Esquire ran a piece last week that profiled a new, tiny restaurant called the Shack, located in the Virginia mountain hamlet of Staunton (pronounced like Giancarlo’s surname), while also somehow praising the writer for finding this hidden gem. That link’s serendipitous appearance in my Twitter feed came a few days before my scheduled trip to Charlottesville, itself a wonderful food town, but just 45 minutes away from Staunton – a bit of fortuitous timing I couldn’t pass up.
And the Shack is indeed a fantastic experience, both for food and for value: $40 for a prix-fixe menu, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, that comprises three courses (one choice each among three starters, three entrees, and two desserts) with huge flavors and a great focus on produce. I’m not sure how much of what I ate was local, given the time of year, but much of it was at least seasonally appropriate, and the deftness of the execution was remarkable.
The first course was my favorite of the night: sweetbread-filled tortelloni with beech mushrooms, basil leaves, and a Meyer lemon paste (possibly from confit) underneath, with the pasta itself made fresh in the back. Cooked perfectly al dente, the tortelloni had an ideal dough/filling ratio, and the mushrooms brought a huge earthy note to the dish that seemed to increase the potency of the minced sweetbread inside the dumplings. (I concede I am a sucker for any pasta dish made with good mushrooms.) The lemon underneath the pasta was hidden, requiring a little extra effort to get it into each bite, but the balance of sweet, sour, salty, and umami flavors was spot on – and never during the meal did I have a thought of “this needs salt.”
My entree was a seared trout with cured trout roe, brussels sprouts, and parsnip puree. The trout itself tasted unbelievably fresh – I don’t know if it’s even the right time of year for it, but the fish tasted as if it had just been caught – and this was the best trout skin I’ve ever eaten; even at home I often just skip it because of the work required to make it this well. Imagine the texture of a potato chip, so thin it’s nearly translucent, taken right out of the fryer, and you have a sense of how the skin tasted. I’m quibbling here, but the dish tended a shade too much toward the sweet side because of all of the natural sugar in the parsnips, and I’d have liked a little more of the finger lime vinaigrette to balance it – but I only noticed it because everything else was so perfectly done. (Finger limes are new to me, a citrus plant native to Australia and only recently commercialized and grown in the United States.)
The dessert was described in the most basic terms on the menu: “apples + bananas + vanilla wafers + terragon [sic],” but as the other option was full of hazelnuts, one of my least favorite flavors in the culinary catalog, I chose the fruit dish with no idea what I might get. What I got was sparse but bursting with flavor, centered around beautifully browned chunks of banana, with crumbled vanilla wafers underneath like a deconstructed pie crust. It lacked something to bind all of the elements together – a little crême fraîche, perhaps, or some honeyed labneh – but the flavors on the plate were beautiful.
The Shack is waiting on its beer/wine license, which should arrive by early March, and seating will likely remain limited – the tiny space seats about 32 people, all in tables for four, so while I had a table to myself for a while, the server asked me if I’d mind sharing with a couple who had just arrived. I said yes, of course, and ended up having a long conversation with the couple, a bit closer to my parents’ age, about Staunton, food, and places we’d traveled. I had just seen Alton Brown’s Edible Inevitable tour, during which he expounds on the role of food as a shared experience – the act of eating is what brings us to the table, together, to break bread. I would never have met that couple or had that conversation without word of The Shack’s amazing food spreading to the point that it reached me and made me want to make the trip. The food alone was worth it – $40 for that kind of quality, both in execution and in inputs, is a screaming bargain – but the experience as a whole was one-of-a-kind.
* Of course, leaving Charlottesville for dinner limited my dining time in that town to just the next morning’s breakfast and a stop for coffee. Breakfast at the Blue Moon Diner was fine, nothing remarkable other than bad service (I sat at the counter, where two servers were more interested in doing things like organizing the vinyl records for the turntable). Coffee at Shenandoah Joe’s, a reader suggestion, was much better: they offer pour-overs with a few dozen options, all roasted in-house, although the folks at the register didn’t seem to know much about which beans were the freshest. (Older beans tend to lose some of their brighter notes, like acidity, something I just learned very recently.) I had their Guatemalan El Tambor offering in a pour-over, only offered in 16 oz size for about $2.50, and other than lacking some acidity it was a great cup, with deep roasted cocoa nib and rum/molasses notes.