Tasting Counter: A unique dining experience in Somerville

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal. 

Tasting Counter is different than the average restaurant.

For starters, guests to the Tyler Street eatery can’t walk in — they must buy tickets in advance, which means no wait time and no check at the end of the night.

And they don’t sit at separate tables — all guests sit together at a 20-seat counter overlooking the kitchen.

There is no menu — instead guests are served nine dishes from a preset menu, and are then served by the chefs themselves.

Tasting Counter, explained founder Peter Ungâr, is more of a dining experience, an interactive night out.

“[Tasting Counter] is about being heard. It’s about being recognized for your likes and dislikes and being able to create a relationship with our guests,” he said.

Making a dream a reality

Ever since Ungâr can remember he’s wanted to open a restaurant.

He started cooking in high school before pursuing a degree from Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

When he and his wife moved to Somerville a little over 16 years ago, they started working with a private dining service before opening Tasting Counter. The couple found that people were always crowding the kitchen, rather than enjoying their party elsewhere.

“They wanted to see what was going on, they wanted to know, they wanted to hear about it, and they wanted to watch,” he explained.

That’s when Ungâr started thinking about an open-kitchen, somethings that’s becoming more and more prevalent in restaurants.

“We looked for restaurant spaces all over the Boston area,” said Ungâr. “Because of the connections we have in [Somerville] and knowing how much the city has progressed, and seeing all of the future potential, we started looking around in Somerville as well.”

They found an available shared-space on Tyler Street, with Aeronaut Brewing Company, and Tasting Counter was soon born.

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Working against the odds

It’s taken nearly three years for Tasting Counter to get up and running, from writing the business plan to opening the space, and throughout the entire process, Ungâr said people were weary.

“People kept asking, ‘Why would you only have 20 seats? Why so many courses? Why would you want to do that?’” he explained. “But because of what we were doing in the private cooking, we knew that it worked, we knew that it made sense.”

Opening the restaurant was a risky move, said Ungâr. With three children at home, he and his wife were nervous to take the leap. Looking back, they’re more than happy with their decision.

“We just went for it and thankfully we met enough people who believed in us,” said Ungâr. “They helped us build and open and it’s been tremendous.”

Since July 2015, he said people from all over the world have been requesting reservations, sometimes months in advance.

Gourmet food for all

When developing the space, Ungâr knew he wanted a fine-dining establishment, but at the same time, something that was accessible.

“Good food and rewarding dining experiences shouldn’t only be for certain types of people, they should be for everyone,” he said.

Though dinner tickets cost $195 per person, including nine courses and beverage pairings for each, Tasting Counter offers less expensive menus for lunch and a night-time wine bar.

Lunch costs $60 during the week and $65 on the weekends, and includes a three course menu.

At the wine bar, guests can walk in from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and order a glass of wine and a small dish, all for an estimated $20, said Ungâr. A lot of times, he said, lunch or bar guests will come back for dinner, eager to try more foods.

“We understand [dinner] is a high price point. When our guests pay this amount, you have to deliver service at a certain level and we do that,” said Ungâr. “We’re here to serve you, we’re here to make you happy and feel good.”

Guests are paying for the entire experience, he said, and it’s rewarding to see them come into Tasting Counter with a hint of doubt and leave happier than when they walked in.

Staying local

The kitchen incorporates techniques from all over the world, Ungâr said, but they try to use local foods as much as they can, with at least 50 percent locally sourced ingredients.

One dish, he said, is actually 100 percent locally sourced. They use bay scallops from Nantucket and marinate them with sake, which comes from Dovetail Sake , a local sake brewery in Waltham.

After marinating the scallops, Ungâr steams them, places them back into the shell, and tops them with an egg custard sauce called sauvignon, which is traditionally cooked with white wine but is cooked with Dovetail instead.

“It’s a very simple dish but we’re using exceptional and quality ingredients,” he said.

Another dish, explained Ungâr, is Japanese yellowtail, which is smoked with sushi rice. The fish is served with carmelized eggplant with fermented chili paste, marinated cucumbers, toasted rice sauce, pear, and preserved lemon. Though the vegetables are locally sourced, said Ungâr, the rest of the dish is gotten elsewhere.

Ungâr said they are always adding new components to the dishes, and every few months the menu looks different.

“It’s a continual evolution of food and dining,” said Ungâr.

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