Where: 315 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas 78701
Crowd: Well-dressed professionals celebrating special occasions
Vibe: Chic setting with tasting menus that actually fill you up
Standout dish: Akaushi short ribs (especially with the Spanish wine they’re paired with)
Arriving at COUNTER 3. FIVE. VII is an experience in itself. The restaurant shares an entryway with Elephant Room and Swift's Attic, but upon entering my friend and I see nothing beyond the swanky décor. As tasteful as it is unique, the majority of the space is taken up by a counter (hence the name) that sits just 25, with the chefs congregating in the middle to cook in front of a captive audience.
Well, to be honest, my first impressions are more accurately “wow, this is nice”, but we’ll pretend they were so knowledgeable. The space is minimalist but not clinical, the vibe peaceful but not boring, and as we’re seated we’re feeling pretty excited about the seven-course tasting menu that’s coming our way.
I was right to feel enthused. 15 minutes in and it’s time for course and drink number one. The chefs have already been warned of our restrictions – I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and my companion doesn’t eat gluten. Luckily the staff are not only adaptable, but they’re up for the challenge. Considering the eatery is so upscale, this unstuffy attitude is pretty damn refreshing.
But enough about that, and onto the food. The first dish is petite and aesthetically confusing. A combination of yellowtail Hamachi and apple sauce, it tastes exactly how you’d expect: nice, if a little odd. The eastern French dry wine it’s paired with goes perfectly, though, and as the courses go on we find that this is no coincidence – every wine is chosen with immense thought. Even if you’re no vino connoisseur you really can’t help but appreciate the pairings.
We really start to get into the swing of it now. It’s a very easy existence here at COUNTER 3. FIVE. VII. You don’t have to make a single decision – you simply watch the chefs do their thing, they pass you a dish that has a bunch of unexpected ingredients, and it tastes hella good. That’s certainly the case with the next creation I’m handed: a crispy, warm dish containing eel, potatoes, parsley, and matcha.
There’s no servers at the eatery, meaning there's a whole lot of time to gawk at the talented, artistic process involved with the food. Multiple chefs all work together so harmoniously to create the dishes that it’s almost eerie. It feels relaxed, but also that these masterpieces are being created with such military precision you pray nothing goes wrong.
Next up is a course that proves to be a highlight of the night: COUNTER 3. FIVE. VII’s take on French onion soup. It contains roasted onion broth, sautéed mushrooms, and, best of all, beef fat that’s outrageously tasty. We make some inane comment that the serving bowls are “cute” and are informed proudly that they’re made by ‘Barbara’, who has a stand on the East side. I dig that – why can’t a fancy restaurant be all about community?
And sure enough, it’s a community atmosphere that's fostered all the way through. Maybe because the wine’s starting to kick in, or just because everyone around the counter is in the same boat (waiting in anticipation for their next masterpiece to arrive), but the vibe is really quite lively. In a restaurant that’s laid out normally you’d never have this much conversation with other diners. And you know what? It’s fun. We get chatting to a couple next to us (there’s a lot of couples here, and everyone is well dressed) and because we’re in Texas, the conversation inevitably turns to Texan pride, but it’s all fun and games, because we’re on the third glass of wine. You know, the one that gets you tipsy.
Thankfully I'm not yet properly tipsy, but just enough to become even more enthused about the food creations that are coming. Having had the whole Texan pride convo, we’re now served a “Texas bowl”. To be honest, the Tex-Mex vibe is appreciated after all the European flourishes, and this gets back to basics in a delicious manner. The black bean, avocado, hummus, and brown rice cracker-filled bowl is super satisfying, and goes well with the Piedmont red wine.
Worth noting here is that the menu never gets tired. It’s ever-changing and adjusts with the seasons, making for a pretty unique dining experience. It’s certainly not for every day, but for occasions like birthdays or anniversaries it strikes me as a stylish, creative go-to.
Time for some more French comfort food, and it’s both as delicious and pretentious as you’d expect. When the chef explains that it is “garlic done three ways,” I don’t completely understand what that means, but do enjoy the quail-smoked, mushroom-melted brie. I also enjoy the discussion that ensues with the couple next to us about quail (we conclude that it tastes a bit like dark meat chicken).
With items like quail on the menu, you’re right to assume the seven course tasting menu doesn’t come cheap (it’s $150). But ingredients and experience taken into consideration, it isn't extortionate, and the food and wine pairings really are genius. There’s also options for three or five course tasting menus, plus a pretty cool Counter Hour (read: massive midweek, early dinner discounts) and an oyster-filled Happy Hour, too.
I’m beginning to get full now, but the final savory course is so damn tasty that I finish up every last morsel. Akaushi short ribs are cooked in their own fat (tender, and served with creamy potatoes, kohlrabi and tarragon), and it’s the best sort of indulgence that money can buy. The Spanish wine it comes with also hits the spot. It also, regrettably, leaves us feeling a bit sleepy – as if we’ve run a marathon instead of eating and drinking for 90 minutes straight.
But we can’t leave without something sweet, and the small, innovative last course proves to be a dessert with a difference. That statement isn’t hyperbole – the dish combines popcorn ice cream and caramel caviar, spawning perhaps the chef’s most ridiculous, quote-worthy sentence of the night: “it’s all about the cheddar cheese and caviar elements”. It is amazing, to be fair, and the champagne-style wine it comes with means we end the evening with an exceptionally good taste in our mouths.
Disclaimer: VIVA was a guest of COUNTER 3. FIVE. VII, however opinions and comments made by the writer remain unbiased and independent.