A former restaurant
crew struggles in its
effort to begin anew.
When the story behind a restaurant is a good one, you want so much for it to triumph over adversity. It’s too bad, then, that Geneva’s Niche, which has certainly already won the heart of locals, isn’t yet worth the hour-plus trip from the city.
For 18 years, 302 West was Geneva’s stunner, both a destination restaurant and a weekly haunt for regulars who appreciated chef Joel Findlay’s upscale New American menu and competent wine cellar. When Findlay died of cancer in 2004, his sous chef Jeremy Lycan took over and the team plugged along for nearly two years. After Findlay’s wife, Catherine, sold the restaurant less than a year ago, the crew that had worked under Findlay disbanded. Recently, Lycan and 302 West sommelier Jody Richardson opened Niche with 14 members of 302’s former staff in an effort that Lycan says “isn’t so much to carry on [Findlay’s] legacy but to just be true to the influence he had on us and keep this group of people together.”
Findlay’s memory is honored with a sketch of him that hangs in the bar. A handful of his dishes—including a Euro-style plate of roasted garlic, baked Corsican feta, watercress, olives and crusty bread—dot Lycan’s menu. During our half-hour wait at the bar, we overheard two conversations mentioning Findlay with reverence. It’s clear the community suffered a great loss, and it seems that people arrive at Niche to support an extension of what once was.
Given that the Niche team has worked together previously, it’s tough to chalk up gaffs to newbie kinks. Reservations weren’t honored on time, wine didn’t arrive until after we finished our appetizers, not much of the food was incredibly memorable; with these things adding up, it was hard to justify our trek from the city.
Butternut-squash soup and wild-mushroom risotto sounded like perfect starters for the season, but the soup was so thick it was pasty, and the risotto so blah that I fished out the hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and skipped the rice altogether. Turns out that the best app of the bunch is the illegal-in-Chicago foie gras, a perfectly seared lobe on a peach-basil salad with a delicious duck reduction.
Entrées (all preceded by a pointless plate of mixed greens) are New American, the ingredients coinciding with local season but the concoctions spanning the globe. A thick tuna filet is dipped in tempura batter, flash-fried, and served with a cloyingly sweet cherry sauce (skip it) and tasty veggie-laced sesame oil–fried rice. The seared lamb loin (an expert medium-rare) is, like most of the entrées, a huge portion. But while the simple pesto and grilled veggies alongside are fine, the dish is too boring to bother finishing.
Finishing wasn’t an issue with dessert, which was the highlight of our meals. The individual apple pie was fantastic, with a crumbly streusel, flaky bottom crust and velvety vanilla ice cream. Butterscotch pudding was a perfect balance of liquory kick and browned butter, surrounded by a pool of heavy cream for dipping into with rich shortbread sticks. If I lived closer, I’d come back for dessert alone and keep tabs on the progress of the main event. It’s sure to improve, because it’s obvious this team is far from giving up.
14 S Third St, Geneva (630-262-1000). Dinner (Tue–Sat). Average main course: $25.