If you think four-star dining has to include caviar and white tablecloths, then make your way to Niche in downtown Geneva for an attitude adjustment.
Here, chef Chris Ayukawa, manager/wine director Vince Balistreri and their top-notch staff provide a stellar experience in a ruggedly elegant space that has distinguished itself as the pinnacle of fine dining in the Fox Valley.
Niche14 S. Third St., Geneva; (630) 262-1000, nichegeneva.com
Cuisine: Seasonal American splashed with global flare
Setting: Simple muted room with rustic touches
Entrees: $25 to $32; small plates $6 to $13
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; late night menu 9 p.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday
Heavy wood doors to the wine cabinets, barnlike lighting and cowhide stools in the bar help set the farm-to-table mood that Niche has championed since its founding in 2006.
Our meal couldn't have started out more pleasantly as complimentary glasses of bubbly arrived with the server wishing me and my husband a happy anniversary, based on a comment I made when making the reservation (not under my name, of course).
But don't think of Niche as just a special occasion spot. On the weekday evening we visited the dining room held a table of moms with young daughters, a large group of business men and a handful of two- and three-people groups. The music was kept to a conversation-friendly level. The bar was empty when we arrived, but by the time we left it was abuzz with people enjoying conversation, burgers and craft beers and cocktails.
While sipping the sparkling wine, we perused the tight, well-conceived menu and mapped out our meal. The menu starts off listing appetizers and small plates (like steamed mussels with sorrel and a burger with breakfast stout butter and aged cheddar for just $9) and progresses to meat and cheese plates, salads and entrees. A handful of side dishes are available in single and shareable portions, as well.
I remember pork belly from a stellar meal at Niche under founding chef Jeremy Lycan and I wanted to see what his sous-turned-executive chef could do with it. Chef Ayukawa did not disappoint. Two interlocked gulf shrimp sat atop a delicious hunk of curry-spiced belly. Delicate pea tendrils finished the dish.
My husband worked his way though the meat platter, grudgingly sharing a bite or two. The horseradish mustard made quick friends with the elk sausage and registered a 10 on my taste-o-meter. The sweet onion bacon jam went well with everything, and I'm kicking myself that I didn't ask if we could buy a jar of it. The soup changes almost daily, dictated by what has been picked at Niche's farm a few miles down the road or delivered by local purveyors. I'm thankful we were there for the smoked tomato soup; it was full of sweet tomato flavor and tasted like it just came off the campfire.
For a salad, I went with the Baby Gem, a gem of a salad indeed with creamy avocado and tangy pickled red onions mixing with greens, mild farmers cheese and a sprinkling of macadamia nuts for crunch.
On our visit, the entrees included Amish chicken with goat cheese and polenta, slow-cooked pork cheek, grilled skate wing with lentil salad and rainbow chard and homemade fettuccine with summer vegetables. Keep in mind the menu changes often to reflect ingredients at their peak.
The ahi tuna comes on the rare side, unless you ask for it a bit more cooked, as I did. The seared fish was delightfully well seasoned with chili pepper and balanced with a creamy coconut sauce. The fish was delicious, but the star was the sticky purple rice. The rice was sweet and a little nutty, and its chewy texture played well with the fish.
The rib-eye was, in my husband's words, "fantastic. A top five all-time steak of my life." It came with crispy, bistro-style fries that were dusted with garlic and meant for sopping up the steak's savory jus. The cabernet sauvignon-blend recommended by Balistreri was a wonderful match.
Desserts don't get short shrift at Niche, perhaps a happy consequence of chef Ayukawa's marriage to the restaurant's former pastry chef.
We ushered out the meal in grand style with a sampler that featured milk stout ice cream and a wonderful, boldly flavored butterscotch pudding that's a longtime customer favorite.
Our service was friendly and attentive without hovering and left us completely contented.
Three- and five-course chef's tasting menus are available (wine pairings optional and extra), and next time I will gladly put my culinary fate in chef Ayukawa's capable hands. He has proved that Niche deserves to hold its spot as a top dining destination in the suburbs.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.