Staunton and Charlottesville, Virginia.

My draft blog post on Jeff Hoffman is up for Insiders, as is a short reaction to Baltimore signing Nelson Cruz. Look for another draft blog post, on UVA hitters, on Tuesday.

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.

Charlottesville eats.

Thanks to all of you who fired over suggestions for my two meals in Charlottesville. (Except the guy who suggested Jimmy John’s. Why not just tell me to go to McDonald’s?) I wish I could have tried more places – and spent more time in Charlottesville, which looked like a very cool town with plenty of interesting places to eat.

Three popular suggestions from regulars that I didn’t try but wanted to pass along are Wayside Chicken (classic southern fried chicken), Bodo Bagels (although I am highly skeptical of claims that the bagels are better than any in NYC … come on) and Bellmont BBQ (known for their pulled pork). If and when I get back there – the one drawback of Charlottesville is it’s not that easy to get to, what with an airport straight out of Wings* – those places are at the top of my list.

*Before anyone gets the wrong idea: I hated that show.

The two I did hit were Peter Chang’s Chinese Grill and Mas Tapas. Peter Chang is both famous and infamous, earning a Wikipedia entry largely about his peripatetic ways and a New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin titled “Where’s Chang?” The chef focuses on Sichuan cuisine, quite different from what we ordinarily and inaccurately refer to as “Chinese food” (making us, I suppose, a nation of synecdouches), generally spicier and with stronger flavors. I have very little experience with Sichuan cooking, so I can tell you that Peter Chang’s was fantastic but can’t speak to its authenticity.

After some discussion with the waiter, who seemed to know the menu but wasn’t all that quick to offer suggestions, I ended up with the spicy fragrant duck, a Peter Chang signature dish that delivered on both adjectives. This was probably a 60 on the 20-80 spiciness scale, about where I get off the spicy train. The duck is cut into chunks, mostly bone-in, coated in a thin layer of flour and cornstarch, deep fried (skin and all), and covered in a spicy rub or paste heavy on red chili and tossed with cilantro and garlic. It’s not for the light eater, but it’s big and bold and more than just hot, with the duck remaining tender through the heavy frying and the skin becoming impossibly crispy. I started with a hot and sour soup that gained its spice from red chilis rather than the traditional American-Chinese version with black peppercorns, giving it a more well-rounded flavor.

Mas Tapas does tapas right, heavy on the traditional Spanish fare, but also making good use of the wood-fired oven right behind the bar. (I was fortunate enough to sit in a little corner that looks directly into the fire.) I went with four of their most popular dishes, three hits and one miss. Their boquerones – white anchovies marinated in good olive oil, garlic, herbs, and vinegar – were solid, maybe just a touch fishy but I figure those are just the omega-3’s doing their thing, and if you get those you must get their house bread, a crusty, cold-fermented European-style loaf perfectly made to sop up the oil and vinegar from the fish. I am guessing that these boquerones were preserved rather than fresh, since I’ve only had fresh at one place (Toro in Boston) and they’re not easy to find in the U.S. Mas also has a bacon-wrapped date dish, not quite as good as Firefly’s (where they stuff the dates with almonds) but perfectly cooked; the way I see it, the omega-3’s from the fish cancel out the copious amount of bacon fat I consumed about five minutes later.

The one miss was the croquetas de jamón, thick grilled cakes of potato, Manchego cheese, bacon, and jamón serrano, dusted in cornmeal on the outside. The edges were crispy with a little sweetness from caramelization but the interior had the texture of baby food. If I could do it over again, I’d swap these out and try their tortilla española. I’ll also give bonus points to Mas for having Guinness on tap and not too cold and for plenty of eye candy on a Friday night.