Sunday, June 29, 2008

A vegetarian foray into Counter

This past Saturday, I met my old friend from home, SB, for dinner. She gamely agreed to do vegetarian cuisine, so we made our way towards Counter, a vegetarian/organic restaurant and martini bar in the East Village.

I had been to Counter once before, several years ago, right after it opened. There had been an article in the New York Times spotlighting the new restaurant because of its owners' garden, in which they grew a lot of the produce used in the restaurant, as I recall. We had gone to Counter for brunch, and it was clear they were still working out the kinks-- while the food was good, the service left a whole lot to be desired. But I figured I'd give it another chance, so this past weekend, many years later, I was back.

I arrived before SB and took a seat at the bar. Counter is a low-key but nice-looking restaurant, and the focal point is definitely the bar: a large semicircle surrounding a tower with wine bottles protruding around its circumference. As I sat for a few moments, the bartender served one of their signature cocktails, the Flaming Queen, which came with a garnish of mint that the bartender had set on fire. Cool.

SB arrived and we were led past the bar into the dining room. We sat at a two-top with me in the banquette along the wall. The table itself was diner-style, with a retro metal rim... I only noticed that because it was somewhat incongruous with the rest of the relatively haute decor. We studied the menu, which came spiral-bound in a leatherette cover. Counter notes which of its dishes are completely raw and which have cheese, so all different types of vegetarians and vegans can feel comfortable making a choice without wondering what's in the dish. It didn't take us long to make our decisions, and the waiter came over promptly to take our order.

It looks sort of badass... but in a crunchy-granola kind of way

A runner quickly brought over the bread course. It came on a small wooden cutting board with an adorable little spoon in between the bread and the dip. The bread itself was a hearty tomato-basil bread with an excessively crumbly texture-- the top and bottom crusts were tasty, but the interior was a little bit dry. The dip was very interesting; we tried for a while to figure out what it was and then eventually just asked, which somewhat alarmed our skittish waiter. He said it was tofu in olive oil with herbs and some peppery spice. The dip certainly was very oily, but the little bits of tofu were strangely addictive. The waiter also said they baked the bread in-house every morning, which is impressive, but quite frankly I'd take a delicious chewy outsourced bread over this albeit virtuous homemade loaf.

Delightful little spoon, next to a bit of spillage

Close-up on bread-- sort of bland until you reach the tomato layer on top

Dip in action. The little white flecks are tofu shards

Soon, SB's appetizer arrived. She had ordered the hummus, and it certainly was a pretty plate. It was a very generous ring of hummus circling two bright sauces and some olive oil, with points of what the menu called "flatbread" (and actually were very puffy almost foccaccia-like triangles) circling the edge of the plate. I tried a taste of the hummus and the sauces but skipped the bread. The hummus was very highly seasoned and quite smoky (possibly smoked paprika in action), but it mellowed into a satisfying aftertaste. I couldn't quite tell what the sauces were-- the green stuff looked like guacamole but strangely tasted just like the hummus, and the red sauce was spicy. It was an interesting plate of food; definitely not your traditional hummus, but an intriguing flavor and a good-sized portion.

Beautifully plated... though those flatbreads aren't flat!

The identity of those sauces eludes me still

SB put in an admirable showing with the hummus, but eventually she slowed down, just in time for our entrees to arrive. SB had ordered the penne with pesto, broccoli rabe, sun-dried tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms. It smelled intoxicating, and when I took a taste, it was quite flavorful but actually a little bit salty (and that comes from someone who LOVES salt). It should be noted that this was also a just-right portion: not too small, but not as absurdly large as pasta dishes sometimes are nowadays.

It actually looked better in person

I ordered the Mediterranean Amuse salad with baby spinach instead of butter lettuce, a request they cheerfully accommodated. The salad came with a couple of slices of tomato, about two slices of red pepper, cucumber (both diced and in huge chunk form), kalamata olives, and a few cubes of feta cheese. The spinach leaves were dressed in an almost comically bland dressing-- I really think it might have just been olive oil. The ingredients were fresh and tasty, and the cheese especially was good and not too salty, but overall the salad didn't blow me away. It was also relatively small-- if they had filled it out with a couple more handfuls of spinach, that would have gone a long way towards making it more satisfying, both in perception and in actuality.

Pretty standard small salad

We did look at the dessert menu, but when the time came to make a decision, we were both too full to go any further, so we got the check and went on our way. Since it's now time to deliver my ultimate verdict, I must admit I'm very mixed. I like Counter, on principle-- they're working hard to deliver organic, vegetarian food that is creative, palatable and appealing. They're one of the few upscale vegetarian options in the city, so for those veggies seeking a relatively "special" dining experience, it's a great place. The food is decent and it's clear they care a lot about what they're putting on your plate, which is comforting. I think my main problem is that in contrast to vegetarian food in non-vegetarian restaurants, it's just not as good. If I had gotten bread and a Greek salad at a Greek restaurant, for example, or even an Italian place, it likely would have been better. But that said, I like Counter, we had a nice experience there, and I'd go back. So I'll give Counter a solid three Offset Spatulas. If you're a vegetarian or a companion to one, definitely check Counter out-- and if you do go, let me know what you think ( I'd be very interested in other people's opinions of the place.

105 1st Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets

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