Shuggie’s is hard to miss, with its screaming neon green and yellow décor, walls and furniture, all sparkly and shiny. The interior looks like a cross between a Peter Max/Keith Haring daydream and a drag queen’s boudoir, with funky green welcoming hands for seats, butt bowls, and lurid figures frolicking across the walls. The whimsy extends to the menu, as you’ll see. And, since they’ve opened, Shuggie’s has been a hot, trashy ticket, with reservations booked sometimes a month in advance.
Like so many in these times, when groceries cost a small fortune, we hate to waste food at our home. We try to incorporate even the most wrinkled, wizened carrots in whatever dish we have going, and don’t mind wilted greens in our stews. But now there’s Shuggie’s, and they’ve upped the ante.
They tout themselves as a climate-friendly restaurant, featuring “upcycled” ingredients, sustainable proteins, and natural wines. What that means is you get the “nasty” bits: The off cuts, the almost-past-prime, the grody, bruised fruits and veggies many would toss. Think offal is awful? Think again. I was excited to try their food, but for a while couldn’t get anyone to go with me. Finally, I got a new ex-chef friend to join me, figuring she’d be into whatever Shuggie’s could throw at us.
As much as I wanted to bask in the aura of one of the Day-Glo dining rooms, we snagged a table outside, because whatever people may be saying, Covid ain’t over.
Our first selection was the goddess salad:
Ain’t she pretty? Consisting of “surplus” greens in a spicy avocado-green goddess-like dressing, blistered shishitos, puffed tiny crispies (possibly puffed quinoa, we were told), aged gouda, and optional anchovies, which we opted for, I thought this would be a mess. Instead, it was simple enough to grab a skewer and slide the salad onto your plate. The greens were perfectly dressed, with a smoky/creaminess from the gouda and a nice delicate crunch from the crispies, making this a very well-made, fresh-tasting salad. Gooseberries, which we couldn’t quite place at first, gave a lovely tart sweetness. You should get this salad, and not just because those pert little ivory nipples are a pleasant centerpiece on any table.
Next, the stems, leaves, and buds.
A bowl to share of earthy roasted cauliflower florets, cauli stem “chimichurri,” walnut aji amarillo romesco, sprinkles of cotija cheese, and Jimmy Nardello peppers. What sounded like a shit-show of too many ingredients actually turned out to play really well together, and we found the dish enjoyable on many levels.
“They actually know what they’re doing here,” my friend marveled. This was simply a very good roasted vegetable dish, enhanced by the piquant bites of the Jimmy Nardellos, a slight spicy/fruity kick from the mustard-yellow aji amarillo, with creamy labneh cooling everything down. And the colors in this dish just popped, much like everything inside the restaurant.
Next, came the Captain Beefheart spicy meatballs:
Meatballs made of ground beef heart come heavily laced with cumin and chili, and taste like Mexican chorizo, with no organy texture or flavor discernible. Sitting in a puddle of labneh and ringed by droplets of fiery harissa, the meatballs sported rice crispies, garbanzos, and a green emulsion that reminded me of palak (as in the Indian dish), with fleeting hints of curry, topped with fresh mint for a bright, herbal note. Every element on the plate was in harmony with each other, yet each bite brought a new flavor. We both loved the texture of the meatballs, moist and tender.
We split one of the “trash” pizzas, the dead combo:
Salt cod, potato, farm eggs, white sauce, onions, and herbs: A savory delight. Shuggie’s’ pizza dough is made of whey and milled oat flour, a byproduct of their oat milk production, and my friend commented that the crust was more flat-bread than pizza, but we thoroughly enjoyed the chew. The creamy white sauce with the salty brine of the bacalao made a delicate yet very satisfying, combination. Another must-try.
Dessert was a ’50s-era, fanciful-looking creation of chocolate pot de creme, topped with aerated banana fluff, banana peel crispies, ugly nut butter (butterscotch), and stardust (sprinkles).
Wonderfully reminiscent of something from your childhood, but surprisingly not too sweet. A perfectly luscious and comforting end to the meal.
Unfortunately, the low point for us were Shuggie’s’ natural wines. I’d ordered a Bunch of Herbs vermouth spritzer to start, a delightfully refreshing, sprightly herbal concoction, made by a company called Subject to Change. My friend tried a Sangiovese and found it incredibly sour. I tasted it and concurred.
I’d heard before, and it was reinforced by our very capable server Oliver, that sourness is pretty much a standard tasting note with most natural wines. However, I believe there are degrees of “natural,” and these are wines that appear to have been mostly un-fucked with, just grapes that are fermented over a longer time without additives or chemicals.
My friend didn’t love the Sangiovese, but didn’t hate it either, but when Oliver offered to replace it with something more to her liking, she agreed, and he brought her a Montepulciano. This turned out to be bigger, perhaps a tad less sour, a little funkier. Unfortunately, also not to her liking, so I finished that off after my spritzer.
I saw young folk sitting at the Shuggie’s bar, enjoying their quaffs of puckery wine, however, so perhaps it’s an acquired taste, and you should try them. And, goodness knows, these low-intervention wines are better for the planet, since the grape vines aren’t seeping chemicals into the groundwater. But again, there are degrees, and the kombucha-like zestiness of some of these wines perhaps just isn’t my cuppa.
I do love that Shuggie’s is unapologetic about its active role in harm reduction on the planet. It’s not just talk: These folks are militant about reducing food waste and the overall effect it could have on the world. The brashness of Shuggie’s is the point. The food is exceptionally in-your-face, as is the décor, yet none of it screams “You’re eating rotten leftovers!” Their mission here is to do better, be better, while enjoying balanced, thoughtful, surprising and, most of all, delicious food, served with great spunk by everyone (and, in particular, newbie Anthony, our friendly food runner, who shared his not-insignificant knowledge of the dishes with us.)
Don’t be scared, go out and try something new, like preserved mussels with seven-year-old citrus, buffalo gizzards, livers and hearts, Grandma-style squares of trashy pizza with toppings like pistachio, salmon belly conserve, and ugly shrooms. You’ll be doing your small part to help create a healthier future for all of us. Shuggie’s is here to help us eat the change we want to see in the world.
Shuggie’s Trash Pie and Natural Wine Bar (website)
3349 23rd St.
I have a somm friend who’s anti-natural wine, I joke that he can now no longer go to any wine bar south of market.
they do seem to be everywhere!
But it’s cheaper and more sustainable to just dumpster dive….Yum!
hah – for sure!