Counting house is the highly-anticipated restaurant that recently opened in the new 21c Museum Hotel, an avant-garde, sophisticated venue that propels Durham’s downtown into the ranks of its East-Coast cousins. Being the flagship of one of Durham’s largest and more modern buildings, the stakes are high for this restaurant to impress.
And it certainly does. The restaurant is delightful to the eye. The dining room makes ample use of vertically-oriented lighting, a tribute to the skyscraper logo.
The walls are adorned with artistic renditions of fauna- intricate creations such as this one earn the artistic team its stripes.
I have taken many people to this bar and dining room and the most commonly uttered first phrase is “this doesn’t look like we’re in Durham.” This comment is a double edged sword. Yes, I agree that such an upscale, design-forward venue may look like a splash of chrome against a sea of converted tobacco warehouses. Yet their shock that this glistening gem opened in Durham belies the spirit of progress and future of growth that I have felt in the Bull City for years.
Art dominates the entire building. There are floors of it above and below, with the reach of exhibits reaching through Counting House’s front door. This array of spoons snaps and sways with a gentle stream of water cascading down the handles. Every second of this piece is unique.
Both coasts are represented on the raw menu. Here are Shigoku oysters ($5) from Washington and Wellfleet oysters ($4) from Massachusetts. I am a huge fan of raw oysters, and was therefore very pleased to see these on the menu. Particularly the crisp, dense meat of a mollusk from the Pacific Northwest.
The Trout Terrine ($9) is a great appetizer. It is chilled, with some gelatin on the side that comes from sitting in a cold terrine overnight. The smoky fish is light and flavorful, with some crème fraîche and smoked roe as an accompaniment. A loop of crackly fish skin crowns the dish. A solid pairing with a Stiegl grapefruit beer ($6, not pictured) which is as hard-to-find as it is delicious.
The Tobacco Tuna ($9) comes minimally dressed with some smoked almond pieces and olive oil. Six pieces of thickly-sliced tuna are arranged in overlapping fashion. The tuna has been cured with tobacco for several days. I appreciate this dish’s deference to Durham’s tobacco-filled past. Don’t worry, however, it does not taste like a cigar. This salty fish is a novelty- it feels interesting to say you ate something cooked with tobacco, but this item didn’t jump off the plate.
Grilled Corn on the Cob ($7) is done vertically, with three pieces of corn rising from a shallow puddle of chili-lime aioli like Easter Island heads. Charred lines of black dust highlight the intensely-grilled sections, creating a crunchy burnt-popcorn taste. The chili and lime are tangy without burning your mouth.
Octopus. One of my top three whole foods. At Counting House, the Plancha Octopus ($14) is served with chorizo, baked butter beans, and salsa verde. Although grilled on a plancha, the meat remains soft and buttery. I much prefer the outside to be crisp, possibly served on a dry plank. Many guests may prefer this style, with the tentacles squiggling in your mouth like linguini. A strong citrus flavor penetrates the dish.
Red Grunt ($25) is a tropical fish. Here it is piled atop eggplant, tomato, and kombu that has been doused in shrimp broth. The oily meat is shielded by thick, crisp, scaly skin. A refreshing seaweed salad, with noodle-like greens, can be found just above the plate.
The Smoked Pork Belly ($24) is massive. Just when we thought Basan had the thickest pork belly in town, Counting House counters with this behemoth. This hefty chunk of pork has a chewy caramelized skin above inches and inches of buttery fat. Tomato, jicama, and a tart sauce complete this item.
This close-up of the sticky, wonderful skin shows the pineapple criss-cross design. The skin is the best part.
For dessert, the Blueberries ($8) were a nice choice. Served in a chilled glass, a sweet slurry of blueberries dances with crumbly shortbread, ginger-basil ice cream, and lime crémeux to complete this parfait.
You may be lucky enough to meet the pink penguin, a trademark of the 21c hotels, at your table.
This was an enjoyable dinner that I had been eagerly awaiting since I saw the neon purple light emanating from the hotel’s windows. When you’re done eating, visit the basement where you’re reminded that the restaurant is within the old SunTrust tower- the vault has been preserved as a unique event space.
Counting House makes a bold move into the upscale, an important step as Durham transitions into a cosmopolitan icon.
111 Corcoran St, Durham, NC 27701