‘Brasserie’ offers delicious, approachable French cuisine

Brasserie by Niche’s boeuf bourguignon, a chuck stew seared and braised in California burgundy-like wine and veal stock with baby shitake mushrooms and pearl onions, served on a bed of potato puree.

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

The dictionary defines a brasserie as “an informal French restaurant serving simple hearty food.” That is exactly what Gerard Craft, our town’s celebrity chef (and founder of Niche in the Benton Park neighborhood), had in mind when he opened Brasserie by Niche in the Central West End in late 2009.

As Craft told Scene magazine, he wanted to introduce St. Louis to what he described as a “more affordable, more approachable take on French food. People think French food is over-the-top fancy, unapproachable. I wanted to show brasserie food as it is [in] Paris or Lyon.”

And so it is. Brasserie by Niche would not be out of place on the Rue Thénard in Paris. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s right at home in a town named after a French king on a street-Laclede-named after one of its French founders. Just as in Paris, diners can gaze through the expansive French doors at the art galleries across the street. And inside the restaurant, with its beautifully restored tin ceiling, weathered wood floors, framed French posters, and tables draped in red-and-white checked cloth topped with a fresh sheet of butcher paper, you feel like you could be in Paris.

The center of the dining room boasts a large farmhouse table with a colossal arrangement of stunning fresh flowers. Along with pitchers of water, the table holds a large bin of crisp, fresh-baked epi rolls, which are delivered warm to every table along with a crock of sweet butter by wait staff that is knowledgeable and accommodating.

We like to begin a meal at the Brasserie with a selection from the Amuse Bouche section of the menu. Over the years, we have sampled most of the offerings, each one delicious and perfectly prepared to “tease the palate.” Most recently we tried the gougères, which are light-as-air and pleasingly crisp cheese puffs classically made with gruyère cheese and fresh herbs. Heavenly. They come five to an order ($5.25).

We took our waiter up on her offer to divide one salad into two servings. The salad was composed of mixed baby lettuces lightly tossed in a shallot vinaigrette. The salad was accompanied by crisp toast rounds lathered with warmed goat cheese and topped with lightly roasted halved hazelnuts. The salad was lovely and the serving was generous, even when shared by two ($8.25).

As hors d’oeuvres, we ordered the goat cheese tart, which is a herb-seasoned goat cheese custard in a flaky pastry crust garnished with fresh chives. The tart came with a tossed salad of mixed baby greens and thinly shaved rounds of marinated fresh fennel (9.25). Every bite was delectable.

In the past, we have had the onion soup ($8.75), a fabulous version of the classic, though with a chicken stock base; the brandade ($8.75), a silky spread of house salted cod, potatoes, and garlic; and the chicken liver terrine ($8.75), a velvety-smooth mixture of sautéed chicken livers, shallots, garlic, brandy, and herbs that could even win over your bubbe.

When it comes to selecting an entrée, it is hard to fight the temptation to simply order something we’ve had before. This is that rare restaurant where everything is that good. For example, one of our favorites is the roasted chicken ($19.75), which is briefly brined, par-broiled and served with a light gravy rich with mushrooms and bread for dipping.

The brasserie burger ($14.25) may just be the best burger in town. It is a perfect mixture of ground chuck steak and brisket served on a delicious, crisp-on-the-outside, moist-on-the inside bun and topped with thinly sliced pickled red onions and rich bleu cheese (either topping may be excluded at the diners request). This decadent burger is accompanied by a generous serving of classic French fries that are thin, crisp, perfectly salted, and hard to resist.

But resist we did. On our most recent visit we ordered two items that were new for us. The first, herb gnocchi Parisienne ($17.75), was unique and quite good. When I think of gnocchi, I think of the Italian dumplings made from flour, eggs, and cheese or potatoes. These are French gnocchi, however, and unlike the Italian version they are made from the pâte à choux, which is the same dough used to make gougères, éclairs, and profiteroles. The gnocchi are seasoned with fines herbes, extruded into 1 1/2 -inch lengths, and briefly poached in water before being pan seared until pleasantly crisp. The dish is served with sautéed baby radish halves, roasted squash, sliced Brussels sprouts, and garnished with arugula and fresh sage. It was delicious.

The pièce de résistance, however, was boeuf bourguignon ($22.95), large chunks of chuck that were seared and slowly braised in a California burgundy-like wine and veal stock. The stew includes whole baby shitake mushrooms and delicate pearl onions. The beef is truly fork-tender. Served on a bed of silken potato puree, it is the epitome of gourmet comfort food. We asked whether the dish could be served without the bacon and were graciously accommodated. As Executive Chef Michael Petres explained later, the bacon is added to finish the dish. Hence, it can be easily omitted.

Try to save room for dessert. The creativity and mastery of pastry chef Summer Wright is well worth the indulgence. We sampled two of Wright’s creations:

The maple pot de crème with Spiced Walnuts ($8) is smooth, maple-rich, heavenly custard made from cream, eggs, and maple syrup and baked in a hot-water bath. Truly sublime, it is served chilled with a dollop of whipped cream enriched with crème fraiche.

The pear tart ($8) is a round tart of crisp, buttery sweet pastry filled with a custard-enriched frangipane (almond, sugar, and butter cream) and baked with a beautifully fanned row of tiny pear slices. The textures and the flavors are divine.

Blackboards throughout the restaurant post a rotating selection of draft beers and wines by the glass. The menu lists six draught beers ($4-$9), a nice selection of wines and Champagne by the bottle ($30-$193), and eight creative cocktails ($7-$11). A half carafe of the house red or white wine is just $7, and a full carafe (4 large glasses) is just $14.

The menu has something for everyone, including vegetarian, fish, salads, and lighter fare. A menu du jour of three courses-salad, main course and dessert-changes at the whim of the chef and is always affordably priced ($30). Speaking of whims, if you happen to drop by the Brasserie by Niche without reservations on a busy night, you can enjoy your meal at the bar where service is first come, first served.

Brasserie by Niche can be the perfect spot for a romantic dinner for two (think Valentine’s Day) or for a gathering of friends or business associates who appreciate great food, great service, and a lively ambiance. If you haven’t been, you’ll be pleased you went. And if you haven’t been in a while, you can expect the same superior dining experience you had in the past. Consistency, when it comes to quality and service, are hard to beat.