Friday, July 28, 2006

Unexpected Delights

Yesterday, I wrote about how Porkchop and I would be dining at Niche last night. Oh my goodness....hang on to your hats! It was the best meal I've had in a restaurant in a long time! Much better than Terrene because everything was spot-on: food, service, prices, beverages, location, ambiance....all wonderful!

Niche is located in Benton Park on Sidney Street; the storefront is tucked cozily between houses and a storage-company-turned-loft-space. All of the houses are the usual cute-brick-house-with-fun-roof variety of that neighborhood. Niche's storefront is all windows and quite inviting.

Walk into Niche, and you feel welcome. Nothing stuffy or pretentious, nothing too lavish or over-the-top. Just a nicely appointed European-style row restaurant.

Everyone was super-nice and attentive, even though we certainly didn't look like top-dollar customers. The hostess was quick on the water refills and offered friendly conversation. Same thing with our server; very quick, but not pretentious or intrusive in any way.

The Three-Course Deal
Niche's sales gimmick is 3 courses for $30. Pick a small plate, an entrée, and a dessert.

It's definitely worth it. We did the 3 course deal and ordered an appetizer.

From Niche's splendid selection of "things to gnosh on," we chose the cheese plate. So glad we did; my eyes lit up once the server said Saint André. Oh, triple cream cheese, how I love you. {If you've never had Saint André cheese before, what are you waiting for??!}

The cheese plate came with a huge slab of cheese (especially considering how much Saint André costs), some toasted baguette pieces, a bit of spiced mixed nuts, sliced strawberries, and bit of apricot preserves. YUM!

Everything about the cheese plate was great: portion, selection, and presentation. Porkchop and I agree that the cheese plate was our favorite thing (sounds funny, perhaps, but it was so nice). Also, note that when I first asked Porkchop what her favorite thing was, she picked the mixed nuts. Yeah, that's how good Niche is....they could skimp on something as small as the mixed nuts, but they don't.

Small Plates
For this course, I chose the crab, which was served in a carved-out piece of watermelon with a stripe of saffron aioli. You might be skeptical of this combination, but it was quite tasty.

Porkchop went with the green beans. The beans were a mix of green and yellow, served on a base of orange tomatoes and topped with chevre, toasted almonds, and a basil vinaigrette. Yum! The vinaigrette was nice and discreet, yet really brought out the beans' flavors. I'm not a big fan of chevre (I always feel like I'm eating something from a dusty, musty attic), but just a tad rounded out the dish.

And did I mention presentation of these dishes? Both were served on an appropriately shaped dish and perfectly arranged. I felt bad knocking the clover sprouts off my watermelon dish, but I had to get to the crab.

Again, everything was a winner. I chose the roasted fileted trout and was quite thrilled. I'm not sure exactly how it was prepared, but it was perfect. Not overdone or overspiced at all. The fish (a whole fish with head attached, mind you) came with a side of roasted green and yellow beans, pearl onions, and apricots. Yum!

For her entrée, Porkchop selected the braised pork loin, which came with roasted potatoes, corn, and mushrooms. Sounds simple, right? Yet the flavor which burst forth with each bite of pork was magnificent! And the potatoes, corn, and mushrooms....simple, yet so well executed! Yumyumyum! Porkchop even ate some of her mushrooms, and she is not a mushroom person.

This was the hardest decision of all, and we had to make it at the beginning of the meal. Luckily, I was thrilled with my selection: the Peach Buckle. This was somewhat like a peach cobbler, but the topping was more cake-y than cobbler-y. I'm not a fan of super-sweet desserts (I'd rather experience simple flavors), so this was perfect for me. The topping was flavorful, but not too sweet; the peaches hadn't been oversugared during preparation, so their sweet-tart flavor came through. Oh, and all of this was topped off with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream (so I had the whole, hot-cold thing going on).


Porkchop's dessert was also very good: a creme brulée-style vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sorbet. "Creme brulée-style" meant that the panna cotta was topped with a pretty caramelized sugar doo-dad. Porkchop loved the strawberry was quite tasty. If you order this dessert, Porkchop recommends eating a bite of panna cotta immediately followed by a bite of sorbet. Porkchop's dessert won the presentation award in this round, as it was served on a square plate along with a stripe of caramel and strawberry slices. Beautiful.

Niche has an extensive wine list with some reasonable by-the-bottle prices. The by-the-glass selection is much, much smaller, yet acceptable. The Big House White was the perfect compliment to my meal.

Before dessert, Porkchop ordered hot tea. From the leather-bound tea chest, she chose the rooibus tea. All the teas looked great; they were all Mighty Leaf teas. Evidently, I need to hot-foot it over to Whole Foods and check out their Mighty Leaf selection (unless you know of another close store that carries it).

All in All
We couldn't have been more satisfied.

We left full of good things and made it to Suzi's softball game at Carondelet Park. Luckily, we were able to lie down on a hill, enabling us to watch the game while aiding our digestion.

Sigh, what a good evening.

This Weekend
I'm going to catch the Ditty Bops tonight - yay! This weekend, I'm traveling to Columbia to lend my cleaning/packing assistance to my favorite ladies. Sad to see them move, but excited for trips to Chicago. Yay!

Have a nice weekend!

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