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Chef’s counter dining is an area first at Martin Cooks

Martin Cooks is Buffalo’s first example of chef’s counter dining, a concept recently popularized by New York City restaurants like Momofuku Ko, Brooklyn Fare and Blanca. As customers look on, cooks working in an open kitchen make the food, then serve it. It aims to be less formal than fine dining, while maintaining high standards for creative dishes. ¶ In May, Martin Danilowicz opened Martin Cooks on the first floor of the reconstructed Horsefeathers building. Tall ceilings, exposed brick and a broad, rustic wooden bar that seats 12 define a space that’s replete with eye candy. Two more seats are available at the chef’s table, next to the stove.

Martin Cooks serves lunch to a bigger crowd, using four tables set apart from the bar, and a long table that could seat 12. I had lunch here first, in June, in the company of three co-workers who marveled at dishes from the brief menu, priced at $10-$14. They were stylish and delicious, including terrific herb-filled “green pancakes” ($12) and quinoa cakes over light tomato sauce with salad that made me reconsider quinoa ($11). Meat was on the menu too, on this day a rice bowl with vegetables, poached egg and a huge pork spare rib braised into tenderness.

The dinners are prix fixe, and the place offers two seatings, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Martin Cooks cares about details: We were asked about and food allergies or special occasions at reservation time, so Danilowicz can accommodate guests. Our five-course menu was $60, $100 with wine pairings. We ordered one of each.

Greeted with a glass of bubbly, we gawked while other guests arrived. Our high-backed stools signaled backache, so we swapped them for a nearby pair that we liked better. Everyone else looked comfy.

The first dish landed 25 minutes in, potato soup served with a long slice of bread perched on the rim, spread with herbed chevre and dotted with delightfully crunchy quick-pickled red and yellow beet spheres and sprouts. The bread was dry, but certainly interesting.

The velvety potato puree was enjoyably earthy and tasted like potato, livened up with squiggles of aromatic basil oil and orange tomato oil.

The second course was cauliflower flan with soft egg. It arrived in a bowl with caramelized Brussels sprouts, sprinkled with grated raw purple cauliflower that the chef had purchased at the farmers’ market that morning, the server informed us.

The flan tasted like hearty cauliflower, but it was mushy, not custardy. With egg yolk oozing through it, I wanted more texture, even with the cauliflower crumbs. The brussels sprouts helped, but some were leathery.

Third was mushroom ravioli, three triangles stuffed with porcini duxelles, in brown butter with shaved cheese. Big mushroom flavor and tender pasta had me wanting a fourth.

Seared halibut with a porcini crust was the fourth dish. It was a small portion but quite enjoyable, robust and moist inside its dark crust. It rode a scoop of truffled mashed potatoes and was topped with a deliciously deep, fruity sauce of reduced red wine, porcini mushrooms and blueberries, and fresh peas cooked to creamy tenderness.

Dessert was an enjoyable reconstructed s’mores, with a square of homemade marshmallow and intense chocolate sauce under a shower of cinnamon-scented crumbs. I wished for an espresso to cut the sugar, but even if I had asked in time, the machine wasn’t working.

The wine pairings were appropriate and generous. Cat’s mojito ($5) was well-muddled and tasty.

I noted that the dinner lineup didn’t include a green, vegetable-celebrating dish, odd considering the season and Danilowicz’s obvious vegetarian chops on display at lunch. It was still a fine meatless meal.

Service was polite and eager to please, but it lacked polish at points. We had to ask for water, though refills were swift. Our server sought to make conversation, asking why we were there, how we heard of the place and later what we did for work, which seemed overly chummy. But maybe that’s just the undercover restaurant critic talking. I wasn’t spotted, Danilowicz said.

The dinner experience will satisfy food enthusiasts who like to talk about their dishes; the format made asking questions easy. I didn’t mind watching a dishwasher scrub pans, but some diners might find it déclassé. A couple seeking an intimate night should know they’ll have strangers at their elbows. If you want your space, or your choice of dishes, lunch is a better option.

Quibbles aside, dinner at Martin Cooks is Buffalonians’ best shot at one of the hottest restaurant concepts in America right now, and the latest prosecution exhibit in the case of Buffalo Restaurants vs. People Eating Boring Food.