Regional Dining Guide

Niche: Same Fine Cuisine in Laid-Back Atmosphere

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Geneva’s fine dining favorite is going business casual with a recent facelift to its dining room and menu. See how this favorite is staying true to its reputation, while exploring new possibilities.

Vince Balistreri, general manager and sommelier.

Vince Balistreri, general manager and sommelier.

During its eight years in business, Niche, 14 S. Third St. in Geneva, has made a name for itself as a fine dining haven specializing in contemporary American fare. Yet despite its reputation, Niche’s owners concluded there was room on its plate for more than special-occasion drinks and dinner.

So, early this spring, the restaurant closed to make some interior updates, hire a new executive chef and refresh the menu. It reopened on April 1.

“The goal was to make Niche less intimidating and create an atmosphere more inviting to everybody,” says Vince Balistreri, general manager and sommelier.

The new Niche has a more open feel. Gone are formal table linens and a wall that once separated the 60-seat dining room from the 25-seat lounge. Other cosmetic changes include distressed walnut tabletops, saddle-leather banquettes, Edison bulb lighting and a fresh color scheme.

Chris Ayukawa, who served Niche as sous chef from its debut through 2009, was recently installed as executive chef, adding his creative touch to a menu that reflects seasonal harvests and daily market shipments of fresh-caught fish.

Fine dining favorites, from grilled monkfish to ribeye and rack of lamb, now join more casual dishes, such as quarter-pound burgers, smoked sturgeon with horseradish potato salad, and flatbread pizza with queso fundido, house-made chorizo, chimichurri, piquillo pepper and cilantro. The chef’s creativity extends to desserts. Recent ice creams have included such flavors as coconut basil, sesame seed, blueberry thyme and pineapple raspberry.

Ayukawa also oversees three 20-by-20-foot plots at Niche’s Bull Run Farm in nearby Elburn, where heirloom tomatoes, leaf lettuce and purple broccoli are grown along with herbs used at the restaurant.

Diners now spend an average $48 per person, compared to an average $70 before renovations.

“The past few months have been our best,” says Balistreri, who attributes much of the recent success to Ayukawa’s return to the kitchen. “His food is second to none.”

Other factors play a role in boosting the business, too. Niche extended its Friday and Saturday hours, pushing closing time to midnight – a popular move that’s drawn a younger crowd. Starting at 9 p.m., a late-night menu is offered, featuring bar-friendly, tapas-style fare such as poutine frites with a foie gras gravy and soft cheese curds; warm pretzel twists with sea salt, sweet onion bacon jam and mustard seed butter; fried boneless chicken thigh with honey; and chili mac and cheese.

Balistreri estimates that about 20 percent of Niche’s customers gravitate to the small-plate menu. “It’s a growing segment,” he says.

The restaurant, recognized by Wine Spectator for its all-domestic wine cellar, also dialed back prices on some of the wines and began adding Old World labels to the mix. “It’s a way to accommodate customers who favor French Bordeaux and German Riesling,” says Balistreri, a certified sommelier. “When the economy took a turn, a lot of people stepped back on wine consumption or became more used to a less-expensive wine.”

Besides its inventory of more than 270 wines, Niche also carries nearly 125 craft beers, including 10 on tap. It offers five-course tasting dinners that can be paired with wine or artisanal beer. Niche stocks more than 200 labels of whiskey, primarily bourbon, although it also carries Canadian and Irish whiskey, scotch and rye.

Niche is open for dinner Tues.-Thurs. from 5:30 to 9 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. to midnight. Reservations are recommended, particularly on weekends. The venue is available for private lunch parties on Sundays and Mondays, when it’s normally closed, and for luncheon events on other days.

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