We are a city divided: There are those who abhor small plates (not just as a personal preference—they reject their right to exist and their purpose in doing so) and those who abide them. Diners who count themselves in the former category would be wise to recuse themselves from Shaman, a restaurant whose underlying premise might just be that Mexican food, despite what Uncle Julio’s has taught us, does not need to come in family-size portions—and chips, friends, are not free.
In fact, at Shaman, these chips are salted just enough and paired with either guacamole (a paragon of the form, creamy avocado brightened with pickled onions, strips of sundried tomato lending interest) or mahimahi ceviche, in which the meatiness of the fish is balanced—not obliterated, as is often the case—by a citrusy dressing and bright, crunchy cucumber. These are the kinds of dishes that caught my attention more than three years ago, when I stumbled into a brightly colored East Lakeview basement called Chilam Balam, where 23-year-old Chuy Valencia was creating vibrant, exciting Mexican food.
Valencia never quite became a household name, but Chilam Balam quickly became a neighborhood—and BYOers’—favorite. In 2011, an outspoken audition video landed Valencia on Top Chef; he didn’t last long, but within six months, he announced he’d be leaving the restaurant that launched his career. Though at the time he mentioned a book and restaurant in the works, he was off the radar for most of 2012. In his absence, Chilam Balam’s owner, Soraya Rendon, promoted Natalie Oswald, who had been in CB’s kitchen since its debut, to head chef. Together, they opened a sequel restaurant, Shaman, this time in West Town.
Shaman’s formula is very similar to Chilam Balam’s. Like its Lakeview sibling, Shaman is BYOB, with no corkage fee, a characteristic that’s made about a billion times better by virtue of the new spot’s proximity to two wine stores (the Noble Grape and Lush). The food is, as I mentioned, small-plates Mexican, and the servers recommend two dishes per person. This is a bit like having two appetizers for dinner, and these dishes seem as though they would be challenging to share with more than one other person but, fortunately, each plate is so packed with flavors and textures, it’s a satisfying experience dining here nonetheless.
Because at Shaman, even a simple green salad becomes interesting, when it’s tossed with candied peanuts and a lively chipotle dressing. Shrimp enchiladas are delicate things, plump little crustaceans tucked into fresh, rolled tortillas—no baked cheese in sight. The best dish on the menu might be an inspired combination of grilled cobia, quinoa, tomatillo salsa and roasted sunchokes, a dish that feels new, fresh, unique and instantly essential. Not every dish hits the mark: Sopes are filled with watery, bland chicken; wan chickpea fritters taste like the abandoned children of arancini and falafel; and desserts (chocoflan, tres leches cake), though significantly larger in portion than the savory items, don’t merit more than a couple of bites (order the Mexican hot chocolate instead).
Yet as much as Shaman has in common with Chilam Balam, it’s just not as captivating. This is mostly due to the room, an uninteresting storefront—a rectangular space with some chairs and tables in it, basically—that lacks the excitement and intimacy of the original. It also has to do with the rushed service (a problem at CB, too, if memory serves); on weekends, Shaman has a definite turn-and-burn vibe. (It’s hard to fault it too much for that, since two people can have an outstanding meal here for $60, although you do have to pay for that meal in cash, FYI.) In the end, it might boil down to a problem of sequels. This is the food we’ve come to expect of Chilam Balam; it’s nothing less, but then again, is it too much to ask that it be something more?