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Jun 20, 2011 07:09 PM

Niche (St. Louis) prix fixe review

Review of my second trip to Niche on Monday's prix fixe...

Summation: ambitious, but ultimately un-satisfying.

I read about Niche's Monday prix fixe and thought I'd take advantage. The menu is limited to the prix fixe only, nothing a la carte, so you're sort of hemmed into the menu. For whatever reason, they have one app, choice of two entrees, and choice of three desserts -- (1) Caesar salad, (2) chicken a la brick or beef in a broth, and (3) ice cream sundae, cheese plate or upside down cake.

The salad was good. Lemony and peppery with anchovies and Parmesan. Nothing very daring, but serviceable. I would've liked a choice since I happened to have Cesar salad for lunch, but it was better of course than my office-catered salad. Well executed, if easy. Grade: B

The beef was a decent-sized chunk and was fatty. I happened to like fatty beef (e.g., brisket), but it wasn't very flavorful, so if that's your thing it wasn't so great. The broth had white beans, kale and turnips. Unfortunately, the broth and vegetables had little flavor except salt. Frankly, my CSA vegetables have substantially more verve than these. More adventurous, but only fair. Grade: B-

I chose the cake, which wasn't bad at all. Too little diversity in texture -- i.e, not enough crust or cream, but I could take. Nice, but not good enough. Grade: B+

The service was mixed. The hostess was, again, welcoming and attentive. They know how to train them. The waitress, however, was pretty bad. She could barely explain the meal and was fairly ignorant about wine or ability to pair. I've had more involvement from waitresses at diners. At good restaurants, I expect the wait staff to be into food, to like it, to have opinions, to be my agent for ordering. Here, she was a black-clad robot with a fake smile.

My wine experience -- when the beef came, I told her I'd like a recommendation. She said "Everyone likes the Bordeaux." Follow-up exchange: "How's the wine?" "Unfortunately, not so good. I chose the Bordeaux when I saw the beef was light, but it was lighter than expected and I should've got the Pinot." "Glad it worked for you." Huh? It didn't work, actually.

Ultimately, I suspect St. Louis is just a middling town. It shoots for the middle-register and sometimes strikes it and often serves very fine low-level food (e.g., pizza). But there's not enough culture to move a good restaurant into the very good category. Niche reflects what the town is and the town will not force it to be better. Alas.

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  1. Sorry you didn't have a great experience. I have dined several times at Niche (not on prix fixe Monday) and had experiences ranging from very good to outstanding over several years. I am gathering from the broad brush with which you painted St. Louis that you ducked in and out for a few meals, and I would respectfully say your conclusion is premature and in my experience not accurate. (This coming from a former Chicagoan who has eaten in some of the best places in Chicago and around the country, at all price points). While St. Louis is not San Fran, NY, or Chicago, the food scene here is quite good and has improved considerably in just the 2 years I have lived here. I'd give you suggestions the next time you are here, but it seems your mind is made up. Oh well, all the more room for me at any number of fine choices here.

    6 Replies
    1. re: ddfry3

      +1 for ddfry3. This is not a typical meal or service for Niche. I'm guessing they start their rookies on Mondays. Monday is often not a good day to eat out - oh,yeah, I know, a good restaurant should be consistently good, etc., but even the best chefs do get a night off now and then and sometimes things just don't go right. Not your fault, to be sure, and I'm sorry you had a less-than-satisfactory experience. This town normally does better than that.

      1. re: lemons

        I'm new to town (from NYC area), but have a baby so can't get out very much except for baby-friendly environs. I happened to have a free night, so went to Niche. For better or worse, I hold restaurants that attempt to be high cuisine to a pretty high level -- "how does this compare to similarly situated restaurants in Manhattan?"

        While that might seem unfair to St. Louis, I think it's more unfair to readers of this forum to grade on the curve: "If this is the best in the class, I give it an 'A+' and set the curve accordingly." While that may be a natural tendency, for a foodie site it's not good enough. And it's certainly not good for the restaurant and the town. The resto should have fair and tough reviews, which the likes of the standard press won't give it in order to push itself. The town deserves should have restaurants striving to improve, even if they're the local A+s.

        1. re: brownhound

          I believe in high standards, but also reasonable ones. St. Louis is not Manhattan, and setting oneself up for that inherent comparison is going to make for a lot of frustration. I don't think the majority of diners in the area expect that it will be at that level, not are the price points at the vast majority of dining venues here comparable either. Interestingly, last time I went to NYC (Manhattan included), I thought to myself...I can surely eat better at "x" in Chicago than this current place in Manhattan, etc. It is a matter of perspective. I still feel that your Niche experience was an outlier, and many friends (including professional chefs I know from other cities) have lauded Niche when we have gone for dinner. I am not in the industry, nor do I work at Niche.

