Posts Tagged ‘Food Economics’

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

314.773.7755

 

Grilled Island Creek Oysters

Posted 05 Sep 2010 — by S.E.
Category At Home

Next Saturday one of the best blowout oyster events in the country will take place just forty five minutes south of Boston in Duxbury Massachusetts. The fifth annual Island Creek Oyster Festival attracts up to 3000 people to Duxbury beach where the folks from Island Creek Oysters serve an estimated 30,000 oysters over a seven hour stretch from 3 to 11 p.m. The festival is a fundraiser for the Island Creek Foundation, a foundation that supports multiple causes and serves as proof that my favorite oysters are raised by people with giving hearts. If you like Oysters, there’s no other place to be.

Inspired by the approaching festivities, I took some time today to purchase a couple dozen of Island Creek’s best as a warm up for next week. These oysters are delicious. They are healthy and plump, briny and sweet. Like many cold water oysters, they have complex, crisp flavors that inspire me when I work with them.

Motivated, I scan the garden and fridge to see what’s on hand for a quick snack. There are two beautiful organic cucumbers from Grateful Farms, three bursting ripe tomatoes from my garden, a handful of just-picked shallots, a fresh red onion (onions are great this time of year), and my out-of-control patch of fresh herbs out back. Just to be sure I am on the right track I step out onto my pack patio, shuck three oysters and slurp them down refreshing my memory of how good these oysters are. It’s cool outside and I decide the weather is perfect for grilled oysters.

Grilled oysters are fantastic. When grilling oysters the trick is to cook them flat side up over a blazing hot preheated grill just until they start to pop open. Once they begin to open up, remove them from the grill and shuck off the top shell while taking care not to spill the juice. Just to be safe, I like to keep a large plate under my hands to catch any juice that may spill. If done right the oysters should be medium rare when served.

 

With eight medium rare grilled oysters topped with mignonette ready, I sit down with an ice cold Boston Larger and a napkin. Halfway through, the warm-up act takes effect and I start to wonder what next weekend will be like. How much effort does it take to shuck 30,000 oysters? Will there really be 3000 people there? These oysters are so good that I am sure both estimates will prove correct.

 Grilled Island Creek Oysters with Tomato Water Mignonette

 8 ea      Island Creek Oysters, scrubbed clean with a soft brush,

 Grill over high heat, remove top shell.

 For the tomato water mignonette

 ½         tsp        minced shallots

1          tsp        Extra virgin olive oil

½         tsp        Salt

½         tsp        Red Onion, minced

¼         C         Cucumber, peeled, seeded, fine dice

½         tsp        Italian Parsley, chopped fine

            pinch    Black pepper, fresh ground

3          tbsp      Tomato Water*

 Combine all ingredients. Taste, adjust salt and pepper. Spoon ½ teaspoon of the mignonette onto each hot oyster and serve.

* For the tomato water, cut a medium size tomato into 8-10 pieces and toss with 1 tsp of salt. Place in a small bowl and allow the tomato to rest for 20-30 minutes until the salt extracts 2-3 ounces of juice.

Oil Spill Could be Disaster for Chefs

Posted 03 May 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

French Quarter

Watching the news about the oil spill inching its way closer to the delicate New Orleans coast leaves me worried about the various food and tourism related industries that are life support to Louisiana. The impact this spill could have on the marine and terrestrial life so woven into the culture of the state is unprecedented. That Louisiana faces another potential environmental blow after hurricane Katrina is a tragedy.

I was in New Orleans last September for a wedding held at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Paul Prudhomme doesn’t often close his restaurant for a wedding but he was excited to do so for a mutual friend who has a deep love for the city. Ironically, Jean Michel Cousteau was one of the guests and I spent some time speaking with him and Chef Paul about the recovery of the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana coast after hurricane Katrina. Both Prudhomme and Cousteau were hopeful about the future of the coastline and Paul stated that things were slowly returning to a level of reasonable stability I the city. However, Prudhomme was pensive about the toll Katrina took on members of the working culinary community in New Orleans.

Prudhomme & Cousteau

Chef Paul made clear that in addition to the physical and environmental damage, an unexpected consequence of the Katrina disaster was the loss of a large number of foodservice employees who had been with him for years if not decades. When the hurricane hit, many of Paul’s employees were evacuated to other parts of the country (Houston, Atlanta, Denver etc) and they never returned. The loss of institutional history and overall culinary capacity at K-Paul’s (as well as other restaurants) was nearly crippling. These weren’t the celebrity chefs or owners that we often read about. These were the working class cooks, utility personnel and servers that make up the backbone of the culinary community both here and throughout the U.S. Paul had retained a reasonable percentage of his crew, enough to start over with, but it took him months to get food and service back to where it was prior to Katrina due to the lost personnel and shortage of supply. Paul’s business was directly connected to the whims of both human and Mother Nature in a way that I had never thought about. And now this oil spill!

Various news agencies are projecting that the impact the oil will have on the seafood industry will be devastating. It is estimated that twenty percent of U.S. seafood originates from the Gulf of Mexico. Further, there are reports of potential risks associated with the consumption of seafood contaminated by the oil that will surely have an impact on consumer purchasing patterns. Restaurant sales throughout the gulf coast could be as threatened as the shoreline ecosystems themselves. What a disaster. I wonder what Jean Michel Cousteau must be thinking, or Paul for that matter.

Cousteau’s mission in life, as shared with me during our conversation (and on his website) is to educate people throughout the world to act responsibly for the protection of our global ocean while also documenting the connection between humanity and nature. Prudhomme echoed Cousteau’s view while exhibiting a deep sense of personal history and connectivity with all of Louisiana. It’s a shame that Cousteau has to have this sort of life mission but the current crisis proves his point. My thoughts and prayers are once again with the Gulf Coast communities that are threatened. Hopefully this time they will be spared.