Monday, June 17, 2013

Ale to the 'Burbs: Niche Restaurant - Geneva, Illinois

Ale to the 'Burbs is a monthly collaborative beer blog series. Four Chicagoland beer blogs...four communities...four suburban beer destinations...all on one day. From the hidden neighborhood gems to the well-known pillars of suburban craft beer, we've got the Chicago 'burbs covered. Links to the other articles are listed at the bottom of this post. Check back next month for our next batch of articles.

Let's be clear about one thing right off the bat; Geneva's Niche Restaurant is not a craft beer bar. Niche is a restaurant, and more than that, a fine dining establishment. It's a place you take your wife on your anniversary, or your out-of-towner in-laws if you're trying to impress them. It's a place for first dates and Valentine's Day meals.

But, once a week, Niche is also a place to grab a special bottle from your cellar and show up after work to enjoy some rare craft beers with like-minded beer geeks. Or to find a unique beer during one of the situations previously mentioned.

Niche originally opened in August, 2006, with the goal of filling the need for a fine dining establishment in the Tri-Cities and, more specifically, Geneva. Walking in, you immediately get that impression: sparse but tasteful decor, white tablecloths with sharp place settings, all with the quiet murmur of diners in the background. A small but well-stocked bar sits off to the left as you enter, with a few tables nearby. Passing through a small divider to the dining area, the room opens up with soft lighting and nicely spaced low tables.

Niche is a restaurant first and foremost, and the menu by Chef Serena Perdue has been built to impress. Everything from appetizers to small plates to entrees are presented artfully. Truffle oil popcorn, various cheese plates, and the occasional wild game help the menu stand out. But, of course, every great meal needs an equally great drink to complement it. That's where general manager and wine director Vince (Vinny) Balistreri comes in.

Many diners who visit Niche most likely rely on Vinny to help them pair a wine with their meal. What they may not realize, though, is that Niche has a relatively small but interesting beer menu as well. While the small number of taps at the bar may seem to counter this notion, they're always something special...perhaps something barrel-aged by Ballast Point or something a bit rare from Great Lakes Brewing Company. You'll also find local beers from places like Solemn Oath or Revolution in the mix as well. In any case, the tap selections make a solid case for "quality over quantity." And if there's nothing on tap that catches your eye, there are always 30 or so craft beers in bottle form under the bar to choose from as well.

All of this is done so subtly that you likely could come in to eat and never even realize beer is served at Niche. But a little over a year ago, Vinny began to think about ways to highlight his restaurant with the growing craft beer scene. He wanted to find a way bring local beer geeks like himself to the restaurant without hurting its fine dining reputation. And thus the Wednesday night bottle share was born.
The Line-Up After a Particularly Stellar Niche Bottle Share

Wander into Niche on a Wednesday for dinner and at first you won't notice anything out of the ordinary. On this typically slow night for dining, a few tables may have a couple enjoying a meal or some well-dressed ladies sipping wine after work. But wait around for an hour or two and something extraordinary happens. As the dining room empties, the bar area fills up...both in the number of people and types of beer. Local beer geeks, generally still in work attire, line the bar and tables around it. With them is a bottle, usually more than one, from their own cellars, often something rare they've been cellaring for a while or perhaps something from out-of-state acquired through a trade.

The bottle share "group" itself varies from week to week, depending on work schedules, family plans, and Blackhawks games. Some weeks, only a handful of "members" are able to attend. Others, the entire bar area, tables and all, will be filled, with a few people even standing in between. I hesitate to use the words "group" and "members" though because that makes everything sound exclusive and inaccessible. Anyone who loves beer can attend, whether they're a full-blown beer geek who's tried damned near everything, or a novice who wants to broaden his or her palate.

What Vinny has ended up creating, intentionally or not, is a sub-community of beer enthusiasts in the Tri-City and Fox Valley area. While the bottle share is indeed open to anyone, it certainly has its fair share of regular attendees. They come from all kinds of backgrounds; financial analysts, bankers, property assessors, local bar owners, even certain future local brewery owners. Many of them now connect during the week through social media channels to figure out who will be attending on a certain Wednesday or to help them decide what to bring.

The events, such as they are, end up being casual, highly enjoyable, and usually informative evenings. There's always something new to try from somewhere you've never heard of. And the generosity of both the host and his guests is nothing short of remarkable. While Vinny may have created the event, the locals continue to build on it and make it their own.

Additional Articles in this Month's Ale to the 'Burbs Series:

Cross Town Pub and Grill by Blah Blah...Beer
Church Street Brewing Company by Pourman
Urban Legend Brewing Company by Beerdogging

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