cross-posted at dcist
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the world of restaurant reviews, expectations are everything - and that expectations are usually telegraphed by price. And at the price range of The Shaw Bijou and its contemporaries – well, I want to have a memorable experience, something that feels unique and inviting and fun. And most of all, delicious. That’s a lot to foist on a restaurant normally, and even more to burden on a new restaurant from a first-time executive chef. But I suppose that’s what you get when you announce a price that places you in the upper echelon of price in D.C.: you get an earful based on those expectations. The commentariat seized on the price tag as presumptuous. The Post called out some duds and said it left their party hungry. That’s a lot of feedback to take in.
With a dinner reservation well after the initial word came out, our group’s expectations swung wildly from “can’t wait” to “oh well.” But with a few days to let the memory and perspective sink in, I can now say this: I have no earthly idea what any of them are talking about. This is one of the best dining experiences in the city. And it is well worth the price.
How did the Shaw Bijou surpass my expectations, lowered or not? For one, dinner at Shaw Bijou is unique. My wife and I had been excited for the restaurant long before its provenance was announced, solely because of the incredibly handsome job they had done restoring a run-down townhouse into a stately royal blue charmer (to wit: we honestly thought it was another Shaw house flip). The Shaw Bijou takes that unique space and maximizes it: dinner starts with a walk upstairs to a beautiful wood bar for cocktails and a canapé, progresses through the humming kitchen for a quick tour through, settles into a warm and spare dining room, with the occasional bounce back into the kitchen for a bite or two at the pass. This isn’t the first time anyone has ever tried this – see: Minibar – but this is the first time I’ve ever felt it is graceful rather than put-on, and certainly the first time that Chef himself is the one plating the food a foot in front of you. Lots of places say they want to make you feel like you’re at a friend’s dinner party; this is the first time it actually felt like that.
Dinner at Shaw Bijou is also inviting. Service is warm and meaningful and starts from the top. Chef Kwame cracks jokes as he traverses kitchen and dining room. Bartenders and servers alike ask the kinds of questions and have the kinds of conversations that let you know they know that you’re invested in how good this meal will be. Cocktails bring a dealer’s choice query that plays out like a choose-your-own-adventure: do you want refreshing and citrusy or maybe more brooding and warmer? How do you feel about light versus dark spirits? Products may vary but the result is the same: a companion’s mint gimlet is as pitch perfect as another’s bourbon negroni or French 75. Shaw Bijou is also one of the only times I’ve ever felt truly engaged by a sommelier. There’s no standoffishness (or even worse, condescension) here, just an effortless and friendly explanation of the excellent pairings.
Most of all, Shaw Bijou understands a good meal’s context. Some places feel like they’re putting on a performance while keeping an eye on the clock – all the better to ensure your table turns for that 8:30 seating – like some sort of culinary Cirque de Soleil. If there’s a special occasion, that means sticking a candle in an existing dessert. That has its place to be sure. But in what feels very much like a deliberate choice, dinner here is allowed room to breathe. By the time we look up at our watches, four and a half hours (!) have passed from the time our 7pm seating started, all the better to let us enjoy the birthday we’re celebrating. And that special occasion? That’s marked by an off-menu chocolate cake the size of a cantaloupe – the leftovers of which they send you home with. That’s an attention to detail that is unsurpassed.
There are times when this warm service can be a bit much. Most dishes come with an explainer of how they draw from Chef Kwame’s journeys – his time eating street food in New York, or chasing down elderly clam-mongers in Thailand, for instance – which is nice, but grow a little tired as the night goes on. But the connecting thread is that these things always feel like they come from a place of exuberance rather than performance.
Dinner at Shaw Bijou is also fun. One course involves Chef Kwame asking the vegetarian member of our party to crack open a salt-encrusted sweet potato – like a branzino – with a mallet in the kitchen. Turns out fun also pairs nicely with engaged service too: after a beets and cream dessert arrives well after a beet-cured hamachi, my wife decides to mention the beet tattoo I’d gotten earlier that day (this is a true and silly fact). Five minutes later, Chef Kwame arrives with an off-menu course, saying “I heard someone here likes beets. So I made you guys sort of a cheese course. Camembert and beet mole on flatbread.” These are the giggly moments that make you remember meals.
Yes, fun also occasionally means having to stifle your eyerolls at overdone elements, like the liquid nitrogen chilling your glasses, or the much-talked-about Icelandic sheepskin barseat covers. But those bits seem few and far between.
And most importantly, dinner at Shaw Bijou was freaking great. Three pieces of crab poached in garlic butter and topped with shaved bottarga recreates the texture of the most delicate chunks of lobster you’ve ever had and banishes every bad imitation crab taste from your memory. A play on steak and eggs is delightful – though taken up a thousand notches by the use of Wagyu and quail egg – even more so when you, just like you might at brunch, dip the meat into the “yolk” – this time an mellow onion soubise. Squab empanadas dipped in foie gras cream and chased by a habanero soda are rivaled only by the remixed version that arrives a few minutes later with the squab breast seared to perfection on a habanero mojo sauce. Heck, a lively conversation about politics is stopped dead in its tracks by chortles over a companion’s face when she melts while merely eating a simple Moroccan flatbread with pesto butter. Even the vegetarian options can dazzle: several dishes beget a round of pleas to the table’s lone vegetarian for bites.
What’s more, if the service didn’t make it abundantly clear, the menu tells me that the restaurant is one that engages, and that it hears all its critics and is listening hard. Gone are the odd garnishes and the so-called dud dishes that didn’t work, replaced by more focused plates. The foie gras/pineapple combo? Not the salt bomb the Post experienced. The desserts that are too sweet or too incomplete? Scrapped or fixed. Are there flavor combinations and dishes here that can be found elsewhere? Sure, but that doesn’t stop the honeynut squash veloute with parmesan foam from being a worthy competitor of the Inn at Little Washington’s liquid autumn soup.
So, I get it. The Shaw Bijou invited a lot of too-soon comparison to a number of celebrated D.C. restaurants based solely on its price: Komi, Pineapple and Pearls, Minibar, the Inn at Little Washington. But based on this meal, that’s deserved company for it to be in.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Bar Rating: N/A
Cost: $$$$$ (out of 5) (more than $100 for two)