Entering Counting House, the restaurant in the new 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Durham, the eye is drawn immediately upward to the animals mounted on the walls. Like trophies of a hunter who has pursued game in worlds both real and imaginary, the collection runs the gamut from a fairly realistic-looking rhinoceros head to a downright phantasmagoric 10-legged tiger.
But no animals were harmed in the making of this decor. The entire menagerie was fashioned from recycled materials, and it’s just part of the hotel’s extensive collection of modern art. That includes a gallery upstairs that’s open to the public, a common feature in all of the properties in this small chain of boutique hotels.
The artistry extends to the open show kitchen at Counting House, where executive chef Josh Munchel – a 21c veteran who previously helped Metropole, the restaurant in the chain’s hotel in Cincinnati, win a place on Bon Appétit magazine’s list of Best New Restaurants 2013 – is in charge. Working in a style that he describes as “using local ingredients to create global flavors,” Munchel turns out one Instagram-worthy dish after another. Here are a few snapshots from recent installations of his seasonally evolving menu.
▪ Char roasted figs: Halved, their cut sides charred to a caramelized turn. Savory shortbread cookies smeared with lardo deliver just the right counterpoint to the creamy sweetness of the figs.
▪ Trout terrine: So ethereally light it quivers when touched with a fork. Only an anchoring garnish of crisp trout skin keeps it from floating up off the plate.
▪ Plancha octopus: Served over chorizo-studded butterbeans in an earthenware cazuela of the type commonly used in Spanish tapas bars. The tentacles are so tender, and the presentation so fetching, you’re inclined to write off the excessive saltiness of the beans as an anomaly. Given the overall batting average of the kitchen, you’d probably be right.
▪ Burned haricot: Haricots verts, that is, tossed with crispy bits of ham and boiled peanuts in red eye aioli for an inspired culinary mashup of France and the American South. Not to quibble, but only the tips of these beans could accurately be described as burned. Call it poetic license. And by all means, if it’s on the menu, order it.
▪ Meat & cheese: From a list of house-made charcuterie (mortadella, bresaola and country paté were recent options) and mostly N.C. cheeses, choose three for $19. It’s a still life on a slate slab garnished with cornichons, whole grain mustard, house-made relish and thin slices of rustic bread from Weaver Street Market.
▪ Roasted delicata squash: Seeds removed, leaving a hollowed out canoe of pale yellow flesh as delicate as its name. Laden with a cargo of pickled tomato and arugula, the squash is moored alongside an island of burrata dressed with olive oil and red pepper flakes.
▪ Rotisserie chicken: Leg, thigh and airline breast, all exquisitely juicy beneath a spice-fragrant skin that, while not crisp, is nonetheless hard to resist. Served over sea island red peas with a puddle of aji amarillo-spiked cream suggestive of the Peruvian classic pollo a la brasa.
▪ Pan-roasted N.C. bass: A Mediterranean-inspired composition in the mixed media of flawless filet, warm tabbouleh, eggplant puree and crescent moons of lightly pickled cucumber.
▪ Bigoli: Thick, chewy-tender ropes of pasta tossed in a mushroom “bolognese” sauce, garnished with shards of crispy mushroom and a shower of grated parmesan. So deeply satisfying and loaded with umami that you may find yourself wondering if this is really a vegetarian dish. It is.
▪ Sheep’s milk cheesecake: Manchego cheese, that is, which balances the sweetness with nutty, subtly salty notes. Dessert and cheese course rolled into one, if you will. Just think of the accompanying candied marcona almonds and olive oil ice cream as icing on the, um, cheesecake.
Food and beverage director Joe Leftin contributes to the artistic theme with cocktails such as the Ellis Stone, a colorful layered concoction of green chartreuse, vodka, ginger and Peychaud’s bitters over crushed ice. The well-stocked bar includes a collection of over 40 bourbons (a reflection of 21c’s Louisville, Ky., origins), a global selection of craft beers and a wine list thoughtfully chosen to pair well with the menu.
Credit Leftin, too, for quickly getting the wait staff up to speed. After a slightly bumpy start (primarily on busy weekends following the restaurant’s March opening), service has settled in at a commendably high level. Servers are more than up to the task of helping you navigate the menu – and the wine list, too, for that matter, a rare quality in these parts. Just think of your server as your personal curator for the night.
111 N. Corcoran St., Durham; 919-956-6760
Atmosphere: urban restaurant meets modern art museum
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: well-trained and eager to please
Recommended: take your pick
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly; breakfast served every day (until noon on weekends).
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in the Corcoran St. deck across the street; valet parking $5.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.