Brasserie by Niche in the Central West End is stronger than ever after 12 years in business
Elegant with an Old World air, Brasserie has long played the grande dame of the Niche Food Group restaurant family. It’s hard to picture her ever having been an infant restaurant – perhaps, at least in part, because she was born into the space long occupied by Chez Leon, itself an outpost of French gastronomic plaisir.
Then, in 2016, Niche closed; last year, Taste by Niche shuttered as well. Other Niche projects – Porano, Sardella – had come and gone. Suddenly, Brasserie went from simply seeming like the oldest Niche progeny to actually being the longest standing of the group’s restaurants. Now, 12 years after Brasserie served its first profiterole, local diners and the national culinary community alike are feting the restaurant and its staff, who report that recently the restaurant has been breaking its own sales records practically every week.
In this year’s Readers’ Choice poll, Brasserie received top honors in both the Favorite Fine Dining and Favorite Romantic Spot categories; executive chef Evy Swoboda was voted Chef of the Year. On the national front, both Swoboda and longtime pastry chef Elise Mensing were nominated in the James Beard Awards’ Best Chef Midwest and Outstanding Pastry Chef categories, respectively.
“Comeback” would be the wrong word to describe this moment for a restaurant whose quality has remained remarkably consistent for over a decade. But clearly something special is afoot. Niche Food Group co-owner Gerard Craft acknowledges that there does seem to be a kind of renaissance about this particular phase in the restaurant’s trajectory. Even before Covid’s disruptions, “you saw a real rise in popularity and just overall guest satisfaction,” he recalled.
How, then, to explain this rekindled passion for a restaurant whose regular menu has remained largely unchanged for years? Craft credits longtime general manager Jennifer Masur, who was recently named director of service for the entire Niche group after eight years at Brasserie and five as a server at Niche before that. With Masur’s promotion to a company-wide role, Brasserie has become the model for hospitality within the Niche group. “Service and training is definitely stemming out of Brasserie,” said Craft. “It’s almost a training ground in some ways for the rest of the company. They are the gold star, the gold example for our group, who we compare all of its siblings to.”
Though Masur is reluctant to accept credit for Brasserie’s success, her colleagues are not shy about giving it to her. “Jenn is just an incredible force,” Craft enthused. “And I would have to say, the greatest front-of-house person in St. Louis, hands down.”
Brasserie’s management team agrees. When asked for their take on the restaurant’s longevity in a recent conversation, their response was immediate: “Jennifer Masur!” “That’s what they would say,” Masur replied, sharing in the group’s laughter at their unanimity.
“She’s humble,” explained Melinda Cooper (herself recently promoted from Brasserie’s bar manager to the Niche group’s director of beverage and bar operations), pointing out Masur’s insistence on sharing credit with those she’s worked alongside. It’s a team-first mentality that many leaders at Brasserie share.
Craft was also quick to praise manager Catlin O’Toole, one of Masur’s first hires, who recently succeeded her as the restaurant’s general manager. On the kitchen side, Craft highlighted the experience and leadership of Swoboda and Mensing, who both spent years in other Niche group kitchens (Mensing at Niche, Swoboda at Pastaria’s Clayton and Nashville locations) before joining Brasserie. Despite Swoboda’s background in Italian cuisine, she picked up the restaurant’s French program “like it was nothing,” said Craft. On Mensing: “She’s been a star for a while, and it’s so exciting that this year she’s starting to get some recognition for that,” he said, referring to her James Beard nomination.
Reliable, comforting French bistro mainstays – French onion soup and braised beef that cook for several hours each day; rich chocolate mousse – are the cornerstones of Brasserie’s menu. It’s these dishes, together with the exceptional hospitality environment created by Masur and co., that have won Brasserie its legion of regulars. As such, these recipes are “untouchable” (Swoboda’s word), lest a diner who eats at the restaurant four nights a week notice a recalibration of their familiar roast chicken.
Yet Swoboda and Mensing find ways to make the cuisine their own, creating specials inspired by seasonal produce and marked by their own creative styles. Swoboda’s Parisian gnocchi, a seasonal special, is made using the batter for the restaurant’s gougères (fluffy, cheesy pastries made from choux dough), which is boiled like traditional gnocchi. As the dish changes with vegetables’ availability, the sauce changes as well; one of Swoboda’s favorite preparations is to serve it with brown butter sauce, seared maitake mushrooms and breadcrumbs.
While discussing the dish later via text, Swoboda emphasized that the gnocchi special was first developed with a former sous chef and insisted that most of the specials at Brasserie are collaborations. “My sole goal as a chef is to help the staff achieve their dreams however I can,” she explained. “Watching their creativity and growth [while] putting together dishes is what it’s all about.” Her motto, she said, is “train people to be better than yourself.” She seeks opportunities to challenge her staff and encourages them to take on ambitious projects, like the new Monday night pop-up series sous chef Jonathan Duffe debuted at Brass Bar in May.