          1. re: ddfry3

            I agree that one shouldn't expect The French Laundry, but then the "finest" restaurant in the city should be reviewed accordingly. If it really is an 85 out of 100, then it's a B, not an A+, unless you're grading on a curve (which I don't), you're a homer or you don't know any better.

            And, frankly, your review of Manhattan is utterly appropriate. To say "NYC resto x" isn't as good as "Chicago resto y" is fair. To not make cross-comparison disserves both NYC and Chicago. If Alinea blows Per Se out of the water, that should be shouted to laud Alinea and criticize Per Se.

            My conclusion about St. Louis isn't meant as a sleight of Niche. I think it's a good restaurant, but not great. Further, I suspect it'll never be great unless the clientele holds it to a higher standard. I think Craft has aspirations, but until he gets called out for mediocre performances, he has less reason to avoid them, doesn't he?

            1. re: brownhound

              I don't want to parse this too finely, but I would posit that my experiences at Niche do not merit a "B" rating. A problem with the rating premise you suggest is that there is not a normed standard for what constitutes a 100 score, so any self-generated rating system is inherently biased toward one's own specific, but necessarily subjective, criteria. I am not a native of St. Louis, and I have eaten at fine restaurants throughout the US and Europe. Niche is certainly in the top 10% of my experiences. Also, I think you really need to try the Chef's tasting menu before you make up your mind, though it seems it may be too late for that.

              1. re: ddfry3

                Of course it's subjective, as is every discussion of things like food, art and music. I'm judging against a perfect meal, be it realized or platonic, just as most people do, and "perfect" as judged by me, the reviewer.

                If you find that your Niche experiences are in the top 10% -- which, to be clear, is precisely the same numeric scoring I utilized and you criticized two sentences previous -- then you'd say it rates a 90 - 100 out of 100. That's 5 - 15 percent higher than I.

                Sure, I'll try it again. Though my title was specifically limited to the Monday prix fixe, admittedly my musings extrapolated about St. Louis in general, which naturally piques St. Louisians.

                In sum, Niche is considered one of St. Louis's finest, if not the finest, restaurant. I find it lacks much in the way of a good foodie culture among its staff or product. Hence, I fear that St. Louis isn't much of a foodie town. That may bear out or it may not, but Monday at Niche doesn't disprove it, I believe.

    2. Agree with lemons, early in the week is not the same service or kitchen frequently as later it is later in the week. It should be but it isn't. The A team is gonna be there later in the week when they can have more customers and make more money.
      I would hate to judge all of St. Louis dining based on a Monday night with a limited menu.
      St. Louis is not New York just as New York is not Paris or Hong Kong. It is all kind of relative. My guess is you will find some restaurants here that you like.

      10 Replies
      1. re: wekick

        Well I like Niche, I just think it can be much better. And since this is a foodie site, where people come to discuss the best meals one can get in a city or compare top places to eat, I believe criticism is warranted and serves the site readers, frankly.

        I also like, say, Pi Pizza, but don't think it has a lot of room for improvement. My conclusion, thus far, is that St. Louis does things like Pi Pizza well. So if you're in town for one meal, I would, at this point, caution against Niche but not Pi (to just take one example).

        And, yes, I can say Paris and Hong Kong are different places. I would also say that if you want inspiringFrench food, consider Paris ahead of Hong Kong. But I wouldn't withhold criticism of French food in Hong Kong because it's Hong Kong, just as I wouldn't withhold crticism of Cantonese food in Paris. It may be insane to fly to HKG to get French cuisine, but I think it's fair to say if you're there for two nights that French may not be what you should shoot for.

        1. re: brownhound

          Of course the give and take of opinions is the whole purpose of the forum-good and bad. I have been very disappointed by places that many others think are great and vice versa. Everybody likes different things. I do like to read what everyone thinks though even if I don't agree.

          "St. Louis is not New York just as New York is not Paris or Hong Kong. It is all kind of relative."

          By this I mean there are people who are used to Hong Kong/Paris level of restaurants and think New York is "middling". They might ask "How would this restaurant fare in Paris?" when in New York.

          1. re: wekick

            And I think Paris vs. NYC is a very good comparison, to be honest. Paris and New York are not so different in modern cuisine that you can compare the two.

            I haven't had many three-star Michelin experiences in Paris, but they are a yardstick that I've used against top restaurants in NYC to see if they measure up. Most often, NY does not.

