Archive for January, 2011

Niche: St. Louis, MO

Posted 17 Jan 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service


I first took notice of Chef Gerard Craft of Niche Restaurant in St. Louis, when he won a “Best New Chef 2008” award from Food & Wine Magazine. As a committed culinary trend spotter and tracker of professional chefs, I pay particular attention to the up-and-coming culinary set since they are often the source of inspired innovation. To see the future, one must keep an eye on young talent. After tracking chef Craft for a few months I came to realize, based on an extensive number of food-related hits on Google, that St. Louis had an incredible food scene relative to the city’s size. With several food oriented publications including St. Louis Magazine and Sauce Magazine (my favorite), the culinary arts in St. Louis are well publicized. Tracking Craft was easy.

Thirty one year old Craft, a Burlington, Vermont native, opened Niche in August of 2006 to rave reviews. According to Inc. Magazine, which included Craft in an article titled “Cool, Determined, and Under 30”, the restaurant was generating upwards of $2.6M in gross sales as late as 2008. In January of 2009 Craft was nominated for a James Beard Award (Best Chef Midwest) and picked up another nomination in the same category in 2010. In September of 2010 Craft shocked St. Louis when he announced that he planned to move Niche and replace it with a new Italian restaurant concept called Porano. Niche would move into the small Sidney Street space next door to the restaurant currently occupied by Taste, Craft’s smaller casual concept dedicated to small plates, great cocktails and fantastic desserts. The announcement coincided with Niche taking the top spot for food in St. Louis scoring a 28 in the Zagat Guide.

The word within the professional chef community around St. Louis was that Craft had taken a hard hit due to the economy and was seeking to reset the restaurant as a casual Italian eatery and make up for lost revenue through lower prices and higher volume. St. Louis is and has always been a town with a penchant toward Italian restaurants and Craft was seeking to find some stability by tapping the demand. When he announced the change at Niche, St. Louis gasped. Then, according to some insiders, the community resisted changes to its favorite restaurant and bastion of the culinary arts.

On January 4, 2011 the St. Louis Riverfront Times announced that Craft had changed course and will keep Niche where it is and the way it is rather than proceed with such dramatic changes. In the process he will move and sell Taste and regroup operationally and emotionally. What a challenging year for such a talented professional and his team. It is clear that in small markets like St. Louis, economic ripples have a serious impact of fine dining restaurants and young professional chefs like Craft. Like many locals, I am glad that Craft is keeping Niche the way it is. Niche is excellent and competes at a level equal to any top destination restaurant in the country. I know this first-hand from spending time on Sidney Street in St. Louis and eating at Niche.

When I arrive for dinner it is dark out and Niche is lit up. The restaurant is located on the ground level of a two story brick building with a large glass storefront and black awning with “Niche” printed on it. At night, the entry and large plate-glass windows glow from interior lighting revealing the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant inside. It looks inviting and bright on a dark cold night.

Other chefs in the area are complimentary when I mention I am visiting Niche; they genuinely like Chef Craft. There seems to be a high level of respect for the restaurant itself too and for what Chef Craft is doing locally. His regional and national press has helped the reputation of St. Louis as a whole and it appears that he is the center of the culinary community in the city.

Tonight I am dining with a group including another professional chef and folks at the table are excited to sample the fare. Chef Craft infuses just enough modernist culinary techniques to make his food interesting and innovative.  My amuse-bouche is a wonderful egg custard with “caviar” of the sodium alginate and calcium chloride type. The opener is well executed and delicious. I also sample a fresh made agnolotti (light, toothsome), sweetbreads (a real highlight and perfectly done), tuna crudo (nice), a spicy jalapeno sorbet palate cleanser (outstanding, something I will copy), poached seabass, scallops with pork belly (outstanding, I will copy this too), and two desserts that were very good but not as innovative as the other items we had.

Craft’s front of the house team offered a seamless dining experience from the moment we walked in the door until they handed us our coats and fetched our car. Service was professional, efficient, and comfortable but not intrusive. I love a quiet dining room where the service crew waltzes through the space during a rush. This was the case at Niche; the food was outstanding as was the service.

Time will tell whether Craft’s decision to bend to local pressure and keep Niche unchanged was a good choice. If the same customers that pressured Craft to preserve one of the best restaurants in St. Louis respond by supporting the restaurant with their business, things will work out just fine. The restaurant has the chops to meet the demands of the local community. The future of Niche rests with more with that community than with Craft himself. In the meantime, Craft should continue to be cool and determined, talent always yields good things!

