Restaurant review: Shagbark dazzles with earthy elegance

When you eat at chef Walter Bundy’s Shagbark restaurant, you have to get past the décor to enjoy the food. (It’s absolutely stunning.) But get past it you do, once the first plate slides onto your table. In fact, the food is even better than the ambiance.

After many years running the kitchen at Richmond’s renowned Lemaire restaurant in The Jefferson Hotel, Bundy realized his dream in early 2016 by opening a place of his own. Shagbark describes itself as “a seasonally driven concept celebrating Virginia’s best producers, farmers and fishermen.” Not surprisingly, then, the menu is filled with lyrical geographical references, such as Shooting Point Oyster Co., Foggy Ridge Cider, Dave & Dee’s Mushrooms, and Compass Winds Sorghum.

In fact, Compass Winds provided the sorghum tuile (a savory cookie) that garnished the sunchoke bisque ($8) on a recent visit. Because sunchokes have the taste of artichokes and the consistency of potatoes, the soup was rich, creamy and flavorful. Toasted sunflower seeds and golden raisins tossed in before serving added a tart crunch to the purée.

In the Welsh rarebit appetizer ($15), Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was layered onto sourdough bread and then baked until bubbly. The bread was then topped with a blue crab and smoked bacon sauté, finished with a roasted pepper-watercress salad, and dashed with Worcestershire sauce before serving. The salty-sweet bacon pulled the diverse flavors together while the red peppers added a punch of flavor.

The Eastern Shore bouillabaisse ($24) made for a hearty and comforting winter dish. Tomatillo, vegetable stock and flavors from the seafood as it’s cooked form the base of the seafood stew. The kitchen quickly assembles the other ingredients — including white hominy, charred red onion and a coriander aioli — just before the dish leaves the kitchen so the flavors of each component can be enjoyed before they meld.

The bone-in pork chop ($29), made with pork from Autumn Olive Farms in the Shenandoah Valley, was thick and juicy. The cut is fatty by design, with the fat giving the meat succulence. The dish was topped with a glaze made from apples, bourbon and a local cider. A tart and creamy kale slaw was served on the side, with quality peanut oil added for a nutty richness.

When it was time for dessert, the chocolate croissant bread pudding ($8) was absolutely decadent. In a twist on the traditional, the kitchen made the pudding with croissants rather than bread to lighten the body. The toasted croissants were crunchy, the chocolate was sweet and the vanilla anglaise, wonderfully rich.

Bundy wanted to include a classic apple dessert on his menu during Virginia’s cold season, so the kitchen offered an apple crisp ($8) made with gluten-free oats. Cinnamon gelato was served on the side, and a warm dulce de leche (a thick confection made by heating sweetened milk) added a caramel richness.

Now, back to the look of the place: It’s all icy blue walls and warm woods, low lighting and high ceilings. While much of the decorating nods to Bundy’s love of hunting and fishing, the décor manages to be masculine and feminine at the same time. Credit goes to two local firms for the look: H.L. Reed Design for executing Bundy’s vision, and to Umanoff Design for the striking lighting design and fabrication of some of the pieces.

Shagbark, located in the Libbie Mill-Midtown complex near Staples Mill Road and Broad Street, has already picked up some impressive accolades. Among them: being named by USA Today last year as one of “20 new restaurants to try this fall” and making the AAA Four Diamond list for 2017. That kind of praise, combined with the skill of Bundy and his impressive team, makes Shagbark a must-visit for Richmond food lovers.

Freelance writer Jo Lord is a former server at a variety of restaurants and a lifelong food lover. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals in her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @Jo_Lord_Copy.