With new chef, Niche maintains steady course
I felt a twinge of guilt stepping into Niche in Geneva on a recent Saturday night ... a feeling akin to doing something behind a friend's back.
I raved about the restaurant back when it opened with chef Jeremy Lycan (from the beloved 302 West) at the helm. Last summer Lycan left the restaurant to pursue other passions, and several months passed before a new executive chef stepped into the kitchen.
I waited a bit before heading in to see how Geneva native and chef Serena Perdue was putting her own mark on Niche's seasonally focused menu. Chefs who change things up too quickly throw regular diners into a tizzy, and those who don't switch it up enough can become trapped by their predecessor's legacy.
Thus far Perdue has built on Niche's strong foundation of American cuisine and taken the commitment to local produce even closer to heart with dazzling results. Each plate delights with thoughtful taste combinations and presentation. Because of the seasonal nature of the restaurant, the menu evolves almost weekly, so the dishes described may not still be available.
The spring peas mixed into the duck confit risotto provided our first taste of the new Niche. A hint of mint accented the creamy Arborio rice and played well against the rich fowl. Perdue's shrimp and grits just might be the best this side of the Mason-Dixon Line and pays homage to her time spent in the Crescent City. The white hominy grits had body without, well, grit; the shrimp were kissed lightly with a spicy marinade. The shrimp, however, arrived tail-on. Sure it makes for a pretty plate, yet I find that annoying.
I could find no such fault with the gem salad. It was a gem indeed, named for the garnet cubes of roasted beets accenting grilled romaine leaves and crispy bacon.
The black pepper vinaigrette on an already bitter arugula and spinach salad could have been overwhelming, but was tamed by dried apricots and smooth goat cheese.
The pork trio I enjoyed has sadly, but understandably, been reduced to a duo. Maple-glazed pork belly that nearly melts in your mouth (a favorite from the former Niche menu) and pork tenderloin remain on the menu, but the cheeks, gently braised and utterly tender, are just a memory due to the limited availability of the cut. Perdue has reworked the dish with a lightly poached fried egg and Lyonnaise sauce.
The perfectly pleasant Mediterranean-influenced roasted monk fish served with garlic purée, capers and olives, likewise, has been bumped from the menu. Perdue said ono, a firm Hawaiian fish, will take the seafood spotlight. Look for it with jasmine rice, roasted pineapple, cilantro and lime. As the spring and summer progress, expect the menu to change quite often as produce from the restaurant's farm grows ready for harvest.
Before dessert arrives, the kitchen surprises diners with a spool of cotton candy that looks like it belongs on a 1950s hairdresser. Light pink and wispy, the cotton candy provides a fun segue to dessert and provides proof that Niche doesn't take itself too seriously.
Perdue's spring dessert menu features Southern Breeze, a dessert that was in its testing stages on the evening of our visit. The fresh beignet (New Orleans-style doughnut) blended with mildly tart rhubarb preserves and a scoop of vanilla ice cream to cap our meal nicely. A Niche coffee, a sweet blend of strong coffee and spices with a sugared rim, is almost a dessert in itself. I think this would make a wonderful iced drink once the temperatures climb.
Even with its white tablecloths and soft lighting, Niche is not a stuffy sort of place. The waitstaff are friendly and knowledgeable, and the eclectic music overhead captures the mood of the restaurant. It's not unusual to see Perdue emerge from the kitchen and chat with diners. If a full meal is not in your plan, a limited menu is offered in the bar that also features homemade infused liquors and strong martinis.
The wine list, culled by Vince Ballesteri, is exclusively American with a strong leaning toward California wineries. The restaurant frequently hosts dinners to introduce diners to the boutique wineries and new additions to the cellar.
Niche14 S. Third St., Geneva, (630) 262-1000, nicherestaurant.com
Cuisine: Seasonally focused contemporary American
Setting: Elegant space with soft lights and earthy pallette
Entrees: $23 to $48; three-course tasting menu $40
Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday