It is 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. My husband and I are waiting to get into a restaurant that opens at 5:00 and does not take reservations. It’s not the first time we have set aside concerns about eating dinner so close to lunchtime. Hello, Rose’s Luxury and Little Serow. But we’re not in DC. We have driven 3 1/2 hours to the tiny town of Staunton, Virginia, to a restaurant called The Shack.
My heart has been pounding wildly for the last 30 minutes. Could a recent mention as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the south by “Southern Living” cause a parade of food-obsessed diners to swarm the small town? A shut-out would be a major disappointment, even though this is a detour, rather than a dedicated destination. We are headed to Lynchburg, Va to engage in the arduous task of sorting through my in-law’s home, which includes thousands of items from an antique business. Over several visits, we have discarded 6 tons of trash, and we are only half way done with emptying the house. Dinner at The Shack serves as an incentive for the hard work ahead.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I see we are first in line. As the clock ticks closer to 5:00 pm more eager diners arrive, and the restaurant will nearly fill to its 26-seat capacity when it opens.
The Shack isn’t about decor. It’s sparse to say the least. The growing notoriety is solely due to the skills of chef/owner Ian Boden, formerly of Charlottesville’s well-respected and now shuttered Glass Haus Kitchen. We dined there two years ago and were eager to return. Boden’s Staunton restaurant is named for his wife’s grandmother, who lived in a Virginia shack for over 20 years.
Friday and Saturday evenings at The Shack feature a modestly-priced tasting menu with 3 courses for $45 or 4 courses for $55. (Note: the restaurant has an à la carte menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and is closed Sunday through Tuesday.)
Sweetbreads are not on my list of favorite foods, and normally the idea of them makes me squeamish. I set my trepidation aside for The Shack’s lamb sweetbreads with sichuan peppercorn, ground cherries, and cucumber kimchi. The lightly fried crunchy pieces of organ meat are smartly paired with sweet cherries and kimchi for contrast. The dish is stunning and seductive. The right chef and ingredients persuade me to rethink this personal food taboo.
Summer is passing all too quickly, and I feel a need to indulge in its bounties before they are gone. Berkshire Pork with fingerling potatoes, eggplant puree, grilled nectarines, and benne is a radiant summer dish. The meat is succulent, and the eggplant puree balances the sweetness of the fruit.
On the other side of the table my husband is basking in the flavors of braised carrots and heirloom squash with soft cooked egg, korean miso, herbs, and benne. The broth is rich and satisfying, and good to the very last droplet.
His second course is a delectable monkfish with purple hull pea stew, Charleston gold rice, heirloom tomatoes, and fennel. The common thread in each of our dishes is creativity that showcases, but doesn’t overshadow, the taste of the ingredients. The flavors are unique and cohesive, the execution is flawless.
We don’t need dessert to affirm our decision to dine here. But dessert is part of the deal. Two choices: brown butter cake with nectarines, elderflower vinegar, cream, and white chocolate or corn pudding with bittersweet chocolate, blackberries, and lime. My husband and I disagree on which is best, which works out nicely for both of us. Each one is accented with fruit, and a swirl of contrasting textures.
Most of the tables at The Shack are four tops. Because we are first in line, we are seated at a two top. But other parties of two are ultimately joined by strangers. It’s fun to watch the interactions as young tattooed patrons join conservative middle-aged couples. The pairings look to be a big success, and at times I feel like we are missing out on the fun.
Chef Ian Boden is driven to provide the best local ingredients at a cost that is simply a steal. I’ll drive for hours and spend a weekend covered in dust and piles of junk anytime, if it means we can stop at The Shack along the way.
Esquire Weekly article by Josh Ozersky “Found: The Incredible Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere That Nobody Knows About”
Washington Post review by Tom Sietsema: “Destination dining in Staunton”
Video with Chef Ian Boden