In the 1960s, psychedelics evangelist Timothy Leary popularized the term “set and setting” as shorthand for conditions that could shape the experience, for better or worse, of someone who has ingested hallucinogens.
I flashed back to the term as I tried to crystallize my experience at Shamus Restaurant in Lockport. Before I ingested dinner there in early June, my last visit was a lunch meeting that left me with a dim impression of the long-established restaurant. Low ceilings, lots of brick and black woodwork smeared gloominess over an adequate, but unexceptional meal of a pulled pork sandwich and fish and chips.
This time, I left rejuvenated after getting a patio table to soak up proper cocktails and dine while catching up with friends. How much of the difference was the food, how much the company, how much the breeze’s warm fingers on my neck? I can’t be certain. My perception, though, was that I was having dinner at the nicest place in town.
The copper-clad bar and an exuberance of Irish-leaning décor left me wondering if the menu would get past Fenian clichés like shepherd’s pie and Guinness stew. As it turns out the only shepherd’s pie on a surprisingly wide-ranging menu is a vegetarian one, made of lentil-vegetable stew with a roasted squash topping ($16).
Even vegans get an entrée, pitched as a Bolognese, made with tofu, and zucchini and carrot “noodles” ($15).
I gave the vegetables a break and headed for the bacon appetizer ($11). Half-inch slabs of smoky housemade bacon, fired to a crisp-chewy state, were anointed with maple butter, and presented on a fresh potato, onion and bell pepper hash. It was at once too much bacon, and, paradoxically, not enough.
Owner Ann Murphy said that chef Dave Stoll Jr. downsized it to a hashless side on the summer menu, but it was swoonful enough that I insist on telling you about it anyway.
Crab-stuffed mushrooms ($12) can be a sodden cheese-choked affair. Here the focus was quality, not quantity, with three mushroom caps each crowned with a golden-brown bundle that was almost entirely jumbo lump crabmeat. A judicious amount of lemon beurre blanc brought a welcome touch of citrus brightness.
Potato pancakes ($8), well-seasoned patties of coarsely shredded spuds, were speckled with fresh parsley, and joined by sour cream and applesauce. They came out on the blond side, when I prefer brunette, but their crispiness was plenty charming.
A bread basket included three varieties – garlic and olive oil, multigrain and pretzel – with two kinds of butter and olive oil for dipping.
Soups included a boozy lobster bisque that was thick enough to scoop up with tortilla chips; a grainy, meek and mild potato leek; and French onion loaded with sweet alliums in decent broth.
A Ridiculous Burger ($20) promised a premium beef experience with a blend of brisket, ribeye and sirloin. It was topped with more of that bacon, salad fixings and cheddar. It arrived at medium rather than requested medium-rare, but the flavor was there and there was still enough beef juice to soak the brioche roll. The house-cut fries weren’t bad, either.
Grilled seafood risotto ($28) brought trios of thumb-sized shrimps and scallops that had been slightly charred and tightened up on the grill, atop creamy rice enriched with flakes of crabmeat. Spears of grilled asparagus were pleasantly tender-crisp.
A lamb shank ($32) was fundamentally effective, with lots of fork-tender meat to be swirled through garlicky mashed potatoes and more of that asparagus.
A grilled pork chop ($22), clad in black pepper, managed to avoid overcooking, but the secret was in the sauce, a maple bacon red-eye gravy, with a coffee backbone.
The true pot pie – that two-crusted symphony of stew and pastry – vanished from restaurants years ago, following poor old beef Wellington to the elephant’s graveyard of extinct dishes.
At Shamus, seafood pot pie ($25) was a billowy rectangle of puff pastry on a crock of stew, the best crust setting I can expect. What I didn’t expect was the execution of the seafood filling, a mélange of peas, potatoes and sweet carrots, in creamy broth rich with crabmeat, shrimp and an entirely improbable generosity of lobster. It redeemed pot pie for me, for the moment.
For dessert, the crème brûlée ($8) was good and the raspberry cheesecake ($9) was great, with its fresh berries and whipped cream. But that peanut butter ice cream pie ($9) was something else. A dense, dark chocolate cookie crust was topped with peanut butter ice cream, clad in whipped cream and chocolate syrup, dotted with Spanish peanuts, for a crunchy, salty, nutty, cool sweet for all the senses.
If you’re looking for something a little nicer in Niagara County, consider Shamus. Even if it's just down the street, it’s a trip, man.
Shamus Restaurant – 8 plates (out of 10)
98 West Ave., Lockport (433-9809)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $5-$14; entrees, $14-$34.
Atmosphere: Breezy patio, darker interior
Wheelchair access: yes
Gluten-free options: numerous entrees