In 2012, éclairs were added to the Brasserie brunch menu, and Mensing proceeded to riff on them for years. She even did a series pairing a different éclair with a famous artwork; one paired a self-portrait by 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi with an éclair filled with Vin Santo pastry cream and topped with white chocolate mirror glaze, a sugared grape, a Jordan almond and gold leaf. (Mensing is also a gifted visual artist; she’s painted many of her Brasserie co-workers in small, intimate portraits that reveal something of the camaraderie between the restaurant’s staff.)
Swoboda admits that she never thought she’d be running a French kitchen, given her training in Italian cuisine. But looking at Brasserie last year, she saw a restaurant where guest satisfaction reflected a high level of teamwork across all areas of the restaurant. “I think I was happy to come back to Niche Food Group knowing how [Brasserie] was being taken care of,” she mused. “And I really like to be able to step into a back-of-house situation where it’s more of one team with front of house. Here, we really work together to be one team.”
“Which is rare,” added Masur. “A lot of restaurant groups, you go in and back of the house hates the front of the house, front of the house hates the back. We wouldn’t get any awards, no butts in seats, if we weren’t working together.”
Because Mensing and Masur started at Niche over a decade ago, they’ve been around long enough to witness the company’s culture evolve. “Before, kitchens were a little strict,” Masur explained. “As a server at Niche, I’d be scared if I messed something up – like, I could lose my job. That’s just how it was back in the day.”
Speaking from the perspective of the kitchen, Mensing added, “I think back then, it was very much focused on the food. Of course, it was a new restaurant … Maybe less [focused] on employees and people, more focused on the customer – less in balance, I would say for sure.”
Now, everyone agreed – including Craft – things are quite different. While there’s no doubt that Craft continues to helm the Niche ship, employees are actively encouraged to speak up if they see a problem. The word “empowered” came up repeatedly throughout the conversation. “Everyone is valued, and we do care what everyone has to say, even if we’re not going to agree on it,” Masur continued. “But you have a space to talk about it, with me, with Gerard, with Evy, with whomever.”
The shift is not only about words and behavior though (as important as those are), but also the material investment the Niche group is making in their employees. Benefits like 401(k)s, paid family leave and mental health services (among many others) give staff the financial and energetic resources necessary to continue providing a high level of service and keep up with the extraordinary demand the restaurant currently enjoys. Most employees at Brasserie have a four-day work week. “We went from being really busy, then to Covid, and now the whole world is coming back out to eat,” Masur said. “And it’s really hard, not just physically but emotionally, to accommodate to the level that we want to accommodate with guests. I think we all thrive in it and love the chaos, but you do need a third day to recover.”
Ultimately, what it comes down to, Masur explained, is the new level of importance Craft is placing on hospitality, not only as a service model but also as a value that circulates within the company, starting from the very top. “That, I think, has completely changed in his head from when he first opened Niche to now – he understands the big picture now,” she said. “He really places the importance on how we all make the guests feel in the front of the house. And that also translates into hospitality – again, with one another, with guests, with each other.”
Craft confirmed these observations. “Years ago, I was a heavy micro-manager,” he acknowledged. “Niche opened, Brasserie opened, Taste opened and then Pastaria opened. And I had to kind of have a come-to-Jesus with myself at one point because I realized that I had no clue, really, how to manage people well.” Specifically, what he didn’t know was how to explain why he’d been successful up to that point to others in his growing company, the values that had driven his decision-making. “I didn’t know how to convey any of that. Which made me a bad manager. Which made me very frustrated.”
Craft finally set about defining a set of company values in 2012. The list has evolved over the years, but hospitality and honesty, he said, are now ranked No. 1 and 2. (The other three are failure, innovation and legacy.) “We were always very honest – sometimes too brutally honest,” he admitted. “But I think it’s so important to be able to have conversations – civilized conversations – on a regular basis about what’s working and what’s not working. And it’s important for everyone to be able to participate in that.”
While an exercise like defining corporate values might seem at odds with the effortlessly chic dining experience and feats of culinary artistry one enjoys at Brasserie, it’s clear that Craft’s willingness to undertake the former has laid the foundation for the restaurant’s recent achievements. “Everyone does feel some ownership in this company now, and it’s kind of magical,” Masur observed. Returning to the conversation’s theme, she continued, “It does really start at the top. And we all do feel extremely empowered because of Gerard.” The Brasserie management team murmured a collective agreement. “Whether he meant to do that or not, now it’s happening. And we’re taking over!”
Readers’ Choice Favorite Fine Dining Restaurant, Favorite Romantic Spot
Readers’ Choice Chef of the Year: Evy Swoboda
Honorable Mention: Favorite Brunch
Brasserie by Niche, 4580 Laclede Ave., St. Louis, 314.454.0600, brasseriebyniche.com