It’s 9pm on Friday night. Perched high on a bar stool at the lip of Distilled’s open kitchen, I’ve got a friend on my left and a couple I’ve never met on my right, when Chef Shane Lyons starts in on some ground rules:
“I’m going to cook. I’ve already taken your preferences and dietary issues into account. You’re all going to eat the same thing, you have to decide as a group when you’re done, and you have two dessert courses to follow once you’ve thrown in the towel. We’re going to have some fun. And that starts with moonshine pickle backs.”
Down the five shots go, and our evening at Distilled’s new chef’s counter begins.
Two days later, I’m still full.
I counted them in a dehydrated haze the following morning, flipping through dimly lit photos on my iPhone, my completely satiated stomach turning in agreement with my nodding head: yes, there was that perfect salad, bright with acid and sweet with candied fruit; that egg-on-egg-on-egg dish, rich and with a hit of apple cider vinegar and the wedge of lemon I shyly requested; the roasted and pureed carrots and pumpkin that started us off but could have been dessert.
This was not a “tasting” menu. It was an eating menu.
The salad, crisp and bright and crunchy and fresh, was full-sized. And it was perfection.
The chicken course – cooked pink and perfect, juicy and sweet and teeming with the oft-thrown but usually less deserved “umami” label – was plated so that each received two thick medallions; no mere three-bite nibble there.
Potatoes were fried into thin little circles to flank steak tartar, and roasted in wedges as a bed for other plates.
The duck course – potentially my favorite within a meal of new favorites – set thin strips of slowly rendered, pink meat in a rainbow with pineapple grilled with vanilla beans for an incredibly round, full, hit-on-several-taste-buds result.
Meaty mushrooms, lamb ribs served first with torched herbed butter and then, when the thick plumps of meat were gone, the bones roasted once again with more fresh herbs.
Shane’s classic chicken wings.
Puff pastry with cream and caramel.
Rich molten chocolate cake.
Liquor and wine and an herby liqueur at the end that Shane proclaimed to be quite disgusting, but good for the digestion.
We rolled out of the restaurant after midnight, long after the once-thronging dining room had emptied out, while his cooks and dishwashers wiped and disinfected and set the kitchen aright again.
This was not my first rodeo, as they say. Chefs counters offer varying degrees of experiences, from complementary delicate and tiny tidbits sent out between ordered entrees to full tasting menus that seem without end. More than anything, they offer diners an opportunity to get a few personal minutes in with the chef, who will explain each course and maybe stop by to share a post-shift drink when the dining room has dimmed.
Shane’s counter is more like a party, and while he personally plates each of the four plates to be devoured, course after course after course, he’s quick to chat about whatever you have to bring to the counter: questions about his family or past, queries about ingredients or tastes that pop out, debates over recipes or other chefs or the value of this or that. He encourages feedback, hence my bashful suggestion that I’d prefer even more acid to cut the richness of that egg course (the meal in its entirety was very rich and not for the faint of heart).
Distilled labels itself a “New American Public House”, and it has the menu and vibe to match that. Beer-Battered Onion Rings, Duck and Waffles, St. Louis-style ribs and Crispy Brussels Sprouts with bacon sit alongside only slightly lighter fare. The bar program has been heralded locally; those moonshine pickle backs are somewhat legendary.
Which is why their chef’s counter is unique yet accessible. There’s no stuffiness to the experience, as you may get at other restaurants, but the chef’s cooking skills are easily up to par.
And, at $90 a person plus tax, gratuity, and any booze you order on your own, it’s easily the most bang for your buck you’re going to get when set against anything even closely comparable.
No “eating menu” will be quite the same from night to night. But I have a feeling the party will rage throughout.
211 West Broadway