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Good or bad, The Shaw Bijou has been the most talked about restaurant opening of 2016. Proof is in the prolific trolls: Post critic Tom Sietsema’s “First Bite” has been live for a couple of days and already has 500 comments.
Most of the non-stop needling stems from the fact that the Shaw restaurant from 26-year-old Chef Kwame Onwuachi can be the priciest menu in town, depending on what drink pairings diners spring for while resting their buns first on Icelandic sheepskin bar seats and later, on blue velvet chairs in the minimalist dining room. Those who do the middle-of-the-road wine pairing can expect to pay $962 per couple after drinks, tax, and tip.
So I went on Friday. And since friends and strangers have been texting to hear how it was, I’ll share some observations.
I don’t belong at The Shaw Bijou
Seconds into the most extravagant meal of my life, I spill the black Manhattan Zac Hoffman crafted for me after letting me drone on about my love of brown liquor. To be fair, it was filled to the brim. Also be fair, I’m no delicate, high-society flower that belongs at The Shaw Bijou. I’m left to manage the Deepwater Horizon situation on my own, using my lone napkin to clumsily soak up rye and Averna. The glass remains wet and I have to use my soaked napkin to guide the drink to my lips. I’m not offered any assistance or even another napkin, and when the time comes to move down to the kitchen, my dining companion has to ask that I not be left to navigate a dark stairway carrying my up drink. Dinner at The Shaw Bijou is meant to feel like a dinner party, so diners start in the bar before moseying through the kitchen on the way to the dining room.
This lack of hospitality is foreshadowing.
While Onwuachi’s cooking is largely finessed, service isn’t. It almost feels like front-of-house staff members are playing dress-up. They’re earnest and into it but fall well short of the level of hospitality offered by staff at competing restaurants (minibar, Pineapple & Pearls, Metier). For starters, they don’t exercise discretion. A server swings by as my friend and I and are chatting about our mutual admiration of Carla Hall. “She was at the bar last night,” a sever humblebrags. Later, Onwuachi follows suit and blabs that Sietsema was the second table to dine at his restaurant. “Tom would have been the first table if all of his guests had arrived,” he tells us.
Then there’s all the little things. For example, draping my worn leather jacket over the nicest chair I’ve ever sat on feels like upholstery abuse. No one asks to take my coat throughout the evening. No server springs into action to show guests where the restroom awaits. Wine pairing descriptions are delivered breathlessly with no perceived room to ask questions, which would be nice since the high-brow presentations assume all diners have passed a sommelier exam.
All new restaurants have kinks to work out, this one is no different.
Ladies, you’re covered if you have a wardrobe or make-up malfunction.
Despite the lack of TLC in the dining room, whoever stocked the restroom cares a lot. In building the “toiletries for women stash” they must have consulted someone who walks the red carpet because you can find eyelash adhesive, clear nail polish for pantyhose runs, fashion tape, and anti-static spray. Ah hah, Co-owner Kelly Gorsuch is also behind Immortal Beloved. If D.C. had celebrities, they’d get their hair cut at the painfully cool 14th Street salon.
Most dishes are artfully plated winners that leave you wanting more.
The meal is well paced throughout 14 courses, many of them mere bites, and most are hits. A squash velouté hits seasonal on the head and is interesting thanks to the pickled veggies that perk up every bite; a play on steak & eggs tastes decadent because it pairs American Wagyu beef with a pool of soubise and a pickled quail egg; a miniature cone of sudachi sorbet (a Japanese citrus fruit) might be the best palate cleanser I’ve encountered.
If there’s criticism, it’s that few plates surprise with innovative techniques or never-been-tried flavor combinations and some dishes like sunchokes dressed in tamarind feel like they’re short one or two forkfuls for the price.
Dinner is an edible biography.
My dining companion didn’t find the meal cohesive. “I believe Kwame’s story was meant to be the unifying factor, but while we heard Kwame’s journey, I really didn’t feel or taste it,” he tells me as we unpack the meal. Nearly every course that arrives at the table comes with a biographical snippet about Onwuachi’s past. The house-made chocolates that end the meal? They’re a hat tip to harder times when Onwuachi sold candy on the subway. Making dinner so biographical is a risk because it presupposes that diners value point of view as much as flavor. Is it that Onwuachi wants to insert his story into everyone’s meal or are his partners trying to squeeze every ounce of fame out of the young chef’s Top Chef experience? Who knows, but as Onwuachi visits the dining room, touching tables several times throughout the meal, he comes off as a warm, gracious host you want to get to know.
They played TLC’s “Waterfalls” during dessert number two.
The internet’s insatiable foodies make it hard for places like this to thrive right away.
When Chef Thomas Keller bought The French Laundry in 1994, he didn’t have to contend with tweeters, Instagrammers, bloggers, or vloggers delivering instant, very public feedback during week one. That’s not a comfort restaurateurs have today, and technology can be very distracting. Take @brandyschantz, who live-tweeted her meal while I dined two tables away and felt compelled to tag the Post.
Underwhelmed Brandy was part of a foursome that disrupted others, including Justin and Cate, in the intimate dining room. Someone at the table was also “vlogging” the dinner.
@JDotSchuyler elaborates via Twitter direct messaging:
She vlogged videos of herself as people were walking by, serving food or wine, etc. loudly stuff like “NOT IMPRESSED WITH SHAW BIJOU.” Every time someone walked by that looked important it was always NOT AS GOOD AS (Le Bernardin/Pineapple [& Pearls]. Eventually they all ended up chatting with both Kwame and Greg [Vakiner]. They were brought out an off-menu course that I heard them say was the best course of the night. And then as soon as Greg was back it was back to complaining. It just felt sooooo much like we want to throw a scene to get free food … Her critique of a few courses was that they “sucked.” I don’t know what they were offered or whatever. Greg and Kwame have the patience of saints. They were so nice and apologetic even as this person loudly shit on everything and was ruining diners’ experiences.
Kudos to The Shaw Bijou for handling the troublemaker table with grace.
For me, it was the first time I’ve dined without touching social media.
Forget the fork. My iPhone is the utensil I use most when dining out. My usual dining companions are trained to not touch their food before I snap a picture. Sometimes I even make my husband turn the flashlight feature on behind a white napkin to light up my frame. (I’m deeply ashamed of these Husbands of Instagram moments.) But, my phone didn’t leave the caverns of my purse Friday night. Even when dinner took us through the kitchen for a photo opportunity with the chef, I wimped out. Why? For this price, food is entertainment and who the hell am I to ruin a show?