Brasserie by Niche in St. Louis

The Central West End of St. Louis is home to a wide variety of restaurants–ethnic, cheap, upscale, fun, exciting, you name it. This critical mass was probably a draw for Gerard Craft of Niche, enticing him to open one of his more casual concepts in the area. Though the fare may not be exciting at Brasserie by Niche it’s definitely solid, well-executed and a credit to the brand.Brasserie by Niche--St. Louis

The restaurant conjures up visions of dining in Paris at a lovely little bistro, complete with chalkboard specials, punched metal ceilings and period lamps. I knew dinner was going to be a treat when our server put a piece of epi pain (a style of French baguette) directly on the brown paper covering the table, along with a small crock of homemade butter. The menu is a collection of classic French hits–French onion soup, escargot, pate, goat cheese tart, coq au vin, roast chicken, cassoulet, mussels and fries and, of course, steak frites.Epi pain at Brasserie by Niche in St. Louis

The beet salad (graciously split for us by our server) was lovely, as was the roast chicken. The chicken was incredibly moist, served in a small skillet and sitting atop a hunk of toasted bread that just begged to be devoured soaked as it was with chicken and mushroom juices. My father and I split a generous side of pomme puree (smooth mashed potatoes) to complete the perfectly executed dish.Brasserie by Niche--St. Louis

Roast Chicken--Brasserie by Niche

I’m ticking off the Gerard Craft restaurants, and so far I’m two for two in the satisfaction category, after an awesome pizza at Pasteria. Next on my list is Niche, Craft’s intimate and innovative restaurant in Clayton.

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Aixois Brasserie

Aixois in Crestwood is practically an institution. But owners Emmanuel and Megan Langlade needed a new challenge, and downtown needed an upscale venue that would appeal to businessmen/women during the day, and concert or theatre goers and couples on date night during the evening.  Serving one of the city’s longest happy hours during the afternoon, and even offering a private dining room for business meetings or birthday celebrations, Brasserie is trying to cover all of its bases.Aixois BrasserieAixois Brasserie

The downtown Aixois Brasserie is quite attractive. Large windows dominate the space, allowing diners to take in what’s happening on the city streets. A large communal table dominates the middle of the restaurant, though small tables and bar seating is available for those desiring more privacy.

So far, Aixois is fulfilling its lofty expectations. The French fare is unfussy and for the most part hits the mark. The Croque Monsieur sandwich is a rich riff on a ham and cheese sandwich, dressed up with bechamel sauce and gruyere cheese.French Fries--Aixois The simple jar of marinated olives is the perfect foil for whatever cocktail you might start your meal with, and the French fries need little more than a quick dip in a spot of ketchup.Olives--Aixois When the brasserie first opened, lamb meatballs appeared on the Happy Hour menu and, although they are off the menu for now,  they deserve to be a main attraction. Sitting on a pool of  what I think was tzatziki sauce (but I was so focused on the taste of the lamb that the sauce was incidental), these little bites were incredible. I like lamb, but don’t love meatballs because they are typically dry.  But this was more like a mini round lamb burger, juicy and full of oomph. The shrimp cocktail was fine, but certainly not exciting or anything out of the ordinary. The remoulade with which the shrimp were served needed a kick. The pate was quite nice, especially the presentation.P1000183P1000181

The beet salad rocks. The beets are julienned and slightly pickled, the roquefort cheese and  candied walnuts are the perfect (and yes, typical) accompaniment to the beets, but it’s the tangy house vinaigrette pulls it all together. It’s a large portion, but I ate every bite and then mopped up the beet juices with the awesome bread from New Traditionalist Bread.P1010197

French onion soup should be the star of the show at a French restaurant, but Aixois tasted a bit too much like beef broth and not enough like onions.French onion soup--Aixois

Aixois is known for its roast chicken in Brookside, so I thought I’d see if it’s as good at the downtown location. The 1/2 chicken was moist and delicious, though on this night, they switched out the mashed potatoes and gave me sweet potatoes instead. Fortunately, I love sweet potatoes; otherwise I would have been a bit miffed at the unrequested substitutionRoast Chicken--Aixois.

The chicken paillard is a treat as well. Pounded thin, it resembles veal piccata, with capers, shallots and lemon sitting atop the tender piece of chicken. Served with crispy fries and a salad, it’s a complete meal.Chicken Paillard--Aixois Brasserie

Surprisingly, the menu also sports a pasta dish. It is predominately made up of crimini mushrooms, though goat cheese, pine nuts, garlic, balsamic vinegar and fried sage add to the flavor profile to make a winning dish.

Aixois Brasserie is a delightful venue, either as a destination or before or after a downtown event. Service is friendly and smooth, and it’s easy to hear your dinner companions, making it a rare breed these days. It’s open for lunch and dinner.

