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Araka vs. Niche: Parental Dinner

litchick Dec 24, 2007 06:00 PM

Hey all,

MrLit and I want to take my parents to dinner on Friday night as part of their xmas present, and are having toruble deciding between Araka and Niche. Niche has a longer track record, but Araka is looking interesting. Could folks weigh in on their opinions of one vs. the other?

  1. litchick Dec 29, 2007 10:42 AM

    We had our Niche experience last night, and it was a hit!

    For starters, dad had the roasted beets & beef tongue, which he declared delicious. The rest of us shared the chicken liver terrine, served with toasts and a date-citrus compote, and the pork cheeks. The terrine was so silky, and tasted of its perfect elemental ingredients: smoothly pureed livers, cognac, and butter, topped with a sprinkling of sea salt and a touch of herb (I think thyme). The pork cheeks were good, with the meat and fat shredded and formed into a croquette, which was then pan fried to perfect crispness on the outside. The meat itself was tasty, and I appreciated the lack of a pointless filler like breadcrumbs, but the richness of the whole thing could have used something else on the plate as a counterbalance.

    For mains, dad had the special bistro steak, which was the end of a rib eye, arriving perfectly medium (as ordered), and accompanied by swiss chard and wild mushrooms (which he had subbed in for the creamy polenta he didn't want, at a cost of an additional $2 -- which seemed a little odd considering the normal rib eye on the menu *does* come with the wild mushrooms, but whatever). He loved it, even the chard, which he's not usually a fan of. He, however, is salt-sensitive, and wished he'd thought to ask the kitchen not to salt the steak before grilling. I didn't try it, but I have a feeling it was a normal amount of salt, and probably most people wouldn't be bothered by it.

    Mom had the papardelle with a sauce of braised pork, sliced pears, marscapone, and lemon. She declared it brilliant, and the aroma was certainly intoxicating. It looked like a very well-portioned entree, too -- that is, there wasn't a ton of food on the plate, but because it was so rich it was the perfect amount.

    I had the vegetable entree of wild mushrooms, roasted fingerling potatoes, wilted spinach, and a poached egg. It was lovely, very well-composed, with all the earthy flavors balanced by good seasoning and a silky mushroomy/lemony/slightly sweet reduction sauce around the plate. The poached egg was also perfect, just set with a runny center.

    MrLit had the pork belly entree, which while amazingly flavorful and perfectly cooked, was *a lot* of pork belly. The meat was accompanied by roasted baby brussles spouts, a silky sweet-potato puree (which was incredibly rich with butter), and a dark meaty jus. The overall effect was very rich and luxurious, but again, it could have used something on the plate to lighten that richness. It became a lot to taste for a whole meal, so MrLit and I switched plates a few times to provide some respite from the heaviness.

    We were happy to learn that the corkage fee is nominal ($15 per bottle), so we toted along a favorite red, though their wine list certainly had a lot of nice bottles to choose from at reasonable prices.

    The space is nicely laid out, with a minimalist feel accented by rich touches. I liked the banquettes, as well as the recessed lighting accents in the walls. The wine-wall at the end of the space was a nice touch too. I didn't love the look of the bar, which was a bit stark. Our sever was terrific (I think her name might have been Jenny?) -- very accommodating to my dad's nitpicky questions, cheerful, and super professional. I'd call her service seamless. Even the busboy was charming. Another plus: complimentary valet parking.

    One complaint: when dad asked for some bread to go along with his beet app, he was told (not by our server) that Niche doesn't have bread service, but that he could purchase some very complicated sounding cheese-plus-other-stuff roll thing, which is not really what he was after. It's clear there *is* bread in the kitchen, since the terrine comes with thin toasts cut from a baguette. For the quality of the service and food otherwise, and for the cost of the meal, I would have expected them to have simply said "yes sir, we have baguette slices, will that be all right?" A minor blip, but one which was pretty odd, and added to the polenta/mushroom issue, added an unwelcome note of parsimony to the proceedings.

    Overall, a terrific meal and great experience. The parents LOVED it, and were so charmed to be taken out to a meal of this caliber.

    Thanks for the recs, hounds, I appreciate it!

