M and I celebrated our anniversary last week. This year, our anniversary fell on a Saturday and none were more surprised than us to realize that we both had the evening (prime job time) off. After sifting through our options of usual gluten-free-able restaurants, we chose Choices by Shawn. I had been there once before for brunch with the girls and the dinner menu (mostly, the grail of “Southern Fried Chicken GF”) looked promising.
Choices by Shawn is right down the street from our alma mater, and I was exceedingly surprised when I first found out about the restaurant, less than a year ago. The namesake owner is gluten-free, and the restaurant claims a dedication to allergy-sensitive food service that is evident from the first glance at the website to the first step up to the hostess stand, all the way down to dessert. Some dishes on the menu are only served without gluten and other can be specially made gluten-free. Dairy-free dishes are also denoted on the menu. A separate kitchen for gluten-free preparations ensures against cross-contamination. All in all, for whatever faults may be listed in the reviews on Yelp, Choices by Shawn is set up to protect those customers with food allergies.
My first visit for Sunday brunch at the restaurant had a slow start. We chose to sit on the wrap-around porch, which was as cute as one could wish for brunch with the girls. Traffic was a little loud, but given that the restaurant sits on a corner in Old Town Fairfax, this was not at all surprising. We held off on ordering until all of our party arrived, and the wait staff were wonderfully patient with us. I ordered the zucchini pancakes, which were tasty enough, but not really my thing. I should have gone with the GF waffles or french toast while I had the opportunity, or at least my old standby of eggs. I did get to try their bruschetta, as my friend was kind enough to order it GF. The brunch menu, paired with the porch seating, is well-worth the reservation for a cute date with your friends.
M and I went to dinner and, again, a reservation was worth the security of a table when we arrived. The restaurant is in a converted house, with two kitchens and a bar, so table space is limited. During warmer months, when the porch is open in the evening, I imagine this is less of a problem. The hostess asked if there were any in our party that were gluten-free, and with our affirmation, grabbed a red card along with the menus before taking us to our seats. These cards are available to clue in wait staff to the gluten issue within a party, allowing extra precautions to be made. (I also received the same question and card at brunch–I believe it is asked of every party entering the restaurant.) The menu was clearly laid out: labeling what menu items were already made without gluten, and which could be modified to be gluten-free. It also denoted dishes that were Dairy-free, Vegetarian, and Vegan. Many of the dishes seemed easily able to be made Dairy-free/Vegan, but as M and I do not restrict dairy, we did not explore these options. The menu also noted that all Gluten-Free dishes were served on red plates, and asking us to question our server if served on any other plates.
M and I placed the red Gluten-Free card on the table, ordered wine, and the server brought our drinks along with a plate of homemade bread–dutifully in a red basket. This is bread that I would like to recreate–deep, dark brown with a hearty crumb, with bits of seeds mixed through the dough. With a swath of butter and a pinch of salt, it was delicious. And, while more and more restaurants are (fortunately) adding gluten-free options to their menu, the bread baskets of most are still off limits. We placed our orders, including the duck sliders as an appetizer, and quickly received our salads, that come with every dinner entree. The salads were pretty basic, but the inclusion of the course helps to make the price tag of the menu items a little more reasonable.
The duck sliders with pickled onions and aioli were served on the same bread that came in the bread basket. I had been hoping for real slider rolls, but made due with the toast. The sliders were truly the star of the show. The pickled onions and aioli were a nice tangy counterpoint to the rich, succulent ground duck burgers. I put some of the arugula and romaine lettuce garnish from the plate on mine, for just a little bit of extra lift for the heavy burger patty. Give me a couple of these sliders with some fries and I would have been all set. However, we still had our main dishes on the way.
Though the goat cheese and roasted red pepper burger was tempting, I settled on the crab cakes with garlic-parmesan fries, and M chose the Southern Fried Chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables, with the full knowledge that we would split our plates. Service was quick, polite, and unobtrusive. The plates arrived looking rather nice–I was hoping for a little dish of my remoulade, but almost enough was poured over my crab cakes and the lettuce garnish to serve for dipping. My crab cakes were wonderful: tender and flavorful. I have never encountered GF crab cakes at any other restaurant, so being abel to safely have crab cakes once more was delightful. My fries were a bit of a let-down. They were recommended, and, while a fine batch of fries, the garlic flavor barely came through at all. Parmesan was sprinkled on top, which, to be fair, is exactly what the menu listed (“Crispy, garlicky fries topped with parmesan”). I suppose, in my mind, I thought the fries would be tossed with garlic and parmesan, integrating the cheese throughout the pile of fries and allowing it to begin to melt from their heat. The cheese, instead, simply sat on top of the fries and usually slid off as I picked them up.
M’s fried chicken looked quite promising: thick rich gravy, golden breading, creamy mashed potatoes. The flavors of the gravy, potatoes, and vegetables were lovely. Even the chicken on it’s own was quite tasty. Choices by Shawn has achieved the delicate, crispy breading that is so difficult to procure…with one downfall: the breading was far too delicate to stand up to the gravy that was so liberally spread over the plate. The parts covered in gravy had started to disintegrate by the time the plate reached our table, and what portion that remained crispy was masked as soon as it touched the gravy. The flavor in the breading just couldn’t quite stand up to the other food on the plate. To be fair, I had noticed that Choices by Shawn offered GF Friend Chicken when I was at brunch, and M and I has gotten our expectations up. We knew one of us would be ordering the dish before we stepped into the restaurant. But I do wish the chicken received a heartier crust–the current delicacy of the crust is more appropriate to a fish dish than the stick-to-your-ribs, down-home fried chicken that we had hoped to receive. The texture of the chicken breast with the crust was a little off as well–we ended up avoiding a portion at the thickest point of the chicken breast. Between the bread, sliders, salads, my crab cakes, and the rest of M’s plate, we were quite stuffed, so we didn’t press the issue and did not have dessert.
The prices were a little bit high–this isn’t a restaurant that we would visit weekly. But, for the assured safety and peace of mind of knowing that our food is properly prepared to be gluten-free, it is worth it for a nice night out. Looking through reviews on Yelp, a lot of customers had problems with the wait staff and rudeness, but M and I encountered no problems with the staff there. I would be more willing to come back for their brunch menu, and I am intrigued by the Full Service Tea that they also offer. Overall, as a food-allergy friendly restaurant, Choice by Shawn is a pretty good choice.