Counter shines like a welcoming beacon on Salem’s Essex Street pedestrian mall, awash in vibrant colors and midcentury modern décor. Housed in the former Newmarket Department Store and drawing inspiration from its space, Counter features unobstructed floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows that bring much-needed vibrancy to the thoroughfare, which is surprisingly sleepy come 5 p.m.
Inside it feels like an exclusive party, but everyone is invited. The centerpiece 20-seat counter, lined with shiny round blue leather stools, is evocative of an old-time soda fountain, but with the wholly modern addition of USB charging ports for keeping phones powered up for the Instagram-worthy cuisine, like big chunks of spicy roasted cauliflower painted with a tahini-sweet chili glaze, on a bed of cooling raita—a blend of yogurt, cucumber, and herbs.
Low seating throughout means every table gets a picture-perfect view of the busy bar and the elevated kitchen stacked just behind. It’s like dinner and a show, under the guidance of Justin Perdue, executive chef of Lark Hotels. Perdue earned his fine dining chops working with top chefs like Rick Bayless at Topolobampo and Bobby Flay’ at his Bar Americain—a diversity of styles that is reflected in Perdue’s modern American menu, which ranges from light, healthy Eastern influences to American classics to luscious umami-laden Italian.
The rich, creamy polenta sits squarely in umami territory. Offered as a starter, but ideal paired with a salad for an indulgent main course, the polenta looks simple but is surprisingly complex. Served with meaty mushrooms, it is topped with an egg cooked sous vide for four hours, to the perfect consistency of fully cooked white and runny yolk, and then rolled in bread crumbs and pan-seared. The whole thing is drizzled with a slow-cooked chicken jus. It’s almost too rich…almost, but not quite.
As the restaurant becomes established, chef Perdue expects to work with many local producers for his seasonal menu, hopefully starting this spring. For example, his take on a classic lunch counter meal of soup and sandwich is the duck confit toast—a generous slice of bread, topped with herbed ricotta, golden raisins, and of course a heap of duck confit, served with a cup of seasonal soup. The opening menu featured a thick, slightly sweet chestnut soup, but as the seasons change, the accoutrements, from the bread to the soup, will evolve—perhaps spring will bring a bright pea soup as a side, using veggies from a local farmer.
The same seasonal adaptations will bring variety to Counter’s other entrées. On a recent visit, four plump, perfectly seared diver scallops were served with roasted split Brussels sprouts and a parsnip purée, while the tender grass-fed filet of beef came with sunchokes and pearl onions.
The bar menu is on trend, with lots of local spirits and a few drinks featuring current industry darling Green Chartreuse. For a cocktail with a show, try the Fae’s Fire, a blend of Deacon Giles gin and absinthe along with green Chartreuse set ablaze in a scooped-out lime. Fans of Fireball liquor should check out Counter’s house-made version in the Road to Gehenna—a mouth-blazing combination of bourbon infused with a whole lot of cinnamon and some clove-spiked honey syrup.
The dessert menu was created by Perdue’s wife, Serena, and features a lot of tempting house-made ice cream. Even if dessert isn’t usually your thing, don’t miss the grapefruit tart; a shortbread crust is filled with ginger cream, topped with slices of fresh pink grapefruit and served alongside a scoop of the brightest, flavored basil ice cream. Sophisticated, balanced, and grown up.
THE MENUStarters: Polenta, Roasted Cauliflower
Mains: Duck Confit Toast, Diver Scallops, Filet of Beef
Dessert: Grapefruit Tart
Street level of The Hotel Salem, 209 Essex St., Salem, 978-451-4818, countersalem.com