        2. re: wekick

          This is a link to a review of Niche from a Sunday meal last winter -- mine is the last post.

          1. re: brownhound

            judging niche based on their value priced monday supper is absurd.

            1. re: streaksinthesky

              First, it's a judgment of the Monday supper, so I can ONLY judge the Monday supper based on the Monday supper.

              Second, I think it's equally absurd to say a restaurant doesn't have to fire on all cylinders when it's open. If it really says "well we can serve crap on Tuesdays" then (a) it should be called out for it, and (b) it shouldn't be open Tuesdays.

              1. re: brownhound

                i completely agree that a restaurant owes it to the customer to serve at a high level every night it is open. however, the monday supper at niche is a completely different value based offering than what niche serves every other night, and making statments like this

                "In sum, Niche is considered one of St. Louis's finest, if not the finest, restaurant. I find it lacks much in the way of a good foodie culture among its staff or product. Hence, I fear that St. Louis isn't much of a foodie town."

                based on niche's monday supper is off base. go back to niche any other night of the week and order the chef's tasting with pairing and use that to draw your conclusion on st. louis as a "foodie town".

                1. re: streaksinthesky

                  Um, no.

                  Niche seems to be, based on the unscientific standards of reviewing Chowhound, to be considered St. Louis's finest restaurant. If it serves a lame meal and the staff is un-engaged and generally ignorant, what other conclusion am I to draw if the clientele seems to lap it up?

                  And I did give a link to my Sunday review that was substantially similar to someone else's Saturday review. To sum up, some nice stuff, some mediocre stuff. Why does everyone bristle at this criticism? On another board, the chef/owner seemed to take less umbrage.

                  1. re: brownhound

                    admittedly, i failed to notice that you had dined at niche prior to your monday supper. my assumption was that your comment about st. louis not being a foodie town (which i would actually agree that it isn't) was based on monday supper. for that i apologize. i still wonder though what you expected from monday supper given its $30 price point, and also find it curious that you would consider a meal in which your grade of the 3 course averages out to a "B" lame. to me, if alinea or per se is an A+, wouldn't a $30 "B" be a very positive meal?

                    1. re: streaksinthesky

                      No, I graded on what I expected a similary-situated restaurant for its price point. For $30, I have had plenty of A+ meals. They just have to execute well.

                      The fact that it's $30 may have played a part, but I really don't expect a restaurant to take the night off just because it is a Monday. Frankly, I imagine Mondays are cheaper to get more clientele in on an off-night, rather than allowing the B team to serve B food. The less-expensive food should be reflected in the limited menu offerings, not in the lessened performance.

                      A comparison would be "restaurant weeks" that have special lunch rates. While it's not surprising that a place may offer a worse meal, they should be called out: "Chez ____'s restaurant week lunch sucks." That's a fair review in my mind.

        3. Folks, we'd just like to remind everyone that the purpose of Chowhound is to discuss chow, not to discuss chowhounds. If you have opinions about the food at Niche, please go ahead and share them, but posting negative opinions about your fellow hounds, or telling them how they should or shouldn't post isn't permitted.

          1. This I week I had my first trip to the Monday Night Supper program at Niche after about 15-20 meals having the "normal" Niche menu (both a la carte and tasting). Obviously, the meal was without some of the flair that Niche, normally provides in their menu and dishes, but I found the meal well-executed and wholly satisfying.

            The menu for my visit was a vegetable garbure, roasted chicken or pork loin and then either ice cream, cheese, or walnut cake for dessert. The vegetable garbure was a nice warming soup that, while very simple, was exceedingly pleasant. I went with the pork loin which came with dates,bacon, cabbage and polenta. The pork was moist, full of flavor and went well with its accompaniments. I also tried the roast chicken which was excellent and very close to the version served at Brasserie by Niche. For dessert, I had the walnut cake which came with an apple sorbet. Once again, simple flavors and dishes, but done well. The kitchen was also able to put together a tasty vegetarian main course for my wife.

            Service was very attentive and our table never had a need that wasn't addressed promptly.

            Clearly the OP did not enjoy his experience having the Monday menu at Niche and I'd agree it isn't on the same level as the normal menu in terms of creativity and variety, but on my visit the restaurant successfully executed the simple, wholesome dishes on the menu which made it a very enjoyable visit. I'd definitely recommend the Monday Night Suppers to others, as long as they understand that it isn't the normal Niche and it isn't meant to be.

            Brasserie by Niche
            4580 Laclede Ave, St. Louis, MO 63108