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Le Fou Frog

If you’ve never been to Le Fou Frog, driving up to the nondescript and unattractive building may make you question all the rave reviews you’ve heard for years. But in the spirit of not judging a book by its cover, you will be pleasantly surprised once you walk in the door. It’s certainly not fancy inside, but it’s a real shock to find a restaurant with atmosphere and intimacy. People are dressed more casually than you’d expect from looking at the prices on the menu, and the place has a bit of kitschiness (more on that later), but somehow it all works. The place is definitely a scene, especially on Friday evenings.

As I typically do, I had checked out the menu online before we visited the restaurant. However, unlike most websites these days, Le Fou Frog lists a skeletal menu of sample items rather than the current menu of the day or season. So I was very pleasantly surprised when our server handed us a huge chalkboard with all of the evening’s selections. Though a bit unwieldy to pass around our table of six, the server was happy to give a complete description of each item and help us walk through the list of appetizers and entrees. Contrary to what one may think, this is not stuffy French fare. The preparations are very contemporary and most of the accompanying sauces are light, not cream-based.

Once we sorted out who was going to order what, we settled back into our cozy banquette to celebrate several birthdays at the table. Almost immediately, our appetizers were brought out and my initial thought was boy, that was so quick! However, that was certainly the last time I had that thought, as from then on our service was inexcusably slow. Once the appetizer plates were cleared, it was another 80 minutes until our dinners were served. We were told on two occasions that our food was coming right out only to wait another 15 minutes each time. We were all stunned that no apology was ever given or a complimentary dish brought out to assuage our hunger.

Fortunately, the quality of the food made up for the abysmal service.

Around the table was mushroom soup, lobster bisque, roasted beets with arugula and blue cheese dressing, and French onion soup done the classic way. As a way to jumpstart spring which at the time had not yet sprung, we also ordered the gazpacho soup special. We thought it was a bit early for tomatoes, but the flavor was as fresh as an August batch would have been. Everyone was pleased with their selection–even the ubiquitous beet salad was a cut above.

For dinner I had rare tuna with bamboo rice, seawood salad and roasted shallots. Simple but nicely presented and perfectly executed. The mammoth veal chop was tender and flavorful, but almost raw near the bone. But after waiting as long as we did for our entrees, my table mate had no interest in sending it back and risk not seeing his dinner again for an hour.

Texas quail with pinot noir sauce was another winner, as was the lobster tail which rarely leaves the menu.

We didn’t have the patience to stick around for dessert, but the offerings were certainly appealing.

Oh, and that kitschiness I mentioned? Members of the service and kitchen staff came out to entertain the guests, including pastry chef Carter Holton, who actually has a tremendous singing voice. It was mildly amusing, but if you’re enjoying your dinner conversation you may not welcome the interruption. Ask around and you’ll discover that the cabaret portion of the evening is a longstanding tradition endearing to patrons of this long-loved restaurant.

Le Fou Frog has a great Tuesday-Friday Happy Hour, with many half-priced entrees and drink specials. The bar is small but in the warmer months of the year the outdoor patio is very popular.

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Nica’s 320

Nica’s 320 recently took over the old Shiraz space on Southwest Boulevard. The original Nica’s Cafe was out south before its owners negotiated for a bigger space in the Crossroads. Loaded with the same charm and a courtyard as Shiraz, Nica’s 320 looks like it’s been around forever.

The menu is quite unique. Diners devise their own dishes using potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, pasta, salad, pizza or a typical entree (steak, fish, chicken, scallops) as the basic platform. The “flavor choices” sound like a trip around the world–Thai, Caribbean, Cajun, French, and Italian, with Veghead and Ranchero rounding out the selections. Each style is described on the menu, and mixing and matching is encouraged. As an example, Nico’s noodles can be baked Margarita style with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil, and artichoke hearts; Ranchero with chorizo, corn, roasted peppers, candied jalapenos, Cajun with Andouille, shrimp, chicken, candied jalapenos and olive tapenade; or Veghead with candied pecans, spinach, roasted peppers and wild mushrooms. It looks like the menu is huge, but the same ingredients are used repeatedly.

In addition to trying the noodles, we had a grilled Caesar salad with a Thai Caesar vinaigrette. The dressing was fine, though I’m not sure I would have recognized it as being Thai. The Pupusa Medusa appetizer is Salvadoran in style, a cross between a tamale and a tortilla. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s going to be as authentic as what can be found at El Pulgarcito. The pupusa looked similar, but wasn’t as soft or fluffy, nor was the slaw topping as spicy.

We also ordered the 3 Stooges, an appetizer with three “tacos”. I use that term loosely, because they were unlike any tacos I’ve ever seen. There were three fillings–supposedly Cajun, Carnitas , and Thai chicken, served with sesame slaw and jerk salsa, though we were we were clearly eating steak and pineapple, not Andouille and shrimp, so we must have been given a Caribbean filling instead of the Cajun (but we liked it, so it wasn’t a big deal). In any event, they were served with three very thin and greasy tortillas that were so brittle there was no way to form a taco. The best we could do was break them into chips and add a bit of each filling on top. It’s a dish that clearly needs to be reworked (and maybe it has since that particular visit in October).

