Hill Country Food and Wine Guide Update

As soon as we published our "Guide to Food and Wine in the Hill Country" (Vol. 17, No. 30, April 3, 1998), we began to hear from readers about restaurants that we'd overlooked and places that opened after we went to press. In creating our first update to the guide, I revisited the western Hill Country, where I made some new discoveries. (Numerals in the story correspond to the map at below.) After the first of the year, we'll add some new places in the Highland Lakes area. Bon voyage.

-- Virginia B. Wood

1. Blair House, A Fine Country Inn

100 Spoke Hill, Wimberley

512/847-1111, http://www.blairhouseinn.com

Blair House, A Fine Country Inn

photograph by John Anderson

When California investment realtor Jonnie Stansbury decided to change her life and her career more than eight years ago, she took a cross-country trip to find just the right property for a country inn. A world traveler and a well-trained cook, Stansbury wanted to open the kind of inn where she would enjoy being a guest. After giving New England thorough consideration, she happened to see an issue of National Geographic with an inviting cover story about Austin and came to take a look. On her last day in Texas, serendipity brought her to the picturesque village of Wimberley. She extended her trip and began a serious search for the right property. "At first, I looked at places on the [Blanco] river and the [Cypress] creek, but I couldn't find enough acreage," she recalls. She finally settled on 85 acres on Spoke Hill about a mile and a half south of Wimberley. Stansbury put her California home and business partnership on the market and moved to Texas, lock, stock, and soup pot. She was determined to create what she describes as "the perfect escape from the fast lane" at Blair House, and that's exactly what she's done.

Blair House opened in 1992 in the existing house on the property. Stansbury remodeled the dwelling and now the main house includes the kitchen, dining room, den, library, living room, office, and three guest rooms. Over the years, she's added three more guest rooms in the East House and a large suite in the Austin Cottage. The rooms are beautifully furnished, with lovely views and private baths (some with Jacuzzi tubs). Each room is named for a Texas city. Every night, guests are greeted with complementary desserts and wine in their rooms, and every morning, a breakfast described by Southern Living magazine as "the best in Texas" is served from 8-9:30am.

Once Jonnie Stansbury established what she considered to be the necessary amenities and the inn began to develop a loyal clientele, her next ambition was to promote the food at Blair House. She began offering dinner to the public by reservation on Saturday nights and designed cooking class weekends for interested guests, plus some classes at the Central Market Cooking School. Stansbury's very professional press kit arrived in my office early in the summer about the same time I began noticing her name in Central Market's monthly class schedule. This piqued my interest enough to make a phone call, which ended with her inviting me to spend a September weekend at Blair House. (September, it seems, is a slow month for tourism all over the Hill Country.) With Blair House as a base of operations, I could do some sleuthing for new Hill Country restaurants and enjoy a mini-vacation in the bargain.

I arrived in the Houston Room late Friday evening to find a dessert tray lined with a lace-edged cloth sitting on the end of the big four-poster bed. The tray held a slice of moist genoise topped with fresh berries, napped with sweetened whipped cream. Sitting on the bedside table was a tiny box of chocolates and ice water in a hand-blown rose-colored glass carafe. Although the main house was full of guests, my room was quiet and peaceful, just the right place to unwind after a busy workday and a long drive in heavy traffic. After a refreshing night's sleep, I met my fellow guests in the sunny dining room. We were served poached eggs atop crisp corn tortillas and tasty black beans with a slathering of fiery fresh salsa and a sprinkle of queso fresco. Goblets of melon chunks and berries rounded out the menu with warm slices of braided coffee cake. Pitchers of orange juice and pots of French roast coffee were available on the sideboard.

While I was driving the backroads discovering restaurants, Stansbury and her staff put the guest rooms in shape and began work on the Saturday evening meal. The inn buys as much locally grown organic produce as possible, relying on Craftsman Farm, Pure Luck, and Triple A Organics for seasonal delicacies. The Blair House dining room can accommodate 18-20 guests and dinner reservations are a necessity. The six- or seven-course menu is priced at $50 before tax and gratuity. Wimberley is in a dry county but complimentary wine is poured with dinner. Some of the inn's guests were attending an event in San Marcos that evening, so there was room for some former customers who just happened to be in the neighborhood. Make dinner reservations well in advance because the meals are worth it.

