- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
The sunglow yellow cucumber flower that brightened a plate of sumptuous country pâté came from chef Lawrence Kocurek’s garden. The pickled and sliced quail eggs, magenta on the outside with jonquil yellow yolks, paid homage to his grandparents.
We didn’t learn this information from the menu or a news release. Kocurek told us from his position across the counter as he served the second of seven courses during a wine-paired meal at Counter 357.
Kocurek is the executive chef at the Congress Avenue restaurant he and owner Eric Earthman opened in March. Counter 357, located in the former Dress Shop below Swift’s Attic, deviates from traditional expectations by serving a trio of fixed-menu offerings (three, five and seven courses). The restaurant actually spells its name Counter 3. Five. VII., a misguided decision (for reasons of marketing, aesthetics and common sense) that I won’t attempt to unravel here.
Other restaurants across the country (Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles and Almanac in New York City) play with numerous multi-course fixed menu options, but Counter 357’s approach is unique in Austin. Congress, a block away, ended their adherence to two fixed-course options last year, and Qui and Barley Swine present guests with a single fixed menu. That leaves Counter 357 to operate in a singular space.
Chefs in the open kitchen directly serve diners seated in tall ringside chairs at the horseshoe counter circumscribing the kitchen. The design and feel of the restaurant resemble a kind of stylized Japanese kaiseki. Service is delivered across the counter (excepting the well-informed wine service) by the chefs in a clean, sparse space of light-colored wood and geometric patterns. The dining room sits behind a sliding gate at the end of a handsome and underappreciated bar, giving it the feel of a showroom.
Lighting is bright, eschewing the come-hither tones found at other fine dining restaurants. After all, the chefs must be able to look you in the eye when they tell you about the flowers and herbs they apply with tweezers to many of the plates. Some of those precision items come from the grow case at the back of the science lab-kitchen, others from the chefs’ home gardens.
You can forgive Kocurek for the artful indulgence. His last two stints have been at Trace at the W Hotel Austin and Hyatt Lost Pines. Tourists, businessmen and vacationing families may not always appreciate the elegant and dainty flourishes the way conscientious food lovers do.
The exceptional pâté nods to Kocurek’s eponymous charcuterie business that initially brought him to the attention of Austin food lovers. Kocurek mixed foie gras with the pork, adding decadence to the silky spread that he piques with picked mustard seed and a lovely cornichon relish. Award-winning sommelier Jason Huerta paired the dish with the tart cherries of a dry Grignolino d’Asti from Marchesi Incisa della Rochetta.
Huerta delivered encyclopedic and anecdotal knowledge of each of the pairings, explaining how the Darnat Bourgogne Blanc from Henri Darnat was a declassified Meursault. The wine’s subtle oak made for a perfect match with the meaty and smoky confit hen of the woods mushrooms served in a sauce of toasted rice, brown rice vinegar and mace. But the counter seating dynamic had us awkwardly turning in our chairs and craning our necks each time one of the seven wines was expertly presented at our seats.
Kocurek is joined in the kitchen by chef de cuisine Damien Brockway, who has worked at Uchiko and Qui. The beautiful plating and some flavor profiles from those two places can be seen in dishes at Counter 357. Roasted hazelnut dusted a roulade of translucent rainbow trout draped with spears and ribbons of asparagus, as salty pearls of bowfin caviar spilled from the barrel of fish into a satiny hazelnut milk. A dish of serpentine Japanese horse mackerel dotted with peaches and begonia flowers allowed Brockway to display the bounties of his own home garden.
A dish of bigeye tuna cooked a la plancha showed imagination and flare with a leaf of charred corn glass and whey milk that had me drinking from the bowl. Speaking of bowls, Counter 357’s servicewear and pottery are gorgeous, but sometimes looks get in the way of pragmatism. It is the slightest nit, but serving caviar in a pebbled bowl (as with the aforementioned trout) made it almost impossible to scoop each expensive bead, and nobody wants to see a dish taken away with caviar still left to eat.
Land and sea met in a dish of lush beef tongue piggybacked by a raw oyster. The fat from the tongue found a counter in the acid and heat of bitter herb chimichurri and paper-thin discs of serrano peppers. Braising and glazing gave suppleness and a candied crackle to octopus popped with the sweetness and saltiness of Chinese sausage, and buttery whipped sweet potato and the vegetal snap of bok choy played bad cop/good cop to finish the dish graced with nasturtium flowers.
One of the best dishes at Counter 357 also pointed to one of my few problems with the restaurant. Ruby-centered duck, smoked then lightly seared, hummed with the allure of five-spice on a plate texturally balanced with turnip puree and crawfish relish. I just wish I’d received more than four medallions of the excellent duck at my five-course dinner. I blame the modest amount of protein for my appetite that resurfaced about an hour after the meal. While I respect Counter 357 for not turning me into the grotesque character in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” I don’t want to feel peckish so soon after spending $75 on a five-course dinner.
The value and amount of food made more sense on the seven-course menu. If the five-course meal left me feeling 80 percent full, the restaurant’s grandest option of the trio (and its pairings) nosed just over the 100 percent mark, without making me uncomfortable. The Gold(ilocks) standard probably resides somewhere between the two
Fortunately, I was not offered a Pythonesque wafer-thin mint after either dinner. Despite her time at Uchiko, pastry chef Sarah Prieto informed us that she had not previously experimented much with Asian flavors for dessert. You could have fooled me. A pastry chef for only four years (the things you learn with ringside seating), with stints at San Francisco’s Wayfare Tavern and Saison, Prieto delivered imaginative and artful desserts on both visits.
She implemented sake lees (the residual yeast that come from making sake) to create a Thai-inspired khao mahk (fermented rice pudding) served with brilliant pineapple sorbet, coconut chips and dollops of whipped coconut. She also used the sake lees to make refreshing cream soda foam that pulled off the impressive feat of being both innovative and nostalgic.
Asian flavors also appeared on a dish of Thai tea crème brûlée that looked like a candy bar and came with a Thai basil and rice tuile, puffed rice and toasted rice sorbet that came on like a blast of warm wind and receded with a cool whisper.
The counter seating allowed us to engage Prieto on her inspiration and vision. Diners can modulate their level of interaction with chefs during dinner. The chefs are busy and never intrude unwantedly. But the service experience and seating arrangement (perfect for a date, but bad for groups) is part of what makes dinner at Counter 357 special.
Cooking and serving food is art and craft. It is also deeply personal. Counter 357 gives you a front-row look at the process and personalizes the dining experience.