The Shack, Staunton

Winding down my recent trip to the Midwest, I drove from Louisville to Staunton for my third consecutive evening of trying James Beard Award semi-finalists and finalists, in three different categories (Great Lakes, Southeast, and now Mid-Atlantic). First, let me recommend the Stonewall Jackson Hotel for anyone staying over in Staunton who can find a decent price – I spent too much time deciding on a hotel, and it was a mistake trying to save twenty bucks – if it’s between this place, and an interstate Best Western, stay here (trust me).

After a power nap, I strolled over to The Shack, a mere 1 1/2 blocks away from the hotel, arriving right when they opened to make sure I got a table – and I’m glad I did, because although I had the table to myself the entire time, the restaurant was beginning to get busy when I left.

I took a seat facing the kitchen, and began my meal with a bottle of 2013 Domaine de Triquet Sauvignon Blanc ($24), yes, that’s right, $24 for a bottle of good-quality, French Sauvignon Blanc – I knew I’d take half the bottle back to my room, but you can also order this by the glass for a mere $6 (sounds crazy, doesn’t it?)

The only thing my server urged me to get was the Blistered Shishito Peppers ($3, I think), served like you’d see edamame presented in a Japanese restaurant. These were probably still in the field 24 hours before, and there wasn’t a single hot one in the bunch. Sipping my first glass of Sauvignon Blanc, the shishitos were a great way to wind down and begin my meal in a relaxed, unhurried fashion, and thanks to my server for recommending them.

Since this was my first time here, I wanted to concentrate on fresh produce, and order as many things as possible, so I made it a mostly vegetarian meal of small plates, and took my dessert back to my hotel room to be enjoyed later that evening (and enjoy it I did). I ordered several items, and told my server it was fine to bring everything as it was ready – I was there to nibble and nosh.

Tomato and Peach Panzanella ($8) with charred pickled shallots, esmontonain, and basil was an excuse to show off superb tomatoes and peaches, although the tiny pieces of bread were perfectly textured as well (crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, perhaps pan-fried in olive oil). Ian, if you’re reading this, and *if* I’m remembering correctly, I think it was a mistake to use grated Parmesan (or whatever it was) on this dish.

Cucumber and Wax Bean Salad ($6) is something I surprised myself by ordering, and despite having possibly been harvested within the past 24 hours, the salad itself just didn’t thrill me, and was perhaps the one weak point of the meal – this needed to be gussied up a little bit – something, anything to add some flavor to these relatively neutral-tasting ingredients. If you like naked cucumbers and wax beans, go for it, but you have to really like them in order to like this.

Field Peas with Cornbread ($6) was an awesome display of excess by this diner – despite how healthy this food was, I didn’t need this dish because it was somewhat redundant to the wax beans. That said, it was a great show of ingredients, and I found myself filling up almost exclusively on vegetables, and merely nibbling on the fine cornbread.

At this point, I was stuffed, and I took my Buttermilk Custard, Nectarine, and Cornbread Crumbs ($7) back to the hotel – a mere five-minute stroll on flat terrain – and enjoyed it later that evening, right after I’d drained the final drop of wine, and then I tucked into the best night’s sleep I’d had in quite awhile. It was a great evening, and Ian Boden is a chef to remember.

This was my first visit to The Shack, and I can summarize it like this: farmer’s market-quality ingredients, cooked simply and with a master’s touch. This is a restaurant that lets the ingredients take center stage and take the bow; not one with an ego-driven chef who feels the need to neutralize nature’s bounty. Don’t expect Michelin 3-star technique here because the chef chooses not to use it – this is simple food of the highest quality, done just the way you want it. Italic all the way in the Dining Guide, and if I had to name one area restaurant it reminded me of more than any other, I would name Grandale Farm, with the caveat that I didn’t test The Shack’s kitchen in the slightest, and I suspect that Ian can cook rings around most any chef in the exurbs.

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