Egg Custard with “Caviar”


Agnolotti with Dried Cherries


Seared Sweet Breads with Napa Cabbage


Tuna Crudo on Crostini


Spicy Jalapeno Sorbet


Poached Seabass


Scallops with Roasted Pork Belly, Cauliflower Florets and Cauliflower Puree


Chocolate Cake with Malted Ice Cream


Semolina Cake, Pear Terrine, Vanilla Ice Cream


Niche Restaurant

1831 Sidney St.

St. Louis, MO 63104



Manresa Restaurant: Los Gatos, CA

Posted 11 Jan 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Sometimes, when visiting a well known restaurant for the first time, it’s nice to spend a day or two in the community where the establishment is located prior to dining. Doing so allows me to get a sense of things at ground level. Great restaurants reflect their surroundings and weave local ingredients and influence with global flavor profiles and, more than ever, contemporary cooking techniques. My deep love of culinary arts is based, in part, on these factors and the way a great restaurant anchors, and is anchored by its community.  Manresa is such a restaurant and Los Gatos is proud to claim it.

Walking around Los Gatos California in winter, it’s sunny and temperate. People are out strolling the streets, making eye contact, pausing to chat. The community has a casual yet upscale feel to it with brand name shops mixed in with independent retailers. I pause for a moment at the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company for a fresh cup and sit at a table in the large bay window to watch the world go by. Refreshed, I exit left down the street and discover the Sierra Toy Soldier Company. Sierra produces battle scenes in miniature using a variety of toy soldiers and scaled down military hardware and shows them in the front window of the store. Each displays look like a custom movie set. Los Gatos is both main-stream and unique, approachable but extremely local. It feels nice to be here.


Dinnertime is nearing and I walk over to the restaurant to check things out. Manresa is located on Village Lane, one block over from Santa Cruz Avenue. At first I walk past the restaurant entrance and up the street a few steps before realizing that the small brick ranch style home on my right is actually Manresa. Standing in front of the walkway leading to the front door I am surprised that this single story building is the home to such a great restaurant.  The small understated aluminum and steel sign placed on a steel post in front of the restaurant caught my eye just before I passed otherwise I would have missed the restaurant and kept walking. My first impression is that Manresa is small and understated. The grounds leading to the entrance are well kept with tall plants, grasses in pots, paved walk ways and a long window that runs from the left hand side of the entry to the end of the building. I wonder if space on the other side of the window was the living room of a private residence at one point in time.  

Entering the restaurant, I am surprised at the size of the dining room; it’s much larger than I expected.   There’s room for at least fifty guests in the main dining room and a private room in the back seats at least sixteen guests. The floor is tinted concrete softened with carefully placed carpets. After a quick tour I settle in to a two top along the window.

Chef David Kinch, a professional chef to his core, is easy to admire. After graduating from the culinary arts degree program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence Rhode Island in 1983 he spent the next decade refining his skills working at renowned restaurants around the world including the Quilted Giraffe in New York, the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka Japan, the Michelin two-star Schweizer Stuben in Wertheim, Germany, the three star L’Esperance in St. Pere-sous-Vezeley, France with Chef Marc Meneau and Pedro Subijana’s Michelin two-star Akelare in San Sebastian, Spain. Kinch, a New Orleans native who worked with Paul Prudhomme when he was chef at Commanders, opened Manresa in 2002 and has held two Michelin stars since 2006. In 2010 he was awarded best chef pacific region by the James Beard Foundation. Chef Kinch is, without question, one of the best, most influential chefs in the country and a master of the culinary arts.


The best way to describe the food at Manresa is modern American with tremendous French and Spanish influence and a solid undertone of Japanese flavor and technique. Kinch’s background, global travels, and professional lineage are reflected in his cuisine. The menu features dishes that are authentically local and driven by the daily harvest of Love Apple Farm just outside of Los Gatos. The influence of Love Apple Farm and the biodynamic vegetables it produces isn’t just symbolic, it’s authentic.  Kinch has designed his culinary system at Manresa around the cycle of food stuffs coming from the farm. The impact on the menu is fantastic. Each of the images below convey what amounted to an incredible meal at Manresa. Considering the quality of the ingredients, particularly the products from Love Apple Farm, the additional courses served, and the excellent preparation and service, Manresa is an outstanding restaurant and a great value.

Amuse Bouche Soft Boiled Egg with Maple Syrup and Sherry Vinegar


Amuse Bouche Fresh Oyster in Gelee with Julienne Nori

 Monterey Bay Abalone and Braised Pig Trotters, Avocado Mousseline

In the Vegetable Garden with Chanterelle Mushrooms, Sun Choke Puree, Celery Root

Japanese Butterfish roasted slowly with Chanterelles, Yuzu Sabayon and Baby Leeks

Black Cod on the Plancha with Salsify, Black Trumpet Mushrooms with Oyster Emulsion

 Breast of Duck and Leg Confit, Hazelnut Praline and Celtuce, Dates with Wild Fennel


Slow Roasted Rack of Veal Tonnato, Cabbage with Sweet Onion and Porcini Fritter

Pears and Pumpkin Cake with Speculass Ice Cream, Moscato Jelly, Prunes, Dates, Molasses, Pecans


320 Village Ln
Los Gatos, California 95030
(408) 354-4330