homey and new. The next course was the most unusual and our favorite. It was a riff on a Reuben: rye gnocchi with pickled mustard seeds, horseradish, and house-corned meat. In less skilled hands this could have been a disaster — heavy gnocchi, overpowering condiments — but this was fabulous: light pillows with a distinctive rye taste and perfectly balanced flavors. Something familiar was transformed into something completely new. After carrot-and-lime sorbet came rack of lamb. It was cooked sous vide, a popular European technique that’s beginning to appear in the U.S. Sous vide items are vacuum-sealed with flavorings, then cooked at very low controlled temperatures for long periods, giving them exceptional flavor and texture. The lamb was rosy and tender, complemented by rhubarb and a hummus that held a barely discernible whisper of white chocolate that added depth rather than sweetness. The meal finished with a frozen coconut dessert with passionfruit-glazed pineapple and house-made granola. Other meals at Niche have been equally memorable, whether we’ve ordered the tasting menu or à la carte, from tiny chilled beet ravioli in a pool of herbed buttermilk and cucumber to a pork loin with apple, maple, polenta, and delicate miniature cannelloni. In fact, the only item that’s disappointed us is the cheese plate, and it’s good — just not as interesting as everything else. The service at Niche is attentive without being fussy or fawning. During our second visit the chef introduced himself; on the third we were recognized. On the fourth, our previous server came to our table as we were seated and grabbed our server, saying, “VIP these guys. They come here all the way from Springfield!” I wasn’t going to argue about getting VIPed, but I thought, “Jeez, it’s not like we came from New York.” As it turns out, people have come from New York to dine at Niche, but more about that later. Niche is the creation of 28-year-old chef/owner Gerard Craft. It’s extraordinary that someone so young is cooking with such skill. It’s even more extraordinary that he only began cooking — and not just professionally — nine years ago. “I wasn’t interested in food at all,” the Washington, D.C., native tells me. Craft grew up in a family that traveled extensively and loved food, but he was far more enthused about another family passion:“When I was a kid, I was really excited about business. I’d come up with all these schemes for businesses.” Craft’s grandparents started the Ford Modeling Agency. How did Craft get into cooking? “I dropped out of college, and my parents made me get a job,” he says. Craft first washed cars, then began washing dishes at Salt Lake City’s Fat Cat’s Grill and Pool. “I just gradually started cooking. I loved it, but at first it still wasn’t about the food. It was all about the rush, the pressure, the thrill of pulling it together and pulling it off.”
Craft moved to a better restaurant, Bistro Toujours. He also began culinary school, but quickly left. “I was lucky to have landed with a really talented, great chef,” he says. “I was learning so much more from him — there was no point in going to school.”
By this point Craft was excited about the food too, and began experimenting with flavors and combinations. Eventually, wanting to expand his horizons as other young chefs do, he began a series of stages, unpaid apprenticeships. He traveled and worked in Europe — including a gig at the Paris Ritz — then returned to the U.S. for more stages, including one at a restaurant with its own organic garden, another important component in his culinary education. Finally Craft was ready for his own restaurant, opening Niche in 2005. St. Louis has wonderful restaurants but isn’t considered a cutting-edge culinary city. Craft has elevated St. Louis’ restaurant scene with food that’s innovative yet approachable — and, incidentally, much more affordable than comparable menus elsewhere. Those people from New York? They were from Food & Wine magazine. When we told Craft that we were coming back on June 14, he grimaced and said, “The staff will take really good care of you, but I’ll be in Aspen.” We smiled — we hadn’t known he was going, but we knew why: He’d be at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic as one of
F &W’s 2008 Ten Best New Chefs. For chefs, it’s a very big deal — the culinary equivalent of being named to the NBA All-Star roster. Former winners are a who’s who of American chefs. Craft is the first St. Louis chef ever to receive the award; his profile and recipe are featured in the July issue. Pleased as Craft is about being a “Best New Chef,” he gets his real thrills in the kitchen. When we told him that we’d think of him while he’s in Colorado, he said, “I’d rather be here.”
“Yeah, right,” we scoffed. “No, really,” he replied. “I’d rather be here.”
Craft, clearly, has found his niche in St. Louis.

Niche Restaurant, 1831 Sydney St., St. Louis, 314-773-7755, www.nichestlouis.com.
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