By Oscar Simone
I reentered Shuga’s after a year away, and now I can’t reconcile having gone so long without dropping by. Not many restaurants are able to capture the genuine feeling that one might find when sharing a meal at a friend’s house, but Shuga’s gets damn close.
Shuga’s is the quirky, creative friend with impeccable taste and a killer liquor cabinet. Between the cluttered walls, red leather bar stools, bulbous light fixtures, flying paper cranes, and sculptures of cats, it’s an eclectic mix of genre and generation. It may be the dim lighting or possibly the effects of my second Modus Hoperandi sinking in, but everything just seems to fit. There’s this warm, golden glow weaving its way through the space, making me feel as though this restaurant I’m eating at is more than just a restaurant.
At night, there’s an undeniably classy feel to the dining room, and somehow, it’s achieved without being suffocating or pretentious in a way that a Michelin-Starred establishment might be.
Even more surprising is that this is all done without anything on the menu costing more than $14. Of course, this comes with a caveat. You’re not going to find any traditional “entrees” at Shuga’s, but who needs them? Between the starters, salads, soups, and sandwiches, Shuga’s seems like more of a lunch place — but it’s open until midnight.
The food is global, pulling from French, Italian, Mediterranean, East Asian, and American influences. The menu is focused — there aren’t a ton of items, but c’mon, do you really want that much choice in life? The drink menu is a bit more extensive. Shuga’s is known to some for their inventive and out-of-the-box cocktails. Those will break the bank a bit.
Two of Shuga’s bruschettas quickly make their way to my table. One of the warm slices of baguette is a classic marriage of tangy chevre with thick, sweet fig compote — an unsurprisingly delightful bite. The other piece is topped with beet dip, goat cheese, and scallions. With its creaminess, subtle horseradish-y burn, and pop of earthy freshness, this second bruschetta’s delivery is focused and expertly balanced.
The Karaage (meaning Japanese fried chicken) salad immediately jumped out at me from the menu. With pickled vegetables, a lemon ginger dressing, and sake-ginger marinated (and fried) chicken, this dish spoke to me on multiple levels. But it pretty much stopped talking as soon as it hit the table.
I’ll start with the good. The pickled vegetables were awesome: sweet and acidic with a spicy kick and a lively crunch. The chicken was gingery and crispy. If I had it on a sandwich or by itself, I don’t think I could complain. But this A+ fried chicken was sitting on a bed of some of the saddest arugula I have ever laid eyes on. It wasn’t proud to be arugula, and it wasn’t thrilled to be hanging out with the pickled vegetables and the crispy chicken. Those leaves were ashamed.
Unfortunately, the Karaage salad wasn’t the last dish that I ended up picking my way through. The porchetta sandwich arrived, marked by the startlingly white ciabatta and garlic aioli dripping off the sides. The meat — slow roasted pork loin and belly — was incredible. The fatty, crispy, and intoxicatingly juicy porchetta immediately transported me back to my first ever block at Colorado College and the time I spent walking around Florence eating this very sandwich. But then I was brought back to reality. This was not that sandwich. The pork was excellent, but the bread was under-toasted, and the smear of aioli was far too generous. Despite the efforts of a few arugula leaves, this sandwich was too rich for its own good.
After being delighted by some flavors and disappointed by composition, I was ready to move on to the real reason that I came back to Shuga’s: the holy grail, the spicy Brazilian coconut shrimp soup. With a coconut cream base and sesame nuttiness, this soup is a bowl of smooth, creamy heaven. It has a deep aromatic flavor and a strong, slowly building spice.
By the time my soup spoon touches the empty bowl, I’ve had my fill. And I’m actually quite content. Everything wasn’t perfect, but the things that worked, worked well, and the things that didn’t, caused no travesties. I’ll always love being in this space, and the potential the food has to be really, really good will keep me coming back.