Three hours after leaving Washington for Staunton, Va., we pull up to a restaurant roughly the size of a double garage, where I get The Look from a frequent dining companion. The Look is familiar to anyone who tends to make reservations in far-off places that don’t immediately telegraph Worth the Journey to the rest of the party.
“You weren’t kidding,” my friend says as we make our way from dark parking lot to red brick entrance. “It’s a shack.”
The Shack, I correct him. On the long ride from city to Shenandoah Valley, I told my escort how good the food was likely to be, based on prior meals at the tiny restaurant opened six years ago by Ian Boden. The chef, 41, is a Fairfax native whose credits include the late Glass Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville and whose Russian Jewish heritage informs his cooking.
Little inside the narrow, 26-seat dining room prepares first-timers for the food and drink to come. The floor is (polished) concrete, the chairs represent a variety pack and the framed photos on the wall capture obviously amateur Kodak moments.
The old pictures explain the restaurant’s name, at least if you inquire. The shot of the little girl in the “Hairspray”-high bouffant? “That’s the owner’s wife,” Leslie, “playing in her grandmother Tissy’s wig,” says a waiter, dressed as if he were staying home and couch surfing for the night. Tissy, he says, lived in a shack in Swoope, Va., an image that lives on as a logo and as inspiration for Boden’s eatery. The chef later tells me in a phone conversation that Tissy Campbell represented the best of “mountain hospitality.” With whatever she had, he says, “she always fed everybody,” family or not.
The informal setting in Staunton, which last housed a barbecue joint but has also been a doughnut shop and a bar, seems to be dressed for a meat-and-three. The menus in your hands set you up for fine dining.
At launch, the Shack didn’t have a license to serve anything more spirited than San Pellegrino. Now, you can settle in with a well-balanced cocktail or a glass of something other than the expected pinot noir; Boden would prefer you try Darting pinot meunier from the Pfalz region of Germany, and why not? It’s only eight bucks a stem. The chef continues to offer his admirable hamburger, mostly for the benefit of locals, but the company the sandwich keeps includes grilled quail on celery root puree. Diners can order a la carte or create their own tasting menus from among four categories; $50 buys you three courses, and $60 gets you four. Spring for the latter. While Boden says, “I can feed you as much or as little as you want,” he’s also a gifted chef whose range you don’t want to miss.
While many of his peers are giving us beet salads, Boden is seducing diners with an elegant assembly of soft fried apples, some juicy pink grapefruit and a crown of miner’s lettuce, anointed with buttermilk tamari. And “latke okonomiyaki” is just a fancy name for crisp hash browns striped with sour cream, strewn with benne seeds and orange roe and nipping with chile sauce. The chef likes a little kick in his food, and so will you.
One thing that hasn’t changed since 2014 is the size of the kitchen, visible from aisle seats in the dining room. It’s still a slip of a thing, just 125 square feet. Boden says the confines require him to cook with “intent.” Limitations can be used to advantage, as the chef demonstrates from start to finish.
Pasta is a course of its own and might include gemelli with a trend du jour: Bolognese sauce made from vegetables rather than meat (in this case, carrots). Garnished with a Japanese accent — egg yolk poached in white soy sauce flavored with cherry blossom — and more dill than necessary, it’s nice enough. A greater comfort is found in two egg-size pasta shells swollen with shredded rabbit that’s been braised in milk and hit with lemon zest. A shower of green confetti (parsley) adds color to the sepia-toned pasta, which gets tucked into a little red casserole and draped with the braising milk, cooked down to a lovely, onion-sweetened sauce.
The chef’s interest in food and immigration patterns explains some of his fusion ideas, like a Russian Korean stew pairing thin slices of fried pork belly, crisp with toasted rice flour, and button-size dumplings stuffed with zesty local pepperoni. The featured attractions share their bowl with a dashi sharpened with lime and kimchi juice. Complex? Da. Compelling? Ye.
All of Boden’s food is made with your eyes in mind. The recent beauty of the bunch was puppy drum, also known as redfish, set on an emerald pool of juiced, smoked greens and framed in grilled purple cauliflower. Ruffles of fried sliced sunchokes made for a jaunty garnish atop the firm, subtly sweet fish. As a server clears the course, my dining mate cracks, “I was just going to lick the plate.”
The portions are just the right size for someone who wants to taste a lot of things, but doesn’t want to be stuffed like a turkey in the process. And the wine list, nearly 100 bottles strong and respectfully inclusive of Virginia wineries, encourages diners to get out of their comfort zones. You can spend a lot here, for the better stuff, but you don’t have to. Many wines are $40 or less. (The “cellar” for some of the choices sends servers outside to fetch them. I told you the restaurant was small.)
Boden admits to a love/hate relationship with his signature hamburger, presented on a metal tray with a catcher’s mitt of skin-on french fries. The popular staple costs $16, and some nights, every table seems to be ordering it. Considerable thought has gone into the patty, shaped from shoulder meat and brisket (“I’m a good Jewish boy”) that the chef breaks down and grinds himself. The rest of the details are no less impressive: onions smoked over charcoal, cheese from Appalachia, bread-and-butter squash pickles and Martin’s potato roll. With those kind of credentials, the chef has only himself to blame for any abundance of burgers.
By now, you’re expecting other than creme brulee or chocolate cake for dessert. The Shack delivers. A bright Meyer lemon curd set off with sparkling red lime granita is just the sort of sweet you want after some of the restaurant’s richer dishes. Even the ice creams are cooler than most. When’s the last time you spotted chocolate fernet caramel or black persimmon sweet cream? I figured as much.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but I’m compelled to tell you: Save for the hamburger, none of the above dishes may be around for your inspection. Boden changes his menu a bit each week, and completely every month. Given my encounters at the Shack, however, future customers are in for serious gratification, and a lesson: Don’t judge a restaurant by its cover, or even its interior.
The Shack (Excellent) 105 S. Coalter St., Staunton, Va. 540-490-1961. theshackva.com. Open: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $15, main courses $22 to $32; three courses $50; four courses $60. Sound check: 78 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The narrow dining room and tiny restroom are not wheelchair friendly.