One of the best parts of living in New England is being just a short car ride away from so many great cities and towns. For those who have been reading Pop.Bop.Shop. for a while, you know I love Mystic, Connecticut, Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, all the beautiful towns of Western Mass. (Hadley, Amherst, Northampton), Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Portland, Maine.
One of the gems right here in Massachusetts is the seaside town of Salem. Best known for its witchy history and Halloween shenanigans, Salem is actually home to wonderful spots you can enjoy year-round. I love the Peabody Essex Museum, Wicked Good Books, Pampelmousse and Moody Interiors (such a good name). I've also shared so many happy memories at the Hawthorne Hotel, from book signings to weddings.
I recently drove up to Salem to meet a friend who is now living in New Hampshire. Salem was the perfect half way point for our catch up. After a stroll down Essex Street, we headed to the new Hotel Salem for dinner. I had been eyeing their restaurant, Counter, via Instagram for the last few weeks.
When you step through the doors, you're immediately facing the bar. I love the ocean blue tiles above and the wild pattern below.
The left side is the more traditional dining room. We snagged a table in that area, which was flooded with natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. I would imagine the view from these seats is also pretty stunning while the snow is falling.
We were greeted by a super friendly, high energy waitress, who asked if she could bring us anything to drink. My friend is expecting and inquired, "By any chance, do you make mocktails?" With zero hesitation, she replied, "Of course we do!"
The mocktail that was delivered to our table was spectacular. It had a real tropical vacation vibe.
After a few sips, she said, "This fresh mint is so summery. I smell that scent each time I lift the drink toward me and it makes me feel completely transported." Pregnant ladies, Counter has your back!
I chose a cocktail called Vacancy, which was grapefruit-infused rum, zucca, agave, orange and lime. This drink was very refreshing. A patio crusher for sure.
To begin, we decided to share two appetizers. The first one we picked out was the heirloom tomato toast. It was three generous slides of sourdough bread, topped with meyer lemon aioli, paper thin cucumber slices, avocado, heirloom tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil.
I took my first bite and my eyes rolled into the back of my head.
The sourdough bread was grilled, giving it a tasty char and crunch. The cucumbers added a little snap. The combination of the aioli and the avocado gave each bite a decadent, buttery texture, which was the ideal contrast to the toast. My one gripe was that the tomatoes weren't quite ripe and as a result, were overly firm.
We also shared the hummus, topped with diced cucumber and toasted sesame seeds, served with a side of naan bread.
I don't eat a lot of Indian food, but I love naan. The bread was lightly torched, making it satisfyingly crispy with every dunk. The hummus was so creamy. We made it disappear very quickly!
For the entree round, we were both interested in pasta. Our waitress let us know that Counter makes all of their pasta in-house.
My friend went with the caprese pasta, which was tagliatelle with arugula pesto, cherry tomatoes, basil and shallots, topped with burrata cheese and bread crumbs.
How incredible does that look? And how beautiful is that ceramic bowl?
Our waitress shared that they tested this pasta dish out for the first time on Mother's Day and it was so popular that they decided to add it to the menu permanently.
When I asked if she was enjoying it, my dinner date explained, "This is such a generous portion. The arugula pesto is perfect - very finely pureed, creamy and has great garlic flavor."
I selected the cacio e pepe (surprise, surprise). The dish was bucatini pasta, freshly grated parmesan, red pepper, black pepper, basil, peas and lemon.
The version on the menu also comes with ham, but I asked if it could be made without and they were super accommodating.
I hate to say it, but without the ham, the dish felt like it was missing something. Counter's rendition didn't have the bold, spicy, peppery taste I expect after being spoiled by the amazing version at Eataly.
Counter does offer dessert, but we passed because we had a second stop in mind.
If you find yourself in Salem, for Halloween, at the Peabody Essex Museum or in town for a wedding, absolutely plan to have a meal at Counter. The space is bright and beautifully decorated, the service is fantastic and the food is excellent. You must have that tomato toast!