To walk into the Counter restaurant in New York City is to enter an oasis in the middle of the rough-and-tumble East Village. Warm, golden walls create a mellow atmosphere, while the mix of ambient, jazz and funky house music gives the place a modern vibe. A glass front opens to the busy street; just inside, a large bar invites the harried city-dweller to relax and enjoy vegan and organic wines, alcoholic or non-alcoholic sangria, beer, or mixed drinks while enjoying popcorn seasoned with a house paprika blend. Into the bar area drift the tantalizing scents of cooking food. The heady aroma hints of many good things, but animal fats, creams, eggs, and meats are not among them. If the medley of lively fragrances does not get the curious visitor to sit down at a table, one look at the menu will.
Taking a seat at one of the fifties-diner tables, one can start with fresh coconut milk, served in its natural packaging, and move on to a soup of the day — a piquant red-lentil or chilled carrot spice soup when I visited on a sultry summer evening. Next could be a cashew-kalamata pâté, replacing what co-owner Donna Binder calls the “disgusting new trendy foods, like foie gras.” Binder explains: “You don’t need animal products to make great food.” The Cape Cod Cakes, served with a faux tartar sauce, taste hauntingly like the crab cakes they imitate. The Mushrooms New Orleans, served with cocktail sauce, arrive piping hot and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. A variety of salads, both meal-sized and smaller, are available as well.
Burgers and sandwiches are created from seitan and mushrooms, walnut and tempeh, or home-smoked tofu. The side of confetti slaw tastes as fresh, creamy, and tangy as traditional cole slaw, but is made without egg mayonnaise.
I chose the Blue Plate special, and was glad I did. My dish was a bountiful centerpiece of wild rice and lentil loaf, graced with a side of garlicky mashed potatoes and gravy, joined by sautéed vegetables. My companion, a long-time meat-eater, chose the Portobello au Poivre, and described the mushroom marinated in a red wine and black pepper sauce as “succulent and rich.” Everything we tasted was filled with flavor, generously presented, and consummately satisfying.
“This is a great place for vegetarians and vegans, but also for people who eat meat to realize that you don’t need meat to have a great meal and be satisfied. We’re not trying to convert people,” says Donna Binder. “You never know who will come through that door and try our vegan food. At our brunch, we don’t serve eggs, and that surprises people. They say, ‘How can you have brunch without eggs?’ and they eat the food - Eggs Benedict, the Tofu-vegetable Frittata, or the Piña Colada pancakes — and they leave very happy.” The food speaks for itself at Counter, although the attentive servers can happily fill you in on the benefits of a vegan diet if you ask.
And finally, dessert. We were surprised that Counter does offer cream for coffee because of the demand by guests. But would they really miss it? We doubt it, for the restaurant handles vegan alternatives brilliantly, even in dessert recipes. For example, my friend tried the Raspberry Champagne Parfait made with vegan champagnoise (sparkling wine) along with fresh peach and raspberry purées — a heavenly concoction. I, on the other hand, found the most devilish treat on the menu: a slice of flourless chocolate cake with fresh strawberry sauce. One of the most impressive desserts I have had in a long time, it was a peerless vegan cake. I topped it off with a glass of vegan port (see page 18 for details about what makes a wine vegan).
With the exceptions of certain wines and the above-mentioned coffee additions, the fare served at Counter is vegan, and much of it is organic as well. Ms. Binder obtains a substantial amount of her produce directly from farmers, and continues to expand the percentage of organics served. Part of that process has led to the establishment of a rooftop garden of organic herbs. “We want to serve food that doesn’t harm anyone — any animals, or the environment; and we want to support farmers who don’t decimate the earth with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And to give people a great meal.”
The Counter restaurant was so named because it runs counter to the emphasis on animal products — an emphasis on which most North American restaurants have relied to date. But Counter stays perfectly attuned to the best reasons for dining out: delicious, beautifully-presented dishes, a convivial staff, and a relaxed atmosphere.
105 First Ave. (between 6th and 7th streets)
New York, NY 10003
Tuesday through Thursday: 11am-midnight
Friday and Saturday: 11am-1am
Sunday brunch: 11am-4pm