It’s called “The Shack” for a reason. It’s a small restaurant, simple in décor and casual in attitude, but the food in Chef/owner Ian Boden’s cozy restaurant both embraces the name and belies it. We braved a torrential downpour across the foggy Blue Ridge Mountains to come from Charlottesville, a half hour drive away to dine on a Thursday evening after just having driven from upstate New York.
Wednesdays and Thursdays are the nights that most embrace the restaurant’s name. These evenings the food is more casual and tends to center around Boden’s burgers. On this evening, he featured beef and lamb burgers. As much as I enjoy a good burger, though, that was not why we ventured across the treacherous mountain roads.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Boden offers more elaborate tasting menus. While this was not available for us, he does provide a few dishes that venture beyond burgers on the weeknights. He also generously sent out a few dishes that he was working on for the upcoming weekend.
The Shack’s kitchen, as might be expected, is small, very small. Chef Boden has an assistant in the kitchen, but he is the one behind the stove and manning the grill. That is by necessity as much as anything, as another body would be one too many. As such, his tools are limited to a few select ones, but he puts them to very good use.
Ian Boden has been cooking for a while and through most of the 90’s plied his trade in NYC working alongside the likes of Bill Telepan amongst others. After a while, though, the pace and the pressures became more than he cared to handle and he left both the city and the trade. After a few years away, however, he felt the tug and returned to what he grew up doing – cooking. Boden built a strong reputation ending up most recently in Charlottesville, where he wore the toque at the well received Glass Haus. Most chefs, however, dream of having their own restaurants and so did Boden, who lived in Staunton and had made the daily commute to Charlottesville. He wanted a small place where he could do what he wanted and earn a reasonable living. The Shack had his name written all over it.
Boden’s cooking focuses on using quality local and regional ingredients, prepared well with some creative touches. We started our meal by ordering a few items to share. Poutine, frites with cheese curds and gravy have become a classic of Quebec and have started to garner attention elsewhere as well. At The Shack, Chef Boden puts a bit of a Southern spin on them with the welcome tartness of green tomatoes and a touch of heat from Serrano chiles. No stone was left unturned on this plate.
Somewhat less successful and the only disappointing dish of the evening, the chicken wings lacked punch and texture. Glazed with the southern sweetener, sorghum syrup and adorned with chopped parsley and benne, the magical old sesame seeds of the old South that had been resurrected by Sean Brock and his friends at Anson Mills, they were mostly just sweet, sticky and soft without enough contrast to make them special. The wings were meaty and of good quality, but they just needed more oomph to bring them up to the level of every things else.
The first dish that Chef Boden surprised us with made me forget the wings very quickly. Supporting a strong nose-to-tail and seasonal sensibility, he sent out a dish that would feature on his upcoming weekend tasting. Pork tongue is not an item one tends to come across on a daily basis. His was grilled, sliced up and paired with crème de morels, fresh peas and charred spring garlic. The tongue itself provided a pleasant bit of porkiness, but ultimately played second fiddle to the morels and the peas, which was fine by me, as these were excellent. The spring garlic hit the high notes that pulled it all together.
Salads aren’t sexy. The word has too many connotations. It can be fine for lunch, but dinner? In a restaurant? It is the rare menu description of a salad that makes me drool. As a result, it is the unusual occasion upon which I order one from a restaurant dinner menu. Boden had two salads on his limited menu, which essentially forced each of us to order them as starters, especially as we had ordered the other two starters already. Well, it turned out to be our very excellent fortune as both salads were fantastic and the finest dishes of the night. That is not meant to belittle any of the other dishes that we had. These salads were wonderfully thought out, constructed and executed. I would not be surprised to find one on my “Best Dishes of 2014” list at the end of the year.
One, of grilled romaine served with pickled green almonds, toasted breadcrumbs and an XO vinaigrette, was a study in texture and balance. It was marvelous.
As good as the grilled romaine salad was though, the true star of the night was wild watercress with green tomato, smoked pork and yellow mustard vinaigrette. Seductively plated on a red-rimmed china plate, the salad was lovely to look at as well as to eat. Without the plate the presentation was a monochromatic study in green, but what green! The watercress was unlike the farmed varieties. With less of a pepery bite, it was more subtle, but with a lovely, pronounced watercress flavor. The stems and leaves were delicate and delightful. Boden used green tomatoes several times during the meal in different ways. Each was welcome and appropriate, but it was in this dish that they shone most brightly. Along with the lovely yellow mustard vinaigrette they supplied the oomph that had been lacking in the wings. Like the pork tongue, the pork in this dish was surprisingly subtle and used as a smoky accent rather than a featured player. Here, rather than bold chunks or pulled threads as I was expecting, the pork had been smoked then shaved, behaving like breadcrumbs on steroids. The balance was exceptional. Ultimately, this was one of the most satisfying salads that I can recall.
Chef Boden sent us out another dish from the upcoming weekend to share. This one was playful, fun and creative. While visually and conceptually reminiscent of tortellini in brood from Emiglia-Romagna in central Italy, the similarities ended there. These tortellini were filled with liverwurst and were served in a light broth along with braised cabbage, a shaving of bottarga, and miner’s lettuce to add a touch of color. The dish was creative, fun and tasty. The pasta was well made and the filling flavorful. While they won’t make me forget the glorious gems from Agriturismo Gaidello outside of Modena, they were quite enjoyable nevertheless. Coming, as they did, right after the salads, I’m surprised to see myself write this, but they had a very difficult act to follow.
There were four main courses to choose from on the menu. Two were burgers and then there were the ones we ordered. One was a Sardinian gnocchi (Sardinian by shape) with an abundance of spring morels, ramps and some Parmesan cheese. This was not what I ordered, but of course, I managed a taste or two. The flavors were beautiful. This was a very satisfying pasta dish for those who had ordered it and one I would have been quite happy with as well.
I ordered the dish that intrigued me even more. Sautéed shrimp and squid are appealing enough in their own right. When paired with “rice grits”, arugula and XO sauce, my curiosity was heightened. Most grits are made from corn meal, but Boden uses rice to make his. Grinding his rice to a fine texture, he cooked them as he would grits, and flavored them with an arugula purée. Ultra fresh arugula leaves adorned the surface of the dish. It was the spicy XO sauce smeared on the side of the bowl that brought everything together in one delicious whole.
It wasn’t until the savory courses were finished, that I learned that the lamb in the lamb burgers was from the legendary southern Virginia, Border Springs Farm. At that point, I knew that I couldn’t leave without trying some. I asked Chef Boden if could prepare a burger just for me to taste, but he countered with something even better. He had been preparing for the upcoming Lamb Jam to be held in Washington, DC following the weekend and had just so happened to have a boatload of roasted Border Springs lamb shanks just coming out of the oven.
To my delight, he offered me one. Tender and delicious just as it was, I could only imagine how good it was going to be in his finished dish!
We couldn’t leave without tasting a dessert to fortify our way back across the miserably dark and wet mountain pass and his dessert suited the purpose. Continuing the chef’s strong seasonal slant, he served a classic Buttermilk Pie with rhubarb and strawberries. Yes, we were back in the South!
The Shack is a small intimate restaurant. It is cozy, comforting and convivial. It is the kind of place that one goes to eat what they have rather than to eat what one might think one wants. The menu is small and the larder commensurate. Chef Boden used a limited number of ingredients throughout the course of the meal based largely on seasonality and availability, but he used them creatively and without making them seem repetitive. In this sense as well as a few others, I felt like I could have been dining in a small restaurant in the Italian countryside. The Shack may be small and simple as a structure, but it is big on delivering a heartfelt, warm and delightful dining experience.