Shaggy Icelandic sheepskin makes the best bar seats. I know this now that I’ve sampled the Shaw Bijou, the ambitious debut restaurant from Kwame Onwuachi, a “Top Chef” contestant and former caterer from New York who says he wants his customers to feel as if they’re guests in his (lovely contemporary) home.
Surely you’ve heard about the place. Several years in the making, Shaw Bijou created headlines even before it opened, after the chef announced plans to charge $185 per diner — not counting drinks, tax or tip — meaning that with the priciest wine pairing, the bill would approach $500. The price of admission puts the new kid on the block in the big leagues, along with standard bearers such as the four-star Minibar by José Andrés. Can the fresh face deliver?
Arrivals are escorted to a cocoon of a bar on the second floor of a onetime townhouse, where a gent on the other side of a smooth black walnut counter makes drinks based on a brief conversation involving your preferences. When I say I’m thinking “mezcal” and “heat,” he tells me I’m somebody with whom he could see himself drinking, then gets busy turning tequila, simple syrup, orange bitters and citrus peels into a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. The fuzzy embrace of the black sheepskin almost puts me to sleep; an alluring twist on a charcuterie plate revives me. Picture jerk-marinated duck prosciutto with a “cigarette” of crackling pastry containing La Tur cheese whipped with hazelnut oil, a nibble staged with dots of pineapple curd, borage blossoms and pesto powder for extra kicks.
No question: Onwuachi lavishes lots of thought, and ingredients, on his dishes.
Just as we’re finishing our cocktail, an usher comes to take us down to the kitchen, because isn’t that where everyone gravitates when they’re at a dinner party? In contrast to the slate-shaded lounge, the kitchen is bright and set off with a vivid wall display of more than 200 spices, from West African alligator pepper to Peruvian aji amarillo. A chef is readying another taste for us: “chicken and lamb over rice.” Like most of the dozen or so courses here, this one comes with a story attached.
The snack — lamb sweetbreads served on a golden rice crisp with an emulsion of smoked sesame seeds — draws on Onwuachi’s memories of grazing from the halal carts in New York. “Can we take a picture?” one of my party asks. “Sure,” says the underling, teasing the nibble, finished with a glaze of chicken jus, into position on a platter. “You can take a picture with the chef, too, if you like.” Onwuachi, who turns 27 this month, hovers nearby, ready for any close-up.
On to the dining room, a mere eight tables with seating for 28 — and surprisingly spare (and familiar, with exposed brick) given the concept. “I kind of like it,” says a gal pal of the plush blue velvet chairs and sleek ebony tables, surrounded by pools of space, a thoughtful amenity in a city where eavesdropping is considered a sport. Rap music, followed by bluegrass, accompanies what becomes our third course: minced clams shot through with chilies and lime and crowned with caviar. The racy flavors, explains a server, were inspired by a trip Onwuachi took to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
For all the chef’s talk about hospitality and comfort (there’s no dress code at the Shaw Bijou), the newcomer doesn’t make itself easy to know, at least not initially. For starters, there’s no menu to preview. Reservations become available the first of each month for the following month, using an online ticketing system, and if you want the wine pairings, they’re an extra $185 per person.
Food fanciers might not blink at the cost if the kitchen principal came with more of a track record. Onwuachi has had a colorful life, spending some of his childhood in Nigeria and having cooked on boats in the Gulf of Mexico, but he has never helmed a project this grand. Investors with deep pockets make possible gravity-defying Austrian stemware by Zalto, hand-blown glass light fixtures and luxurious hand-carved buffets and door handles, but it’s up to the young chef to engage us with his cooking.
Some courses, he does. An early delight is sweet king crab poached in garlic butter, a luxury enhanced with shavings of sea urchin bottarga, or cured roe. Later in the meal, Steak & Eggs gives the diner staple a luxe makeover. The Shaw Bijou’s upgrade features a fold of richly marbled, dry-aged Wagyu beef. Standing in for the egg is onion soubise circling the pickled yolk of a quail egg. Clever.
The wine pairings are top-flight, with refills poured for glasses emptied of, say, the Larmandier-Bernier champagne from France and the 2010 Giovanni Manzone Gramolere Barolo from Italy.
Other taste memories — a sliver of beet-cured hamachi on avocado puree; honeynut squash veloute poured over Parmesan foam and pickled squash— resemble what a lot of other chefs are doing. While there’s nothing incorrect about either offering, there’s also not an ahhh moment as you eat them. Both courses are merely pleasant. And pleasant is a plentiful commodity around town these days, and at prices significantly lower than these.
Less impressive is seared foie gras topped with a marmalade of shrimp and pork, a meaty marriage that might have worked had a bite not been a salt bomb. Dehydrated, fried sunchokes with a tamarind glaze are both chewy and less zingy than their oral introduction suggests. (Full disclosure: I dislike sunchokes.)
Attendants are for the most part genial and smooth, doling out hot towels here and palate cleansers there, but the service, too, comes with wrinkles. After a dish shatters in the background, a waiter is compelled to share what should have been a cloud thought: “Whoever just did that is getting into So. Much. Trouble.”
Dessert, the last chance to make an impression, proves the weakest link in the chain. Floating Icebergs are meant to pay homage to the classic French îles flottantes; the Shaw Bijou slights the idea with a too-sweet meringue and, oddly, celery curls as a garnish.
A younger Onwuachi sold candy on subway trains to raise money for his catering business. House-made versions of his best sellers serve as post-dinner bonbons. Honestly, though, a real Butterfinger is better than the chocolate-robed salt lick served here. And the “Skittles” are a waste of tamarind and cranberry powders, not to mention palm oil.
I’m not surprised when I later learn that Onwuachi does not have a sweet tooth.
None in my party are linebackers, but all of us end the meal less than sated. The beautiful, custom-made plates from Cloud Terre don’t ferry more than a bite or two per course to the table. Dinner at the Shaw Bijou feels more like extended hors d’oeuvres.
Mulling the meal, a companion asks the rest of us, “How would you rather spend $2,000?” That’s the sum for four, once tip, tax and wine are factored in.
As with most high-end concepts, the Shaw Bijou, its name a nod to both the neighborhood and the chef’s mother (named Jewel, or Bijou in French), sends guests into the night with a parting gift. Inside a black bag are a small jar of sunchoke jam, a tiny paddle for slathering it and a chocolate bar, also incorporating sunchokes. They add up to a curious goodbye.
As my party stands outside one of the most highly anticipated restaurants of the season, currently all but obscured by construction fencing, I take a vote to see how many would return on their own dime. Head shakes all around confirm my hunch.
We’re also of one mind when it comes to our mood: Pizza, anyone?
1544 Ninth St. NW. theshawbijou.com. 202- 800-0640. Dinner, $185 (not including tax, tip or drinks); wine pairing, $185.