    2 Replies
    1. re: litchick
      p
      p.j. Dec 31, 2007 07:24 AM

      litchick,
      Thanks for the very detailed report. I am glad you all enjoyed the meal, and that our posts were helpful. I found it interesting that you didn't get to taste around your parents' dishes. I guess that is a cultural thing--in my family, we have always tried a taste of each others' food.
      Have a safe trip back to Boston. p.j.

      1. re: p.j.
        litchick Dec 31, 2007 02:04 PM

        No, not that I wasn't allowed to, I just don't eat cheese or beef. It's a sad thing (not of my choosing), so I trusted their assessment. ;)

        Thanks for the well-wishes p.j. -- we're off to Iron Barley tonight to try another fabu StL place that's popped up in my time away.

    2. litchick Dec 27, 2007 11:09 AM

      Ok, I defer to the Hound Mind. We had made our resvs at Araka because the cuisine appealed to our parents, but I'd had second thoughts, which is why I posted the q. You guys reinforced my first thoughts which are that if you're going to lay out that kinds $$ in StL, might as well go all out and hit Niche.

      I have re-booked, and will report back after our meal. Thanks for the help!

      1. litchick Dec 25, 2007 06:55 PM

        Thanks for the replies thus far, I really appreciate them!

        4 Replies
        1. re: litchick
          The Dairy Queen Dec 26, 2007 04:44 AM

          Curious--in what city and state are these restaurants?

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen
            alan Dec 26, 2007 04:45 AM

            St. Louis, MO. Why oh why do people not put cities and states in their subject lines????

            1. re: alan
              litchick Dec 27, 2007 11:05 AM

              My initial bad, alan. I'm a Boston hound, and am not used to the multi-city thing. By the time I realized I'd left it out, I'd already hit "post."

              1. re: litchick
                alan Dec 27, 2007 12:25 PM

                Well, that's entirely understandable. Most of us who post on the Midwest board make a habit of putting the location in the subject line so that other posters know what we're talking about. It would be nice to be in a place with enough chow options and chowhounds to merit a whole board...

        2. p
          p.j. Dec 25, 2007 11:08 AM

          litchick,
          The friends we are trying to go out with today have been to Araka twice.

          They gave it a second chance the Sat. night of the snowstorm a week and a half ago. The only things they enjoyed were the espresso (?) martinis and their after-dinner snowball fight outside. Their verdict was that the food "was bad." I will say that they stuck to pescatarian and vegetarian selections (no meat, no shellfish), as we do.

          I respect their opinions. Go to Niche.
          take care, p.j.

          4 Replies
          1. re: p.j.
            s
            shannoninstlouis Dec 25, 2007 11:15 AM

            I have been to both and would definitely prefer Niche. The focus on Niche is on the food and the focus on Araka was the look and the vibe. Of course if it was totally up to me, I'd go to Terrene.

            1. re: shannoninstlouis
              bobzemuda Dec 26, 2007 06:05 AM

              How is Terrene post Owens?

              1. re: bobzemuda
                s
                shannoninstlouis Dec 26, 2007 07:48 AM

                Geez. Every time I recommend Terrene, I forget he's not there anymore. So, obviously, take that advice with a grain of salt.

            2. re: p.j.
              bobzemuda Dec 26, 2007 06:05 AM

              I wouldn't really call the food "bad" at Araka, but having been back once since my initial lunch, it has been sort of ho-hum. Still, when weighing against the rest of St. Louis' offerings, it's been well seasoned, properly cooked, and therefore still better than most of the offerings in St. Louis.

            3. ATOMICPunk Dec 25, 2007 06:22 AM

              I've recently dined at both Niche and Araka. Am a long-time fan of Niche -- dine there maybe once every few months and always look forward to returning. It never disappoints. I eagerly anticipated trying Araka -- though I will have to admit that mostly was because of the early reviews about how great the place looks.

              Here's my take on comparing the two: focusing strictly on the food, there's simply no comparison. Niche is in a different class. It's passionate, singular and committed to presenting good food in an exciting way. And it delivers ... every time. The problem with Araka is immediately clear upon opening the menu: it's a disney-like "sampling" of cuisine's and classic dishes. Just not a serious contender for consideration by a discriminating foodie. It does, however, look great (think Las Vegas-style restaurant). And the food is passable. If you have a large group -- it's a sensible choice. But they need to do something about sound abatement in the main dining areas.

              If your group is 6 or less -- go to Niche.

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