I’ve been eating dinner at Chef Ian Boden’s restaurants since first moving to Staunton in 2008.
And I was among those rending my limbs in tears when he shuttered his Staunton Grocery in favor of working at the now defunct Glass Haus in Charlottesville.
But now he’s back, and has been for a little over a year, with a new venture — the Shack — that’s been hailed by everyone from Esquire Magazine to the Wall Street Journal, from Tom Sietsma in the Washington Post to Southern Living magazine.
Clearly Staunton is blessed to have such culinary greatness in town both for the local food love and to draw destination diners and satisfy the more discerning tourists seeking a real local foods experience.
All in the family
A quick disclaimer here — my daughter worked for Ian as a Junior Chef when she was 16 and 17, fumbling around Staunton Grocery at her first job and trying to learn the intricacies of a French-style kitchen in a decidedly macho prep culture.
She learned so much from Ian and his under chefs, and we’re fortunate now to have some of that influence when she, now 20, decides it’s her night to cook.
So you could say I’m biased, and predisposed to find favor with The Shack.
But clearly even if I were to do nothing but fawn over the place — which I won’t — I’d be in good company given the reviews linked above. ^
During this past year or more we’ve dined at the Shack more than a few times for dinner, mostly on à la carte Wednesdays and Thursdays. We also did at least one Prix Fixe weekend night for our 2014 wedding anniversary and we’ve had brunch there three times now.
Over the years, as my passion for local food has grown, my revulsion for industrial food has also increased. That’s why I’ll only order a burger if it’s locally raised and grass fed, which I can be sure to get at The Shack.
More amazing still is that it’s only $12 and includes a side — only a buck or two more than other area restaurants whose beef comes off of the industrial food service trucks.
But Ian’s burgers are not just any old locally raised beef — it comes from farmers who he knows personally, after years in the area cultivating relationships with them.
In this sense, the far-reaching effects of supporting local farms means a rising economy for far more than just his place, or local tax revenue. It means he’s providing a decided market for farms to provide goods that are wanted and have an outlet.
That’s a pretty sweet vision and a darn fine business plan in my eyes.
As I said, I’ve mostly eaten the weekday burger, which is generally cooked medium rare, though it sometimes comes a little more rare than is my fave.
I’ve taken to asking for the burgers to be cooked a bit more, which always mortifies me, like I’m being a bad girl by second-guessing the chef. I don’t mean to, and I love a steak almost entirely rare, but I just like my burgers a little less pink.
My hubby, he loves it as served.
I also get mine without the bun, so I can’t speak to what the whole all-American burger experience is like, except that both my daughter and hubby think it’s the tops.
I do get whatever else comes with it, usually lettuce, maybe a pickled green tomato, and a yummy aoili served on the side, which I dip every last bite into. I’m sure its flavor switches up from time to time.
I’ve loved choosing his more non-traditional sides, like roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, or herb grits, or roasted acorn squash with porcini crumble and butternut squash oil.
Then again, you can always get fries and dip them into that aoili!
As for the Prix Fixe menu, as I said I only went once, in July 2014. You can check the menu that night posted above, courtesy of the Shack’s Facebook page, where they feature each night’s menu.
Top start, hubby had the chilled corn soup and I the tomato and watermelon salad. I feel like if I close my eyes I can still taste the popping grandeur of that basil lighting up those watery fruits.
For dinner my hubster had the rabbit and I the roasted bluefish, which was a stretch for me — seafood is not my favorite thing and yet I feel like I should eat more of it for health reasons, so I force myself to choose it.
I particularly recall asking about the purple hull peas that were to accompany my dish— they were great, a humble food, historically speaking, but packing plenty of comfort and rounding out the robustness of my meal.
For dessert we shared the corn pudding, which was more to my husband’s choosing than mine, but I ended up very surprised at how wonderful it was.
I’m a big brunch fan and for my money there’s no better brunch in Staunton if what you want and expect is inventive cuisine, a bright Mimosa, a lazy pace, and a down-home feel. Also, the chicory coffee is great, as is the full bodied local cream.
Some dishes I’ve had for brunch could have been less starch and a bit more bacon, including just offering up one straightforward Southern comfort breakfast — a hefty portion of bacon, eggs, greens, and a biscuit or grits. But overall, you’ll not get a better brunch in town if you tried.
Burger, hold the dining room
I know the Shack originally refused to do To-Go, which is a bummer if you’re not up for the whole out-to-eat thing (or you’re traveling through and don’t have time to stop).
One time they did an exception for me because I didn’t know of the
no to-go policy; but they didn’t do it without sternly lecturing me about never getting it again.
However, since then they have experimented with To-Go and on Wednesdays and Thursdays only, and ONLY for burgers, you can get to-go.
Though I consider myself a pretty formidable home cook, one thing I suck at is making burgers. At the same time, a burger is something I’m happy to just eat at home in front of the tube or on the front porch during good weather. So it’s really a plus that the Shack’s burgers are now available for off-site.
The other grass-fed burger choice in town is George Bower’s Grocery which, conveniently, is just steps from my home, and does do To-Go, so there are options in town, both of which are great.
Two words, communal dining
If I have to confess my least favorite aspect of the Shack I’m going to have to say it’s the shared tables.
In fact, I’m always gunning to queue up outside, rain or shine, to be the first one in so I can snag the only two-top in the place.
It’s not that I’m anti-social…or at least, not entirely.
It’s just that we are infrequent diners and when we go out it’s either to celebrate a personal occasion or get together with someone I haven’t seen in a while. Both circumstances call for a more private setting and I don’t always want to favor Zynodoa — another gourmet local foods place — over the Shack.
But I do if the issue is privacy.
You see, my hubby is on City Council, a job he loves but one that quite obviously places him in the public eye.
Nearly everyone who has shared our table has naturally yapped his ear off about City business which, while important, kind of defeats the purpose of me going out to get away from our daily concerns, and which usually leaves me sidelined, and worse, bored.
I mean, I care about City business, too, but I get to care about it secondhand all the time already, and every time we’re stopped on the street.
I don’t need more of it at a dinner out.
It’s not that I don’t understand where his constituents are coming from, and I am sure they mean no offense. In fact, quite the opposite — they’re sweetly trying to connect.
But it’s not what I want.
A little more privacy would go a long way in this regard, at least for me.
But if you’re the, “love to meet new people,” or “whatever happens, happens,” type, perhaps sitting astride others won’t be felt so keenly.
A deck was built to accommodate customers waiting for the tiny dining room, and originally it was just for drinks while waiting for a seat. But now, hurrah, you can also choose to dine outside!
This is awesome for two reasons:
First, Staunton has the saddest dearth of patios for a savvy small city of its type that I’ve ever seen. So the addition of a new patio in town is major cause for gladness.
Not that the Shack’s deck has the world’s best view, being on a kind of busy road. But whatever, there’s a deck wall and it’s fine — it’s just so great to have another choice to eat outside.
Secondly it means more seats and more choices and hence less likelihood that you have to double-up with strangers and hence sacrifice your privacy.
In many ways, Ian Boden wrote the book on local food in our area, a true pioneer, a leader, and a freakin’ awesome chef. You miss going here to eat while you’re in town at your own significant loss!
One other note — the service has always been absolutely flawless. It’s a casual place, so it’s not like the service is formal and stuffy, but neither is it slack or overly familiar. It’s simply sharp, knowledgeable, and easy-going. We’ve always been very pleased.
The check out’s via Square so you can get a receipt e-mailed home.
You may see me there, but please, don’t try to share my table! 😉
— Lindsay Curren, Girl Goes Virginia