Encountering Taste at Tasting Counter

tasting counterPhoto by John Skibbee

“People are constantly coming in here like, ‘Oh, you’re a restaurant! Can I grab something to eat?’ And we’re like, ‘Well… we’re not that kind of restaurant,’” laughs Tasting Counter chef and owner Peter Ungár.

Tasting Counter is the latest dining option to come to 14 Tyler St., the warehouse space that also houses Aeronuat Brewing, Barismo Coffee Roasters and the organic delivery service Something Gud, but the eating experience here is a little different than your standard night on the town. There’s no hostess, no waitstaff, and each component of every dish is prepared and plated in front of the guests, who are seated at a U-shaped bar surrounding the open kitchen. Oh, and tickets to the 20-seat establishment must be purchased online in advance.

For more than a decade, Ungár helmed the private dining service The Dining Alternative, which brought the full restaurant experience—from service staff to cooking crew—into people’s homes. “It became very clear how much the guests enjoyed seeing cooking happening, how much they enjoyed the interaction with the people doing the actual cooking,” he says. In conceptualizing his own restaurant, he knew he wanted to carry through that level of service.

“Here, you see the whole dish, from blank plate, come together,” he says. “It really opens up a lot of conversation.”

tasting counter

Miso cured hake, grapefruit, hake roe, smoked salt, photo by Peter Ungár

Diners who stop by Tasting Counter will notice that there’s no art on the walls, an intentional choice designed to keep guests engaged in the culinary craft being practiced in front of them. Which is not to say that the restaurant is barren or sparse—quite the opposite, in fact. One wall is lined with what Ungár calls “an arsenal” of preserved items, a colorful display of fermented, pickled and canned goods lying in wait for the perfect meal. There’s also a green, leafy hydroponic grow wall (no, not like the kind your stoner roommate wanted to install in college). This one is full of fresh herbs and greens that will eventually find a home as a garnish or small salad on a guest’s plate.

The goal at Tasting Counter is to bring diners as close to the origins of their food as possible—quite literally, in terms of their proximity to the grow wall, and on a larger scale when it comes to sourcing food. At least 50 percent of their ingredients come from Massachusetts producers, some of whom they’ve been able to connect with thanks to their neighbors at Something Gud.

Why tickets? Ungár says that’s a way to “clean up” the dining experience. Visitors don’t find themselves choosing their meal based on price, allowing them to kick back, relax and enjoy whatever dishes the chefs place in front of them. (“You can literally leave your wallet at home,” he insists.) Ticketing also helps the restaurant reduce waste, because the staff knows exactly who’s coming in on a given night. Plus, this system ensures that patrons leave feeling pleasantly full, but not overstuffed (or hungry).

“It sounds like a joke, but you’ll read that … people go out to a tasting menu, get these minuscule portions, spend like three hours there and then they’re like, ‘Let’s go out for a pizza,’” Ungár notes with a chuckle.

In addition, this type of paid reservation system ensures that the staff is paid a fair wage. Tickets include a service fee—not a tip—that goes into the paychecks of the chefs prepping plates. Everyone on the Tasting Counter’s payroll is paid a set salaried or hourly wage.

tasting counter

Scallop, pomelo, preserved lemon, avocado cream, photo by Peter Ungár

A 20-seat restaurant may seem small at first, and it is an intimate setting. But feeding 20 people nine courses with six to 12 components each involves a lot of preparation. At one point, Ungár wakes up his Macbook and scrolls through a Google Doc with more than 40 rows and four columns of food items—the ingredients needed for just one evening of service.

Tasting Counter has been open for slightly over a month, and the staff has retooled slightly during that time. Initially, they hoped to open with lunch service, but they’ve decided to perfect their dinner service first. To address that confusion from bewildered, hungry, would-be diners, they’ve also introduced a “late night bites” menu on Fridays and Saturdays with small, five-dollar plates.

And even those late night snacks are prepared in front of the guests. Citing the popularity of shows like Bravo’s Top Chef or the Food Network’s Chopped, Ungár insists that now, more than ever, people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and seeing exactly what goes into its preparation.

“I feel like we’re really doing that here—it’s a show. There’s a whole ceremonial buildup, with the climax of being presented a dish,” Ungár explains. “And it’s fun! It’s a lot of fun for us to be able to do that … people are endlessly fascinated about food.”