"Sometimes I get stage fright up here,” chef Gerard Craft says from the wide-open kitchen of his newly relocated Niche in Clayton.
With that, the show begins.
Craft hands over coxinhas, the first of about a dozen dishes that composed Niche’s tasting menu on a recent weekend night. Coxinha is a flash-fried flashback to Craft’s childhood, a refined version of a snack his Brazilian nanny used to make.
These crispy, one-bite nuggets — filled with cream cheese and dehydrated chicken skin or hazelnut — rest on a dollop of sharp sorrel mayo that snaps taste buds to attention.
After seven years in Benton Park, Niche closed in October and reopened anew the next month in Centene Plaza, next door to Craft’s white-hot Pastaria.
The new space is modern-feeling but not stuffy. White-tablecloth tables front a red banquette along one wall, while rustic-sturdy wood tables run along the room’s center. There is more elbow room than at the old location.
This Niche is more mature, more confident and more complete than any of Craft’s previous endeavors. Craft, 33, and his team have lifted their flagship from an excellent dining experience to an extraordinary one that sets the standard for haute cuisine in St. Louis.
Niche’s biggest change is that it no longer offers a la carte entrees. Diners can choose a four-course prix fixe ($55; $90 with wine pairings) or a 10-course chef’s tasting ($85; $130 with wine).
The prix fixe has choices for most courses, and both the four- and 10-course menus can be fully vegetarian. (Niche doesn’t merely pay lip service to vegetables; the $80 vegetable tasting was enough to turn this carnivore green with envy.)
A four-course meal in Niche’s dining room is a fun culinary adventure, without frou-frou pretense, that needn’t be saved for a special occasion.
The chef’s tasting, while it won’t leave you overstuffed with dozens of courses or go on for hours, as tasting menus often do, is a different beast. To experience it fully, reserve a space at the kitchen counter, opt for the wine pairings, and leave yourself in the capable hands of Craft and crew.
(I was a known diner on both of my visits to Niche. The staff displayed for me the same courtesy and competency that it showed a table of first-time customers nearby, which was the same as it gave two über-regulars who have a standing Saturday-night reservation. Service is stellar across the board.)
Coxinha is part of a three-dish prelude to the opening act that includes a custard-filled eggshell topped with caviar, and a plate of country ham with pickles, Dia’s cheese bread (another nod to the Brazilian nanny) and lethally good whipped lardo.
The meal begins in earnest with a bowl of white sweet potato soup. The silky purée spiked with smoked paprika is poured around sage-flavored marshmallows and crunchy puffed wheatberries.
Show-stoppers include a dish of brussels-sprout leaves glistening with smoked-trout broth, covering a patch of fresh ricotta and earthy rye crumbles. These seemingly disparate flavors — bitter, salty, creamy, sweet — come together in a harmony of umami.
If the sprouts dish lacks anything, it’s acid. General manager Chris Kelling seems to know this, as he pairs it with 2010 Coenobium Rusticum, a sun-hued Italian wine with clean notes of grapefruit and lime.
(Digging deep for criticisms: I would have liked more than one red wine in the eight pours that came with the chef’s tasting, and I would have appreciated a bit more explanation about the chosen pairings.)
Intermission comes in the whimsical form of plastic freezer pops. Niche’s refreshing, grownup version combines rum, lime juice and puréed parsnip, presented among a bowl of limes and parsnips.
The second act brings more of the same pleasures as the first: vegetables and proteins that are properly cooked, perfectly seasoned and painstakingly plated.
Edible mustard flowers and sweet pear mostarda give seared foie gras just the pop it needs to keep from being too rich. Dots of preserved lemon and explosively flavorful dill flowers add electric brightness to buttery escolar crudo.
Turnips braised in Norton wine have a creamy tang from goat-milk custard and a pleasant crunch from crumbles of local-pecan granola. The kitchen extracts all the deeply sweet flavors of fresh carrots by serving them roasted and puréed, plated as gorgeous splashes of orange and green.
The show comes to a close with a trio of light dessert courses. The finale — white sweet potato cake with a quenelle of sage ice cream — harkens back to the opening soup of the same ingredients.
Craft and company, including co-chef Adam Altnether and chef de cuisine Nate Hereford, have no reason for stage fright so long as they continue to execute at this level.
At the new Niche, they’ve taken one of the best restaurants in St. Louis and made it better.
Where Niche, 7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton • Four stars out of four • More info 314-773-7755; nichestlouis.com • Menu Four-course prix fixe and 10-course tasting menus, each with vegetarian options • Hours Dinner Tuesday-Saturday