The Shack is all the rage. In the short time since its late-January opening, chef Ian Boden’s tiny Staunton dive has already won raves from Esquire magazine and The Washington Post, among others. The Esquire article was titled: “Found: The Incredible Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere that Nobody Knows About.”
Staunton residents might be surprised to learn they live in the middle of nowhere, and longtime fans of Boden’s cooking might likewise scratch their heads at the timing of the latest media buzz. After all, Boden is the same talented chef who for five years ran The Staunton Grocery, and who also ran the well-known Glass Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville before it closed last October.
Consider this description: a “farm to fork restaurant in the Shenandoah Valley that [is] chef driven, locally sourced and with none of the trappings of a traditional fine dining restaurant.”
“Exactly!” Boden’s newest admirers might exclaim. Thing is, this comes not from a review of The Shack but from the website of Boden’s former Staunton restaurant, “The Grocery” as Boden and his fans knew it.
To be fair, in his previous ventures Boden believes he never quite succeeded in shedding fine dining trappings to the extent he has now. At The Shack, he said, it really is all about the food. Boden and his wife renovated the site of a former Carribbean barbecue joint cheaply in a matter of weeks. While I was fully prepared for a nondescript location, I admit that I drove right past the tiny brick building before having to circle back to find it.
Once inside, I felt at ease, which it turns out was by design.
“It’s all about how you feel when you walk in the door and the food on your plate,” said Boden.
Around a handful of tables in a room not much larger than a jail cell were mismatched used benches and chairs salvaged from auctions. The freshly painted walls were barren but for a few framed faded family photos. In shorts and sneakers, I sat down to dig into the work of a chef who last year was a James Beard semi-finalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, The Shack offers burgers, with a few a la carte specials as well. The burgers Boden serves by popular demand to ensure his bills do not go unpaid. At The Grocery, Boden’s burgers became the stuff of legend, with locally sourced meat, and Boden’s own grind technique and cut ratios.
But, to fully appreciate Boden’s talent, you need to go on a Friday or Saturday for the prix-fixe menu of his latest inspirations. The Shack’s limited hours mean that Boden orders ingredients for the day, not the week, depending on what’s available.
“Get what you can when you can,” he said.
This makes for exciting eating. On the night I went, $45 bought any three courses and $55 bought any four. I had such a hard time deciding that I decided to add a fifth. Boden acknowledges that much of the food at The Shack would not have been out of place at either of his two previous area restaurants. The difference, he said, is that he has taken the next step in the natural maturation of a chef: holding back.
“Any chef will tell you this,” Boden said, “but the more confident you become as a cook, the less you put on the plate.”
Fewer ingredients, however, does not mean less enjoyment. Take my favorite dish of the night: charred lamb hearts with “fish sauce caramel,” garlic chips, and cilantro. These accompaniments all scream flavor, but Boden’s deft touch allowed the lamb hearts to reign as the king of the dish. I’d drive back to Staunton just for them.
A soothing bisque of sunchokes came with the tiniest tease of a garnish of beech mushrooms and pistachios. Also stellar was a salad of roasted maitake mushrooms and frisee, lightly dressed in mustard vinaigrette, and topped with an egg that had been soft cooked in a circulator. That’s just one of several cooking toys that Boden has crammed into his kitchen, smaller than many closets.
The ABC license is just weeks old, so the wine list remains a work in progress, but is off to a good start, with a handful affordable, mostly local, reds and whites by the glass. Quarters are so tight that if you order a beer your server will simply turn to the fridge and grab you one, as if you had asked your college roommate to snag you a brew.
So, who is right about The Shack? The locals or the fawning media? Maybe both. Yes, the historic city of Staunton is in fact in the middle of somewhere, and Boden is the same great chef he has always been. But, yes also, The Shack is special.