Feb 17, 2023 - Food and Drink

5 things to know before eating at Counter-

Counter-

Don't let the small portion fool you, I left this meal feeling very full. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

36 seconds. That’s how long it took for Counter- to sell out its re-opening weekend in December.

What’s happening: Counter-, whose chef Sam Hart was nominated for best chef in the Southeast, recently moved to a new venue in Wesley Heights, next to its sister restaurant Biblio and Legion Brewing.

Why it matters: With its immersive experience, unique flavors and ever-changing menu, Counter- is the type of restaurant you’d expect to see in food-centric cities like New York, Las Vegas, or Chicago. 

  • In fact, owner and chef Sam Hart recalls a Chicago chef telling him “this concept wouldn’t work in North Carolina.” Hart is out to prove him wrong, and by the looks of the sold-out Thursday evening dinner I went to, he’s succeeding. 

Details: The restaurant serves one dinner on weeknights and two services on weekends. Think of it like a show you need a ticket for. It seats 16 people per service at a U-shaped counter, which faces an open kitchen.

  • Expect 10-14 themed course tasting menus. 
  • Wine and nonalcoholic drinks are available to pair with meals for an extra fee. 
  • Counter-, located at 2001 W Moorehead St., is reservation only and open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner.

Context: I went on a random Thursday night and paid my own way. I sat by myself and took notes as the meals were presented to me. I didn’t order the wine pairing with my meal so as to not cloud my memory.

  • My thought bubble: On my way home from dinner I sent my friends a voice text. These were my immediate thoughts post-dinner: “I would give my experience an 8.8, but if I would’ve had the wine pairing it might be higher.”

Here are five things to know before you go: 

1. It’s not the type of place you go to for a casual night out.

The price point alone makes this a special event. It’s somewhere you go so you can talk about it afterward with your like-minded foodie friends.

Details: I paid $226.69 for a 10-course meal, including tax and a 20% tip. 

  • Prepaid reservations range between $175 for a 10-course meal and $235 for a 14-course meal, not including tax and tip.
  • Wine pairings range from $85-$325. The spirit-free pairing is $75.

Yes, but: There are a select few who choose to make a special event out of a regular night out. The couple who sat to my right, for example, had been to Counter- four times before and are season pass holders. When I asked them why the gentleman said to me: “There’s no better restaurant in Charlotte.”

Counter-
The couple that sat to my left that evening was celebrating a birthday. Photo: Courtesy of Kenty Chung

2. You’re quite literally engulfed in art, music and culture.

The experience begins the minute you walk in. A host will open the door for you and take your coat while you peruse Biblio’s wine selection at the front of the house before you walk through a hallway, decorated with vinyls-turned-butterfly sculptures by Mint Hill artist Stephen Wilson, which leads to Counter-.

Counter-
The entry to Counter- is Willy Wonka-esque, a nod to Hart’s favorite movie. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

The art on the walls inside Counter- and Biblio are made by local artists and for sale online at Octave Galleries, a company Hart is in the process of turning into a 501(c)(3) in order to “solve the problem of starving artists,” he explained at the end of dinner. “We purchase each piece around us up front,” he said.

Counter-
The menu was a photo of a painting by artist Gilot, AKA Picasso’s longtime partner. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

The music is curated by Hart to set the vibe, match the menu, and tell a story.

  • Many of the songs on Hart’s playlist (below) were paired with a dish (songs from The Velvet Underground album played while we ate a dish called “Warhol,” for example).
  • Not only do the songs match the menu, there’s also choreography to match.
  • Everyone, from the servers to the sommelier, to the chefs preparing the meals in front of you, and even Hart himself, are on-beat.
  • The point is to spark conversation. One of the courses, aptly named “surrealism,” was Hart’s interpretation of what a dish by the Incas might look like if they were still alive today, (and not massacred by the Spaniards) — made with sacha inchi, a plant native to South America.
Counter-
Each dish is presented to you like a work of art. This one was named “Gilot (f**k Pablo Picasso). Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

3. Picky eaters, beware.

This is not the type of place you take someone whose diet consists of mainly chicken tenders and pepperoni pizza. I’m not knocking either of those two, they’re some of my favorite things to eat, but that’s not what you’ll find at Counter-. If it is, it will definitely not be in the literal sense.

  • The textures of each dish and flavor pairings are indescribable and unique, things you would never think to pair together.
  • One course, for example, combined parmesan, mascarpone, banana and tomato.
  • Another consisted of peas, carrots, maitake, shemeji and vegan au poivre. I honestly don’t know what half of that is but it was delicious.
Counter-
Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

4. It’s not a one-man band.

Hart is quick to boast about his team. “It’s impossible for me to do all this [by myself],” Hart told me shortly after he found out about his James Beard nomination.

  • Even on the menu, he turns his attention to his team. On it, he lists himself as the “narrator,” chef Yongwon Hwang as the chef de cuisine and chef Faith Morley as the pastry chef.
  • “We call them family and they really are working together as a family and looking out for each other, which is awesome,” he says.

Zoom in: Chef Yongwon Hwang is hosting a pop-up at Counter- called KOA, a ten-course tasting menu with beverage pairings included.

Counter-
Counter- staff (shown here) all took part in creating the final dish. Photo: Laura Barrero/Axios

5. Counter- won’t be here forever.

“The restaurant has a timeline of 12 years,” Hart said. When one dinner guest asked why he answered (and I’m paraphrasing) — imagine if you knew you only had X days to live, wouldn’t you live life to the fullest?

Hart says he has most of his future menus planned out.

  • Right now, you can still experience the one I tried, called “Modern.” It’s based on modern artists like Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.
  • Next month, Counter- is launching its next menu called “Street Food;” which will be a “tribute to six cities around the world,” according to Hart.
  • With the menu change, the space will transform with it. “From the art on the walls to the music, with added speakers adding ambient street noise. It’s an immersive experience like no other,” per a release about the new menu. 
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