Chef Gerard Craft is a constant fixture in the local—and now, national—food scene with his frequent culinary accolades; and maybe most notably with the recent opening of his latest eatery, Pastaria, in Clayton, and the relocation of his flagship restaurant Niche right next door, which we visited recently. To say it was an over-the-top culinary experience would be a gross understatement.

The Niche kitchen was wide open for all to see--next time, we're definitely going to try and wrangle a seat at the counter in front of it-- and the space, while probably not much bigger square-foot-wise from the original Benton Park location, had a much more open layout. The more spacious floor plan, along with the high ceilings, made the new digs seem much bigger.

The cocktails at Niche, conceived by renowned mixologist Ted Kilgore, were as simple, beautiful and unexpected as the food proved to be later on. The Blood Orange Sidecar ($10), with cognac and Solerno blood orange liqueur and a blood orange puree, was especially delicious.

No longer does Niche offer a traditional menu of starters and entrees. Instead, there is a four-course, prix-fixe menu ($55 per person) and an optional wine pairing ($35 per person); and two 10-course tasting menus: one for carnivores ($85) and one focused more on vegetables ($80), both available with an optional wine pairing, as well ($45).

There was a small selection of Snacks that could be ordered, so we started with the Coxinha ($6), six fried nuggets filled with chicken skin and cream cheese. We were told these delights were a take on a favorite treat from Craft's childhood. At once crisp and creamy, they served as a tasty harbinger of things to come.

Our appetites weren't up for the 10-course offerings, so we opted for the four-course menu. Except for the initial soup course, there were two choices available for each course so we were able to sample all of the items on the menu between the two of us.

The soup was Missouri Chestnut Soup, with maple, black walnut granola and mushroom, poured at the table over sage puffs, almost like tiny meringues. This subtly sweet dish paired exquisitely with a Chardonelle from Chaumette Winery & Vineyards in Ste. Genevieve. Craft is a champion of Missouri wines, and this combo proved that local wines have a place at the finest tables.

Other highlights of the meal included a gorgeous plate of yellowfin tuna with marrow, capers and some Meyer lemon and the glazed cauliflower, which came with a creamy chive hollandaise. We especially liked the intermission palette cleanser, an adult freezer pop made with rum, lime and parsnip. It was the perfect encapsulation of what Niche is all about--simple, quality ingredients configured in a creative, unique and oh-so delicious way.

Everything was exceptional, from the ambiance to the service to the wonderful food. It's not an experience to indulge in on a daily basis. It's a pricey proposition, and there's a substantial time commitment involved--we were at the table for almost three hours. But the investment in time and money will most definitely yield a superior culinary experience.

--Niche, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., 773-7755,

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