Look, down Cascade! Is it a bird? A plane? A restaurant? A bar?
It's Shuga's, subtitled Espresso-Caf-Bar, and that sums it up as well as anything else. It's a great place to meet friends for lunch, a fun destination for a nibble at night, a perfect get-away for a cookie or a coffee or a beer -- it has to be experienced to be understood.
From the outside, Shuga's looks like a quaint, beloved, well-cared-for house on South Cascade. Once you get inside, though, it's more a combo of cozy living room, funky bistro and elegant bar. There is, in fact, a gorgeous, full wooden bar occupying about a third of the interior. The rest of the space is filled with wooden tables for two and four, and there's a couch at the back of the room perfect for sipping, nibbling (the food, not your date's ear) and people watching. I don't usually equate high ceilings with coziness, but it seems to work here; the atmosphere's warm and inviting.
You can stop by in the morning for your caffeine fix. As a friend of mine said, "This is my idea of the perfect breakfast good, strong coffee and cake." She had chosen the almond butter cake with a cup of coffee, while I savored every single crumb of a dense, moist applesauce cake with a cup of Lapsang souchong tea, an assertive blend with a provocative, smoky aroma and flavor.
There was nothing to do but come back for lunch. The choices aren't legion, but they're well thought-out and delicious. Of the three homemade soups, all served with a big chunk of crusty bread and herb butter, I can personally attest to the excellence of the fresh vegetable and the Tuscan chicken and artichoke. The Tuscan is hearty but not heavy, and the vegetable is about as far from canned soup as you can get without leaving the planet. I have it on good authority that the Brazilian-style shrimp and coconut is fabulous, but haven't gotten to try it yet. The soups run from $2.95 to $6.95, available in half or full sizes. Stick with a half if you're going to order a sandwich.
The sandwiches are Panini on chewy, crusty rustic Italian bread. Three of them are grilled, including the Phellini (tomato, goat cheese and pesto), the Forestiere (wild mushrooms and mozzarella) and the Jacopetti (salami, prosciutto, brie and roasted red pepper). For $5.50 to $6.50, you get a big, chewy and sometimes drippy sandwich, bursting with bold flavors -- exactly what a sandwich should be. Wanting all of my favorite ingredients in one sandwich, I chose the brick-pressed, which is pressed and not grilled. On the same wonderful bread, you get salami, prosciutto, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and basil. And I commend Shuga's for making sure that sandwich ingredients are evenly layered on the bread, not glopped on in piles, so that each bite gives you a beautiful symphony of all the flavors without a single one dominating.
In the evening you get "Lil bits." These are served and priced by size, so you can get a single (good for one person or just a taste), a double (good to share with one or two others) or whole (good for a table of four or more). Of course, if you order a single and fall in love, you can always order another, or a larger size. And don't feel compelled to order all at once. The warm buzz of conversation in the room, coupled with the background music and the eclectic wine list, beer list (plus full bar) encourage lingering, sampling and conviviality.
The assorted artisan cheese plate was scrumptious the night we tried it. You get a big pile of thin, crispy toasts and some lovely, chewy dried apricots to accompany your indulgence. When we tried it, it included a smooth but powerful blue cheese, a wedge of perfectly ripe brie with herbs, a mild wedge of what I think was an Edam, double- or triple-cream cheese that was almost as light as whipped cream, and a strong and aggressive cheddar.
Not to be shy, we also tried the Mediterranean fare, which includes an earthy black olive tapenade with a slightly sweet undertaste, wonderful and subtle hummus and a dish of goat cheese. We couldn't decide if we liked the hummus with the goat cheese or the tapenade with the goat cheese better, until we started smearing all three on the same toast and decided that gluttony was the only way to go.
And avarice also served us well with the smoked trout and roasted garlic dip, as we stopped just short of licking the bowl clean. I thought the garlic would be too strong, but it was a wonderfully sweet, lightly smoky and surprisingly clean flavor. It was one of those dishes that you keep eating because your brain is certain that your mouth must be mistaken, that nothing could be that ethereally delicious bite after bite after bite.
And there were still dishes that we didn't get to try. The next trip will definitely include the salsa trio (black bean and corn, fresh tomato, and tomatillo-avocado), the pan-seared chicken skewers with red pepper pesto (which the table next to us downed order after order of), and the shrimp ceviche. The "Lil bits" run from $2.95 for a single of the smoked trout or chicken skewers to $11.95 for a full order of the shrimp. The cheese plate is market price, so if in doubt, ask.
Just be warned, this place is getting popular. If you want a table on a Saturday night, either arrive early or be prepared to wait at the bar. And if I'm there, rest assured the wait for my table will be a long one.
Editor's note: The restaurant's owner, Alexius Weston worked briefly for the Independent as an advertising account executive before opening Shuga's.