Dinner Saturday night began with appetizers of sautéed figs with walnut-crusted Texas chevre and crostini, followed by lightly seared albacore tuna garnished with marinated asparagus and chopped tomatoes. The soup course was a warm, thick broth of puréed roasted tomatoes with a swirl of garden-fresh pesto. The roasted tomato purée imparted a rich, satisfying flavor, making the addition of cream and added fat unnecessary. The entree brought meaty, toothsome lamb chops on a bed of herbed fresh corn polenta surrounded by grilled vegetables. Baskets of simple homemade yeast rolls accompanied the simply spectacular meal.

Stansbury prefers to serve chilled salads after the entree, European style, and this salad was remarkable. Mixed field greens were tossed with chunks of Amish gorgonzola and walnuts in the house tomato-raspberry vinaigrette while clusters of tiny, sweet champagne grapes were nestled among the leaves. A mixture of subtle and dynamic flavors, it was without doubt the best salad I've tasted all year.

Dessert was almost an anti-climax after the miracle salad, but we managed to polish off slices of genoise layered with a tangy lemon curd sitting in a pool of creme anglaise. Some guests opted to take their desserts on a tray for enjoyment later in the evening.

Stansbury herself whipped up omelettes for us Sunday morning. They were as perfect an example of an omelette as I ever expect to see: eggs set just enough to hold together and fold over the filling but still soft and quiveringly light. Folded inside was Canadian cheddar cheese and a ratatouille made with local eggplants, onions, and tomatoes. I complimented Stansbury on her omelettes, and she confessed to learning the technique from Julia Child. The master would be proud. While cooking and serving breakfast, the chef/innkeeper found the time to tell me about her upcoming cooking classes. She'll be at Central Market on Tuesday, October 13, with a venison menu that features some of the dishes described above, and she's scheduled a French and Italian Country cooking class for Sunday, November 8 through Tuesday, November 10 at Blair House. Later this month, she'll be sharing her breakfast menu secrets in a class designed for other innkeepers from Sunday, October 25 through Tuesday, October 27.

On the drive back to town, I was already trying to decide how to present this story. I realized that readers might assume that I'd be less than critical of the accommodations and the food because I'd been a guest at Blair House. Anyone who visits here will realize quickly that the accommodations speak for themselves. If the food had not been as wonderful as it was, I would have given the inn a tasteful mention in my column and quietly let it go at that. Stansbury promotes the cuisine at Blair House as four-star dining; now that I've tasted her work, I'm inclined to agree.

-- Virginia B. Wood


2. Lookout Mountain Grand View Cafe

5300 Mt. Sharp Rd.,

off Ranch Road 12, Wimberley


Austin natives Joe and Barbara Day are so in love with the breathtaking view from their hilltop property, they want to share it with everyone. Guests can relax and enjoy the beautiful sunsets and order delicious snacks from Barbara's menu. The fare is light and flavorful with an emphasis on sandwiches and desserts. Wimberley is dry, however you're welcome to BYOB. Sunset dining requires a reservation, so call for reservations and directions.


3. Wagner & Chabot's Hardscrabble Cafe

Hwy. 281 on the Square, Blanco


This pleasant tea room is nestled in the back of an antique store packed with delightful curiosities. Lunch is served daily from 11am-3pm and dinner is available on Friday and Saturday nights. The lunch menu consists of soups, salads, and sandwiches, while the dinner menu features some Mexican specialties and Hill Country game dishes. We're partial to the Spicy Cheese Wafers ($2.00) before Grilled Portobello Sandwich ($5.50). For a blast from the past, don't miss the Homemade Root Beer Float ($2.05). Service can be glacially slow when there's a crowd, but you can always browse while you wait.


