Sparks could be seen through the windows, showering down in flaming arcs. Construction workers tramped in and out through the doors. I would watch from my office window, wondering when those doors would open for me.
The wait is over.
Counting House, the restaurant and bar in Durham's new 21c Museum Hotel, opened March 9.
Executive chef Josh Munchel brings a focus on regional dishes that feature locally sourced seasonal ingredients along with an emphasis on rotisserie and roasting techniques. Seafood selections include oysters, marinated mussels and trout terrine. The menu also has a small-plates section, a "meat & cheese" section and a "mostly vegetables" section.
Of course, watching construction through the INDY's office window across the street from the Counting House had many of us wondering about the bar (some of us are Old School journalists, after all). A look at the drinks menu and a quick chat with Food & Beverage Manager Joe Leftin changed curiosity to anticipation.
"There are a couple of core values that we build from" in curating the drink selections, Leftin says. "First, we're an art museum. We encourage our guests to come discover things whether it's visual art or, my passion, drinks.
"The other thing is engaging our local community. Fullsteam was a no-brainer," he continues, mentioning the Durham brewery whose Cackalacky Ginger Pale Ale is available on draft. "It's a stone's throw down the street, plus, on top of that, they use North Carolina ingredients."
Two other area breweries are also available on draft at the moment—Triangle Brewing's Belgian Golden and Haw River's Breakfast Dubbel. More craft brews are available by the bottle including such North Carolina-based breweries as Big Boss and Mother Earth. Choices from beyond the state's borders are also available, including Bear Republic's Hot Rod Rye IPA and Anderson Valley Polleko Pale Ale.
Several cocktails and apertifs caught my eye. The Ellis-Stone, named after the department store that the building housed long ago, consists of ginger syrup, lime juice, Green Chartreuse, vodka and Peychaud's bitters. The Southern Side with its Cardinal gin, mint, honeysuckle tincture and lime also sounds refreshing.
Leftin says his current favorite is the Little Empire. He describes it as "an inverted Manhattan," because it flips the formula of a typical Manhattan and employs a 2-to-1 ratio of vermouth to rye. Leftin described it as being a food-friendly option. Made with Punt e Mes, Carpano, Rittenhouse rye and blended orange bitters, Leftin says it is a nod to the Hill Building's architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, who also designed New York's Empire State Building.
My inner comics geek wants to order the Oswald Cobblepot at least once. The Madeira-based drink is named after the Batman villain aka the Penguin. (21c has a thing for penguins, as you'll discover when you visit.)
Cocktails fall mostly in the $7 to $11 range. Craft beers are $5 to $11 (unless you spring for the 750ml of Brouwerij Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet, which is $27).
Counting House also offers a nod to 21c's Kentucky roots (the company was founded in Louisville) with a strong selection of bourbons. Leftin says he wants to have a wide range of choices, including some harder-to-find brands. (No Pappy van Winkle at the moment, but perhaps one day.)
The goal of Counting House is to be "warm and welcoming," Leftin says.
Something tells me I'll often seek out that welcome.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Drinks you can count on."