experiences

I’m Not Sure How to Write This Post

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I try to write about amazing experiences or truly awful. Definitely the funny and bizarre. But mediocre, borderline bad experiences I usually don’t. They’re not as interesting and if you can’t say something nice, or at least helpful, why say anything at all?

So this morning I’m struggling to articulate my experience last night, when a much anticipated restaurant really failed to live up to the hype.

I’d seen The Shack, an unassuming painted red brick building,  when driving through Staunton, VA over the holidays.

The Shack Staunton VA sign

It looked interesting so I pulled it up online and discovered it was a culinary gem in the area. The editor of Esquire had first discovered it and other food critics quickly followed with praise. AND the pre fixe 3 courses for $45 or 4 for $55 seemed very reasonable by DC fine dining standards.

So I planned a last minute trip with my best friend and dad to check it out. To say I was excited was an understatement!

We hadn’t known our schedule in time so we didn’t make reservations, but I’d read they left space for walk ins so I made everyone be ready to go at 5PM, right when they opened to make sure we could get a table.

The Shack Staunton VA exterior

We were the first folks seated, reminded there was a communal dining policy so if a party of 1 came in they would be seated at our table for 4. It is a tiny space with room for just 27 diners at a time, but it’s attractively and simply decorated with pictures from the past and beautiful old wood furniture and accent walls.

The Shack Staunton VA interior decor seating

The Shack Staunton VA Rick interior

The Shack Staunton VA Keri Amanda

The menus were brought out. The staff were pleasant, not quite as proactive as we’d expected at that price point, but it didn’t matter, I was there for the food.

The Shack Staunton VA prix fixe menu 1.31.15

I asked our waiter what he was most excited about that night, since the menu changes daily. He pointed out his favorites and helpfully advised us to pay as much attention to everything else on the plate as the protein in making our choices.

Our orders were placed, wine was brought, and anticipation of the first course setting in when the beginning of the end walked in the door. What are the chances a solitatry diner would come in at 5:30PM? But of course.

And it couldn’t be any of the nice folk I’d met in Staunton. It had to be a self important, but definitely not self-aware, bore from nearby Charlottesville. He sat down and promptly dominated our conversation with uninteresting references to his life.

Our starters arrived.

The Biscuit Sardinian Gnocchi with milk braised pork was quite flavorful.

The Shack Staunton VA sardinian biscuit gnocchi

The Salted Roasted Beets with Edmontonian fondue was surprisingly amazing.

The Shack Staunton VA salted beet starter

The Winter Squash Salad was good.

The Shack Staunton VA winter squash starter

Conversation had already reached the point where silence would have been welcome, and I was anxious for our main courses to arrive. But all hope disappeared when they popped by to say it would take another 8-12 minutes for the pork dish I’d ordered. I apologized to my dad and friend.

Eventually the Roast Pork and other dishes arrived and it became clear they’d slowed our courses to match our dining companion and he actually got his pork first, instead of the 15 minutes later I’d been hoping for so we could escape sooner.

My Roast Pork with brussel sprouts, pickled pumpkin, pumpkin pierogi and blood orange was fine but unimpressive. Slightly dry and lacking the blood orange garnish our table mate got. The standout for my dish was the pierogi.

The Shack Staunton VA Roast Pork

The Waygu Oyster Steak with wild mushrooms, truffled turnips and vinegar candied shallots was beautifully presented and flavorful, but on the cold side and cooked less than the medium rare to medium that had been stated.

The Shack Staunton VA Waygu Oyster Steak

The Rockfish with crispy black rice, miso carrots, mustard greens and fish sauce caramel was probably the winner that round.

The Shack Staunton VA rock fish main

For dessert there were two options — a Bittersweet Chocolate Bar with poached chestnuts, blood orange, and juniper meringue and and a Buttermilk Panna Cotta with brown butter apples, apple chips, bay leaf crumble and beer vinegar.

The Shack Staunton VA Buttermilk Panna CottaWe all went with the panna cotta which couldn’t arrive fast enough, so painful was the table conversation at this point. It was unlike any I’d had before, more like yogurt than flan it its consistency. It was interesting and tasty but  we bolted as soon as we could. Me apologizing profusely for evening as soon as we left the building.

Later that night I found out the chef was cooking for the James Beard Foundation dinner the next day and that might have had him distracted. And everyone can have an off night. The food was decent, just not mind blowing. If we had been sat alone or with a more congenial person we probably would have been simply underwhelmed rather than disappointed and feeling like the evening had been wasted.

I would try The Shack again — either on one of it’s Wednesday or Thursday burger nights or on a Friday or Saturday when I’m in a party of 2 or 4 to avoid communal dining. But I’m not excited to go back and will probably check out other Staunton restaurants or go back to One Block West first.

Has your restaurant choice ever killed the evening?

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6 Comments

  1. CB

    February 1, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    “Communal dining” with strangers is like a blind date set up by someone who doesn’t know either party. The only thing you might have in common is hunger, which is not a strong foundation for a relationship.

    When I go to a restaurant, I am paying for the food and the experience. The only thing I want to experience is efficient, professional service and to be left alone, whether dining solo or with others.

    I have had meals ruined more than once by such a policy. I understand that small restaurants have challenging profit margins, but that is their problem. I now choose to spend my money elsewhere.

  2. Jay

    February 1, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    I would never dine some place where there is a possibility I would be seated with someone I do not know. That is just not happening. You were just asking for it haha to be honest so no ‘sympathy’ for you. I probably would not support restaurants with this concept at all and if I really wanted to go some place which did I would have a full table with me. I do not even like sitting beside people in say one of those jap places where you all sit around a table whatever that’s called where they fry your food on a metal ‘table’.

  3. DaninMCI

    February 1, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Is that why they call them “Charlatan’s” ?

    Sounds like it was OK average. At least the price wasn’t bad. Seems like they would be better off just having bigger family style tables. That way you aren’t held hostage by one person you can’t avoid at a smaller table.

  4. Ian Boden

    February 2, 2015 at 1:58 am

    Keri,

    I’m truely sorry that we did not live up to your expectations last night when you joined us at the shack. I feel even worse that your experience was so marred by the unknown fourth. I do hope that if you find yourself in or around Staunton in the future that you give is another chance.

  5. Rachel

    February 2, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    I bet that guy’s a one star rated passenger on Uber!

  6. NG

    February 2, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Some hopefully constructive criticism for the future.

    My primary reaction to this review was feeling badly for the poor guy who involuntarily got sat at your table and then was subject to frankly, over the top, personal jabs on a public blog. I mean, you label him a “self-important bore” because he dared to tell you stories about his life? What else was he supposed to talk to you about?

    I’m an introvert who doesn’t much like small talk, so before this I would’ve said being seated by myself at a restaurant with a table of strangers would just about be my worst nightmare. But I guess this is a bigger nightmare: being seated at a table with strangers who then mock me after the fact because they didn’t like me.

    I think you could have made a totally legitimate criticism of the restaurant policy by saying something like, the single person added to our table wasn’t a good fit for us personality-wise, but what was far worse was that the kitchen appeared to slow down our dishes to accommodate his arriving at a different time, which actually made our food worse by getting cold. The second point is totally legitimate, and would make me not want to eat at this restaurant, or any restaurant with a similar policy. But it really got lost in your review.

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