The restaurant is new, having only been open a few months, and it always takes time to get the kinks out, but it’s a fine effort and reasonably priced. I admire the creativity, but the dishes were a bit too contrived. Perhaps the other combinations will be more successful, certainly putting some of these ingredients in an omelette at breakfast, or in a sandwich at lunch is an appealing notion. And I’ve seen pictures of the beignets, housemade ice cream sandwiches and chocolate stuffed wonton, so I definitely will be going back for breakfast….and dessert.

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Cafe Des Amis

Been to Parkville lately? Located just 15 minutes from downtown, its historic district is quite charming and worth a visit.  The drive along the banks of the Missouri River is lovely..in fact it would be a pleasant spot for a picnic in the fall or spring. 

A friend and I traveled to Parkville in the summer, one of the few days in July that was actually cool enough for a stroll around town, no need to duck inside to the air conditioning. We were there to try  Cafe Des Amis, an extremely quaint second floor restaurant.  Had it not  rained, wiping out any chance to sit outside and enjoy the moderate temperature, that would have been my preference.  While the interior is well-appointed and encompasses several small rooms as well as an adorable bar in the foyer, the small outside deck sits among the trees, like a bird in a nest.

Cafe Des Amis, no surprise, is a French restaurant through and through. French accoutrements were displayed on the walls and tables, including in the bathroom, which I loved….enough to take a picture (unfortunately, I couldn’t quite capture its essence, but you get the idea.)

At dinner, the menu features  typical but  no less alluring French specialties…escargot (snails), mussels, frogs’ legs, coquilles St. Jacques (scallops), duck and bouillabaisse. But we were there for lunch, and admittedly didn’t go for the full Francophile experience. Some of those same options were available, along with crepes and quiche, but we both opted for salads, each of which were substantial, fresh and satisfying. Served with hot French bread (of course), it was an ideal summer meal. The Salade des Amis consisted of baby greens with a very tasty honey Dijon dressing, topped with red pepper, Portobellos, blue cheese and exceptional candied walnuts. The salad with a goat cheese crostini may not have had as much going on, but it was certainly enjoyable.

After lunch we stopped by Wines by Jennifer, almost worth the trip in itself. It’s in a small house off the main drag, and is part wine shop, part wine bar and part art gallery. There are three floors in all and each room specializes in a different country, so that Spanish wines are grouped together, Italian in another and so on. Art adorns the walls and tables throughout.

The wine selection, though small, is impressive. The owner, who travels extensively, knows her stuff. It’s on the expensive side, but I would guess she has a little monopoly going in this tiny hamlet.

Next time I’ll try to time my visit to coincide with the Wednesday afternoon Farmer’s Market (3-6 p.m.) just south of the railroad tracks at English Landing Park.  I also plan to go to Piropos Grille, newly reopened and specializing in casual Latin American fare.

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Westport Cafe and Bar

Westport Cafe and Bar is a new player on the Westport scene, but unlike most of its neighbors on the block, its emphasis is as much on the food as the drink. Blanc Burger’s orange and white motif is out– the space now has a distinct French cafe flair, with white subway tiles on the walls, Parisian fixtures and classic black and white floor tiles. Dark wood and mirrors complete the look.

The menu has been planned to complement the decor. Casual fare, something for everyone at any time of day. The choices are the same at lunch or dinner and range from salads and sandwiches to heartier bistro fare. The seared tuna nicoise was light and cooked to a satisfying medium rare.  The roasted beet, goat cheese and arugula salad was resplendent with fresh and incredibly sweet beets.  Hamburgers, steak sandwiches, green pea ravioli and even grilled octopus are other light options.

Steak frite, roast chicken, pasta champignons, slow cooked pork shoulder and roasted char round out the choices. The French fries don’t live up to their heritage (too bad Blanc Burger didn’t leave its recipe behind) but the steak was cooked exactly as ordered. The chicken was moist and flavorful and I liked having arugula salad on the plate to eat with it, in addition to some rather rich potatoes.

The only real disappointment was the competent but uninspired cheese plate. For a restaurant that encourages patrons to drop by for a glass of wine, that lapse was a bit of a surprise.

Don’t miss the profiteroles, whether or not you think you have room for dessert. The pastry is light, ice cream rather than custard fills the middle, and the drizzled dark chocolate sauce  is spoon-licking good.

When winter arrives, the owner explained to our table that he expects to expand the menu. Beef bourguignon, coq au vin and other traditional dishes are natural additions at that time of year.

Though there’s an emphasis on the food side of the equation, the owners haven’t ignored the drink side. They brought in Ryan Maybee, bartender extraordinaire, to devise the cocktail list and, while he works on a new home for his shuttered Manifesto bar, he can often be found mixing drinks here.

Westport Cafe and Bar is unlike most restaurants in Westport. It’s upscale, food-focused and though it can be loud when the restaurant is full, it is not trying to be party central.Though twenty-somethings may occupy the bar stools, the over-thirty crowd will certainly be drawn to the attractive, friendly ambiance and pleasant cuisine.

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