The New Caffe Niche 

This cafe's recently expanded menu runs the gamut from so-so to sublime.

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It’s been nearly a year since chefs Ethan Lappé and Adrian Alvarado took over Caffe Niche from its previous owners, Jeff Martin and Tara Southard, who operate the adjacent Dexterity Salon. Changes to the Niche program include nightly dinners (previously, dinners were only available on weekends), Sunday brunch, an improved wine list and an expanded menu. One change I’m not so thrilled about is that live music has gone away. I used to enjoy nibbling at Niche while listening to the Red Rock Hot Club and others. But, maybe killing the music is a sign of the owners’ dedication to and focus on cuisine.

There is a lot to like about Caffe Niche—like the atmosphere, which is typically buzzing with folks hopping from table to table. It seems nearly impossible to enter the restaurant without running into someone you know. The casual but hip vibe is enticing, and the restaurant is a comfortable and friendly place to grab a quick bite or go whole hog. You could be quite happy just enjoying a whole, roasted artichoke with aioli for dipping ($7) or pig out on Morgan Valley lamb sirloin ($23).

However, expanding a restaurant’s menu has risks. Quality control can become an issue. And, frankly, although I really love this eatery, I’ve had some mixed experiences there lately. There’s nothing wrong with the service, which is always friendly and very professional—no complaints there. But the food has been uneven at times. And, there are dishes I just don’t quite understand the rationale behind.

Take, for instance, one of the “small plates”: a single scallop. It’s certainly truth in advertising, because the menu does clearly state “single scallop,” and that’s what it is: one large (but not diver) seared scallop perched upon a bed of Asian slaw made with red and Napa cabbage and blood orange sauce. It’s quite good—but it’s also $8. Yes, eight dollars for a single scallop. That seems awfully brazen, to me—a little too precious. That dish makes two goat-cheese stuffed piquillo peppers seem like an outright steal at $6. Sautéed wild mushrooms ($8) from the small plates portion of the menu is served on half a toasted baguette with natural jus and sprinkled with black pepper and herbs. It’s simple, but delicious.

Well, if $8 for one scallop seems stingy, the roasted chicken and spinach salad ($12) at Caffe Niche is just the opposite—quite generous. My salad was so large that I brought home half of it, and it became lunch for my wife the next day. It’s a big, triangular plate brimming with fresh Bloomsdale spinach, tender roasted chicken pieces, bits of bacon, cashews, golden raisins, apple and large wedges of Manchego cheese. The whole thing is lightly dressed with a perfect Champagne vinaigrette and fresh ground black pepper. This is a good example of what Caffe Niche does so well. It’s not food that bowls you over with creativity or hipness; it’s just good, solid, real food of the type you can enjoy day in and day out.

Well, mostly. One dish I wouldn’t mind seeing disappear from the menu is the pork chop ($19). There was absolutely nothing that worked in this dish. It’s a bone-in, all-natural, brined pork chop that, in my case, was cooked to death. I didn’t even think it was possible to ruin a brined pork chop that badly. It was tough and dry in the center and came with no hint of sauce or even natural juices—there just weren’t any. Alongside was braised red cabbage, tasting like it had been cooked in cherry soda, too sweet to eat. And then there was spaetzle that looked and tasted like it had been drying out all day and then sautéed before serving, making it even drier. Some of the spaetzle was even crunchy. Not good. It’s also a bit of a mystery why the pork chop is only $12 during Sunday brunch but $19 at dinner.

On the other hand, the fish dishes I’ve tasted at Niche are sublime. Tazmanian King salmon ($24) is line-caught, “fresh never frozen,” and cooked exactly as ordered—in this case, medium rare, just barely warmed in the middle. The juicy filet is served on a bed of sautéed spinach and roasted fingerling potatoes. Nothing fancy, really, just good, straightforward food, although I do think the spuds would benefit from a hint of thyme or rosemary. For meat lovers, there is an 8-ounce hanger steak ($22), cooked medium-rare, sliced and served with a heap of zesty chimichurri sauce made from parsley, oregano, lemon, onion and red chili peppers. And it’s hard not to love the Durham Ranch (Napa Valley) buffalo short ribs ($23), which are braised overnight—so tender you could eat ’em with a spoon—and served with Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.

The wine list at Caffe Niche isn’t gigantic, but there are treasures on it like Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel, Trinafour Dry Muscat (great with the chicken salad), Soter North Valley Pinot Noir, Selby Russian River Chardonnay and good bubbly: Simonnet-Febvre Cremant de Bourgogne de Pinot Noir, not to mention some interesting beer options, both imported and domestic. The Simmonnet-Febvre Cremant would go well, I think, with a dessert called grapefruit “brulee,” which is nothing like any brulee you’ve ever had, but red grapefruit wedges sweetened with local honey and served in a spun sugar bowl ($7). It’s one of the simplest but most sensational desserts I’ve had in recent memory, and I’m not even particularly fond of grapefruit! And, it’s the sort of thing that will keep me coming back to an ever-evolving Niche.

CAFFE NICHE
779 E. Broadway
801-433-3380
CaffeNiche.com

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