J and I went to the Tasting Counter a few weekends ago to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the first time we tried a new restaurant together.
Physical Space - getting to the Tasting Counter is unprepossessing. Behind Esh off Somerville Ave is a network of industrial looking buildings that house a number of small yuppie/hippie businesses (circus, chocolate making, brewery, rock climbing). The Aeronaut Brewery set aside some room in their building for a chocolatier, a small eatery, and the Tasting Counter. So you enter a very business-y door, and on the left is a small entrance to the Tasting Counter.
When you walk in, you're in a square room, with the front of the room to your right. On 3 sides excluding the front (about 1yd from the wall) is a counter, all sides having 6 seats facing into the center of the room. The counter is a nice stone, and the seats are real seats, just taller to be able to put you at the counter. On the inside of the counter is another surface about 6" below the eating surface, which is used to prep the plates before service. Inside the counter is an island with a small heating surface as well as counter space. The front wall is taken up by all the rest of the cooking space, with oven, burners, etc. and a door to a small room behind the front wall with the large fridge (I could see that) and presumably the dishwashing station. On the back and far wall (from the entrance) are lots of shelves and cupboards showing bottles, flatware, stemware, plates, etc.
Service - there seem to be 7 people working a dinner shift (at least when we were there), 3 chefs in the center, 1 dishwasher in the back, and 3 servers/sommeliers. During our dinner, we were served at different points by 2 of the chefs and all 3 of the servers, and everybody was very friendly and seemed very knowledgable.
The service is done something as a show. All seatings are at the same time, and no diner goes to the next course until every diner has been served the previous (you don't have to wait for them to finish, but they do have to be served). We saw groups of 2 (like us) up to 6, but I think more than 4 becomes a little difficult. (4 around a corner looked pretty fun, but 2 was great) The plating is done in front of you, and sometimes a server is trying to hand you your drink pairing and explain it while a chef is trying to prep a plate in the same spot, which is fun to watch.
[The whole place is set up as an interesting little illusion. You really feel like you're around the kitchen, and everything's being made in front of you. But if you pay attention, the *vast* majority of what's going on is final prep and plating: the components have mostly been prepped in advance, and they're just assembling. Of course, "just" is understating it -- what's going on in front of you is such a beehive of activity it's kind of a wonder that nobody collides in a slapstick disaster.
Also, note that, while they didn't let us get too far ahead, we never felt like the meal was dragging. Since it's two full seatings, and they have to turn the entire house at 8pm, they keep the meal at a very carefully-measured pace -- never rushed, but always moving along to the next thing.]
Food - everybody gets the same thing (there were no allergies or substitutions we saw on our night, but they do ask for it when you sign up so I'm betting they could handle it), and at the end of the meal they give you your menu. I transcribed mine as best I could remember details (they give main flavor notes, but not the full preparation) below:
[Kate observed to me, about midway through, that this meal was shaping up to be a classic French progression, and she began to pretty accurately predict what should come next. This made things particularly interesting for me, getting to compare her predictions based on the classics with what actually came out -- you *could* generally see the relationship, but in all cases it was deeply reinterpreted and innovative.]
Welcoming Bites - fluke in sake gel with rice crisp
ocean trout on a seaweed crisp with grapefruit jelly
almond macaron with black olive spread and rhubarb jam
Appetizer - thin sliced raw sea scallop in shell with pickled radish, snap pea foam, with apple/rose accents
Soup - beef short rib with pastrami cure and rapini in horseradish/shallot cream soup over shallot jam with maple drizzle [Mmm -- why doesn't anyone ever treat pastrami as haute cuisine? This was divine.]
Pasta - hand rolled seaweed pasta around lobster custard with hen of the woods mushroom, dried wakame, and sea urchin/lobster cream sauce [Kate hated pretty much every aspect of this -- she took one bite and handed me the plate. But we agreed that it was convenient that they combined all the flavors she didn't like into a single dish. And I quite loved it: it was a magnificent melange of earthy, smoky, umami flavors.]
Fish - Black bass in 5 spice with spinach; macadamia foam; caper and saffron
Hake marinated in miso and then torched over beluga lentils; charred leek sauce (enoki?)
Palate cleanser - Schisandra berry iced tea with pine nuts and almond/pine nut macaroon [Okay, let's pause and talk about that macaroon. It's just a little tiny cookie, to go with the utterly fabulous iced tea. But we found ourselves going, "This may be the best cookie I've ever eaten". Warm, soft, richly flavored -- pretty much the Platonic ideal of the almond cookie. We told the sommelier that it might be the high point of the meal, and he mentioned that we weren't the first to say that.]
Fowl - Squab breast roasted to rare with rest of squab roasted and shredded, stuffed in potato fried in squab fat and topped with torched green garlic with foie gras sauce [So good. So, so good. Perfectly prepared squab is a rare treat itself, and this was basically Squab Three Ways. My pick for the best dish. Aside from the cookie.]
Meat - Venison tenderloin rolled in cacao shells with rhubarb cooked in vanilla; burdock; blood orange sauce
Sorbet(ish) - green tea sponge with avocado custard and grapefruit jam(ish) with lime leaf custard and red amaranth
Dessert - chocolate log with preserved orange, pistachio ice cream and coffee jam [Very good, especially the coffee jam, but almost a bit pedestrian compared with how innovative the rest of the meal was.]
Mignardises - coffee meringue, blood orange chew, duck liver bonbon
All diners also have a beverage pairing of wine, sake, beer, or non-alcoholic. All 4 were served while we were there, and I'd thrown a curve asking for wine pairing with no reds which was handled very well. All courses except the iced tea and the final mignardises had their own pairing, many of which were very good. (The pours were small, which was good given how many courses. And the nonalcoholic pairing sounded really interesting from what I heard, with lots of in-house made fruit-ades and teas.) [The sake pairings are recommended if you, like me, are fond of sake but want to learn more about it. Note that it's a different pairing for every dish, so you get to try a *lot* of interesting stuff.]
Price - you sign up for a reservation by buying a ticket for $180, which feels steep, but they really are very serious about you not having to have your wallet once you have a ticket, so the $180 covers the food (which would generally go for a little over $100 at that kind of quality), the beverage pairings ($40-60), the tax and the tip, so the $180 is very reasonable. I would do this again (and may have to as my mother seems very inclined to go when she visits in August).