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Jun 30, 2014

Dinner at Niche: Cause for Celebration

Recently, my husband and I celebrated our third anniversary with a visit to Niche. Back when Niche was in Benton Park it was our go-to restaurant for special occasions, but we had not returned since the restaurant relocated to Clayton almost over a year and a half ago. I’m not sure why it took us so long to get back, especially since Niche was just as fantastic as ever and remains my top choice in St. Louis for a fine dining splurge.

What sets Niche apart more than anything is the service. The people that work at Niche always seem as excited (or maybe even more excited) about the food as you are. This is not a place where the servers turn their noses up at you if you don’t know what an obscure ingredient like levain is (which I did not, more on that later); they are always well informed and ready to share. Which is good, because I’ve found there are often ingredients on the menu at Niche that I’ve either never heard of or just have a vague idea of. If that is something you find off-putting, this might not be the restaurant for you.

Niche’s menu changes depending on what is in season, so there is no guarantee that anything  I had will be offered when you go, but hopefully this will at least give you an idea of what you might expect..

I started things off with a cocktail, a Blood Orange Sidecar, made with blood orange juice and a blood orange liqueur called Solerno. It was as tasty as it was pretty. My husband ordered the Saint 75, basically a French 75 made with St. Germain. Guess what I will be making next time I have some St. Germain on hand?

We both chose to order from the four course a la carte menu, rather than the chef’s tasting menu, since we wanted to try as many different dishes as possible. If one person orders the tasting menu, the restaurant asks that every person at that table do so also.

For the first course, I had the asparagus soup, which the menu told me included buckwheat, garlic scapes, ramps. I think nearly every time I’ve eaten at Niche I’ve ordered soup for the first course, because they never disappoint, and this one was no exception. Our waiter set before me a bowl with tiny mushroom-like toasted marshmallow bits dotting it, along with some pink jelly and crumbs, which psyched me out for a second. Just as I was about to protest (“uh, I ordered soup”) she produced a metal kettle from which she poured out the creamy green substance I was expecting to see. Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I didn’t get a before pic. I’m not sure exactly what the marshmallow things were (maybe pureed ramps?) or how the buckwheat came into the picture (the crumbs?), but regardless, it was a treat.

For the second course, I chose the quail. The other ingredients listed with it seemed mostly commonplace: turnips, yogurt, tarragon, and kohlrabi. But also, levain. According to our server levain is the sourdough starter they use for the bread they make in house. The quail was deboned, except for the legs, which made for easy eating. The skin was very crispy and flavorful, and the turnips added a nice bitterness. I was very pleased with the dish until I tried a bite of my husband's second course, pork shoulder with ice cream. It sounds strange but it was probably the best thing I ate all night, which is saying a lot.

I think it was in between the second and third courses that we were served little kombucha and bourbon popsicles. Not something offered on the menu, but just the first of a few complimentary surprises we were treated to throughout the meal.

For the third course I had the Akaushi Ribeye with ramps, watercress, onion, fingerling potato and honey, a delicious and perfectly cooked piece of meat. It was topped with beef cracklins, which weren’t mentioned on the menu. They added some texture but didn’t seem to have a lot of flavor. The dish as a whole was very good, but unlike pretty much everything else we tried that night, it seemed like something you could get at a lot of fine dining restaurants.

For dessert, I had the green strawberry olive oil cake with goat cheese panna cotta and almond. I’m not sure where the green strawberry came into play, since the strawberries I could see in my dessert were red. Regardless, it was good, but not quite as tasty as what my husband ordered: the pecan semifreddo. Along with our desserts, our waiter brought out some champagne in celebration of our anniversary. Every time I’ve gone to Niche for a special occasion they’ve done something to recognize it, which is another reason why it is such a favorite.

And then the check came, usually the saddest part of the evening, but on this occasion made a little sweeter by what accompanied it: another gratis treat. House-made marshmallows (I don’t remember what flavor they were) and beet flavored jelly candies. Both were very tasty little bites.

The only thing I found lacking in the new Niche compared to the old was the absence of the polenta side; the polenta at the old Niche was perhaps the best I’ve ever had. Other than that, I enjoyed the experience and the food as much as ever, and I hope it isn’t quite so long before I’m able to go back.

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