Somerville’s Tasting Counter is a successful experiment in fine dining
It’s true what they say about practice.
Chef Peter Ungár has been practicing for Tasting Counter, his 20-seat restaurant inside the Aeronaut Brewing Company space, his entire career. He worked his way through the kitchen at Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons. He put in time at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Le Grand Véfour and Le Céladon in France. He brought that classical training home with the Dining Alternative, for which he was part personal chef, part pop-up host, creating and serving elegant multicourse menus in residences around town.
So, when he opened Tasting Counter with wife, co-owner, and general manager Ginhee Ungár in July, it was already well on its way to perfect.
But this isn’t a generic brand of perfection. There is no illusion of effortlessness. Rather, the experience illuminates some of the underpinnings of fine dining in a way that enhances appreciation in the curious — and these are the people who are bound to eat here, as there is just one menu each night. It can be adjusted for dietary preferences and needs, but it remains secret until it is revealed, course by course, over the two-hour meal. Guests watch Ungár, chef de cuisine Marcos Sanchez (Tres Gatos), and the rest of the small team prepare the dishes, often asking questions. The chefs serve the food and explain some of what goes into making it — the labor-intensive hand-rolling of pasta, the cleaning of eggshells to contain delicate kelp custard, the curing process of fish and duck, the putting away of summer fruits for winter sweets. Ungár and Sanchez have both been instructors at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and it shows.
The restaurant is located in a quiet corner of the brewery, closed off with sliding wood doors from the live music, trivia nights, and beer-fueled revelry. (It’s all part of the Ames Business Park, dedicated to “fostering innovation and creativity.” Also housing coffee roaster Barismo, “bean to bar” company Somerville Chocolate, and more, it is one of the most authentically cool corners of the city.) Music plays — the Cure, Death Cab for Cutie. The walls are lined with wood shelves, filled with jars of preserved lemons and growing herbs, everything used in the food. Diners sit in comfortable stools at a U-shaped counter, which surrounds a partial kitchen. There is one seating a night. Dinner starts at 8. Nonrefundable tickets are purchased online beforehand and include beverage pairings — wine, beer, sake, or nonalcoholic drinks. No money changes hands. There is no tipping. It is clean, efficient, and smart. It also aims to have no carbon footprint, use at least 50 percent Massachusetts products, and offer only all-natural food and wine.
The food reflects the chef-owner’s sense of exactitude and exploration in equal measure. Each nine-course meal begins with a selection of welcoming bites: perhaps a gougère flavored with smoked paprika and thyme, scallop with cured roe and preserved lemon on a shard of rice cracker, a duck liver and black olive macaron (Ungár did a stage at the famed Pierre Hermé in Paris). Whatever the specifics, these are purely delightful, and they set the tone for the meal.
Fish figures prominently on Tasting Counter menus — many kinds and many preparations, no surprise given the time Ungár spent as poissonnier at Le Grand Véfour. Any given night might bring slices of hake, scattered with herbs and petals and accented with a green smear of avocado and a roll of grapefruit gelée; a wintry brown-and-white landscape of sea bream over artichoke and mushroom purees, topped with artichoke crisps and shavings of truffle; a gleaming slab of coral ocean trout with sweet, floral orange blossom gel and funky, flavorful fermented soybeans; a cross-section of monkfish on the bone, served atop a torched slice of fennel with a pool of broth and dollops of tomato and rouille, a deconstructed bouillabaisse.
Depending on the lineup, the menu can feel balanced or too fish-heavy. Menus sometimes include other seafood — uni, scallops served in their own shells with citrus and avocado-oil cream. These courses are lovely and make the meal feel more diverse. The pasta course is always tremendous, from chewy strands of seaweed pasta with hen of the woods mushrooms in bonito broth to foam-crowned tortellini with lobster and pine mushrooms in beef broth.
Between sea and land, guests are served schisandra tea with pine nuts, the “five flavor” drink sometimes encountered in Korean restaurants, where it can be cloyingly sweet. Here it is tart, an able palate cleanser, served with a little pine nut cookie on the side.
Then it might be on to miso-cured duck over a green rectangle of celery and pear, with daikon and soy; dry-aged beef sirloin cap with burdock, cilantro, and a fragrant red curry sauce, a salad of crisped ginger on the side; lime curd with ginger ice cream and passion fruit followed by a rectangle of chocolate with macadamia, kumquat, and guava.
Parting morsels end the evening — a wee cake filled with jam made from spring’s strawberries, a pâte de fruit flavored with plums, a yuzu-chocolate truffle. The meal is carefully paced. The portions leave a diner full yet comfortable. The drinks add dimension. In terms of pairing well with the food, wine is the most successful — from the Meyer-Fonné Gentil, a gorgeously aromatic blend of grapes from Alsace that brings out the grapefruit in a fish dish, to the wonderful Deep Probe pinot noir from Oregon, perfect with the duck. The sake pairing lets diners experience a progression of styles, from a sparkler from Yamaguchi to organic nigori sake brewed in Oregon. It’s rare to find this range of sake in these parts, never mind offered at a restaurant that isn’t Japanese. Beer pairings are all from Aeronaut; if selections from other producers might have served the dishes as well, it is good fun to explore the brewery’s range in one meal. Impressive in their creativity, the nonalcoholic selections — strawberry and Sichuan peppercorn soda, shiitake tea, cucumber-lemon water, and more — are all made in house.
Depending on the night of the week, dinner at Tasting Counter costs $165 (midweek) or $180 (weekend). It’s a high price tag. It’s also a good value, given the inclusion of tip and drink. On weekends, after dinner, a line forms at the restaurant door. Ginhee Ungár trades her fancy dress for pants, and at 10:30 the crew starts slinging pork tacos, tofu dumplings, and ginger ice cream sandwiches for a beery crowd. (If they haven’t toted over giant steins from Aeronaut, customers can choose among a few kinds of wine and cider.) Each dish costs $5. It’s a clever way to make sure ingredients get used, to win casual fans who might eventually splurge on a full dinner, and to engage in a different, differently satisfying kind of cooking.
Everything about the Tasting Counter model is clever. (Others, such as Somerville restaurant Journeyman, are adopting similar structures.) The ticketing system means chefs know just how much food they need, reducing waste. (It can be problematic for guests who get sick at the last minute and must scramble to find someone to purchase their tickets.) The elimination of tipping means a better, consistent hourly wage. And the elimination of the wall between chefs and guests creates the kind of interactive, instructive experience many are hungry for today.
People talk a lot about the state of fine dining — it’s dead, it’s not dead, it’s the same old thing without tablecloths, it’s a lesser thing for the same old money. What is sure is that the model is evolving. The future could look a lot like Tasting Counter.