Writing by Veronica Meewes
Photography by Adrienne Dever and Lauren Ussery
At COUNTER 3.FIVE.VII in the heart of downtown, each chef intuitively navigates the shared open kitchen space. The entire restaurant is a chef’s counter, so soon their every move will be on display for dinner service.
But for now, they get to play Neutral Milk Hotel and the Pixies a little bit louder than usual while executive chef Damien Brockway slices Galician octopus and pastry chef Sarah Prieto carefully scrolls a birthday wish on a plate in steady chocolate penmanship.
“Visually, a dish sets some form of expectation,” Prieto says, drawing a perfect Tinder-era analogy. “It’s almost like going on a date. Looks might not be the main thing, but if you see somebody that you’re initially attracted to, it sets up your demeanor for going into it. If somebody sees a plate that they like, it’s going to change their experience eating it.”
Watch Prieto build one of her incredible plated desserts and it comes as no surprise that her background is in graphic design and mathematics. “I like a lot of circles,” she says. “Or if it’s one color, I like to stay in that monotone or be popping against other colors. So a lot of graphic design principles come into play. You want something your eye focuses on to be the main center of attention. I usually use lines somewhere, a grid structure to some extent, symmetry, rule of three.”
While Prieto does all her own pastry plating, the other four chefs are able to closely collaborate due to COUNTER’s unique kitchen setup. “Throughout the meal, we definitely have a hand in each other’s stuff – literally,” says founding co-chef Lawrence Kocurek. “There are sometimes three people plating one dish.”
Each member of the team gets to create and add his or her own dishes to the menu as well. “When there’s just one chef in a restaurant, there’s a definite vein all throughout the food,” says Kocurek. “All of our styles are totally different, but it comes together in that kaiseki-style menu.”
A recent menu began with a classically inspired pâté di campagna created by Kocurek. Foie gras replaced pork liver for a silky, decadent base topped with pickled quail eggs, shaved and pickled shallots, radish tops grown right in their kitchen, pickled mustard seeds and cucumber flowers. The accompanying slices of fresh baguette were baked by sous chef Ben Savage, who also created the cumin smoked duck breast over butter braised fennel with anise broth topped with pickled red peppers, torch-flamed cured pork jowl, and a dusting of espelette.
Sous chef Alejandro Muñoz plates a deconstructed Spanish seafood stew, starting with Galician octopus and big eye tuna sauteed with brunoised fennel and bell peppers. Next, using an iSi charger, he squirts a saffron-hued vegetable espuma over the proteins and garnishes with fennel fronds and flowers. Brockway swirls a charred tomato curry base on a plate as a fragrant bed for Malbar spinach-wrapped Gulf blue prawn topped with Vietnamese coriander and marigold petals for both flavor and a pop of color.
Flowers and herbs are used to garnish many of the dishes at COUNTER, but you won’t find any manufactured edible violets here. Instead, look for arugula and cucumber flowers, fennel fronds, scarlet begonias and more– most grown in the chefs’ home gardens (and otherwise procured from HausBar Farms).
“And we don’t just use any random flower on a dish,” says Prieto, who’s been known to create sorbet from arugula and recently topped a cheesecake with a raspberry radish jam. “It’s not just about how it looks, but how it tastes and how the flavor ties in.”
Writing: Veronica Meewes
Photography: Adrienne Dever and Lauren Ussery
New to Citygram Austin magazine?
Click to download a free issue today and see why we’re the #1 City Guide app in Austin!
Our mobile issues are designed specifically for your smartphone or tablet and are loaded with interactive features that connect you to the best of local Austin.