4. Oak House

755 S. Washington, Fredericksburg


Partners Sean Smajstrla and chef Scott Boone took over this lovely wooded property late last spring and re-christened it Oak House. The restaurant is a turn-of-the-century house of German Hill Country architecture with 14-inch thick limestone walls, polished hardwood floors, tall windows, a tin roof, and simple gingerbread detailing. The interior decor is simple and tasteful but pure Texas from the longhorns to the five-pointed stars cut out of the pressed tin candleholders on each table. An oak-shaded outdoor dining area is in the works. The menu -- which Boone describes as "haute Hill Country" -- features local produce, cheeses, and game whenever possible. This would be a great place for a leisurely Sunday brunch. Reservations are recommended but not required.


5. Bear Moon Bakery & Cafe

401 S. Main, Historical District, Boerne


Locals in this charming German town were concerned when Paula Hayward converted the downtown donut shop into the Bear Moon, but they were won over soon after she opened for business. These days, the busy bakery and cafe is voted to have the best coffee and pastries in town, and the $5.95 daily breakfast buffet is a ritual, especially on weekends. The pastry case is packed with decorated cakes, French and German pastries, cookies, brownies, bars, and big, beautiful homemade pies. Homemade breads range from oatmeal and Scottish harvest to rye, pumpernickel, and a nutty loaf with pistachios, pumpkin seeds, and parmesan cheese. Sandwiches are made with fresh bread, and the bountiful loaves sell out every day. Hayward's cooking is light, flavorful, and healthy, making this place a favorite among cyclists who train on Hill Country back roads.

6. Guadalupe River Ranch Resort

FM 474, eight miles outside Boerne on the Guadalupe River


This fabled ranch property with its imposing flagstone mansion has been everything from a working ranch to a hunting lodge to a movie star hideaway. Years have gone by since Olivia de Havilland vacationed here between movie roles, but the site still allows folks to get away from it all -- nowadays as a resort and conference center. Guests can relax in the main house or the comfortable cabins, play sports or stroll along the banks of the cypress-lined Guadalupe River. New owners have recently spruced up the place, adding amenities and enhancing the quality of the food service. A great idea for small- to medium-size corporate conferences or an upscale family reunion. The back-country drive here is scenic, but keep an eye out for the wildlife; the day we visited, a deer seemed to be playing chicken with cars on the two-lane highway.


7. Cowboy Steakhouse

416 Main St., Kerrville


This quintessential West Texas steakhouse serves everything from buffalo to lobster to quail, plus beef steaks of every size and description, cooked to order on the mesquite grill. Side dishes are the simple and traditional soup, salad, potatoes, vegetables, and generous slices of Texas toast. The groaning board of decadent desserts is positioned in the front of the restaurant to encourage you to save room for them. Steaks are cooked exactly as ordered. Have a buffalo steak and you'll really know you've eaten a piece of meat. Service is small-town friendly but professional and efficient. Cowboy Steakhouse isn't trendy and is not an example of urban cowboy chic. It's the kind of steakhouse that I remember from my childhood: no tofu, no arugula, and no apologies.

8. River Run Bed & Breakfast

120 Francisco Lemos St., Kerrville

800/460-7170, [email protected]

Bed-and-breakfast travelers Ron and Jean Williamson became bed-and-breakfast owners a couple of years ago, creating just the kind of place they'd like to visit. The house is built of native stone with a high-pitched tin roof and a deep front porch in the German Hill Country style. The Williamsons have filled it with antiques and Texana, making it a warm, inviting home. The house is located within walking distance of the Guadalupe River and the Riverside Nature Center. Ron Williamson is both innkeeper and breakfast chef, whipping up stellar country breakfasts with huge bowls of fresh fruit, light and delicate pancakes with warm maple syrup, sausage, and home fries. He'll get your day off to a good start.


9. Love Creek Orchards Cider Mill & Country Store

Main Street, Medina


Medina is the undisputed apple capital of Texas, and the folks at Love Creek are the true pioneers of the Texas apple industry. Visit their downtown Medina tasting room, and you can sample their fresh apple cider, apple pies, jams and jellies, sauces and butters, apple ice cream, and juicy fresh apples when they're in season. They also have apple trees and bigtooth maple trees for sale. It's possible to make arrangements for group tours with meals.

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