Will Travel for Food

Texas Restaurants Worth Visiting on the Road This Summer

Rough Creek Lodge Executive Retreat and Resort

Near Glen Rose, Texas

www.roughcreek.com

800/864-4705; fax, 254/918-2570

I was born 30 miles, as the crow flies, from Rough Creek Lodge, an impressive, soul-soothing restaurant/hotel/executive conference center complex outside of Glen Rose, Texas, but the culinary rebirth I experienced there a couple of weekends ago came entirely unexpectedly. Admittedly, I have enjoyed some good food in the area before, most of it coaxed from the fryer by cooks in modest diners or smoked over coals in the imposing pit at my friends' nearby ranch. But nothing I've ever tasted there can compare to the inspiring combination of flavors I so passionately explored during brunch (prix fixe $27.50) at Rough Creek. In fact, there's little that I've sampled in Austin of late that can hold a candle to the lodge's scintillating menu.

A haven frequented predominantly by tired Dallas/Fort Worth residents who retire to the lodge's remote guest quarters for weekends of respite and sport (fishing, hunting, biking, hiking), Rough Creek Lodge opened some two years ago to surprisingly limited acclaim. Writers from Fortune, Southern Living, Robb Report, and Town & Country have since celebrated the lodge and its brilliant restaurant. Yet for the most part, Rough Creek remains little known -- an incredible gem of a place I'm determined to return to again and again, whenever I'm willing to make the three-hour trip.

Who would have thought it would be in Glen Rose, Texas, that I would first sample the sautéed fiddlehead ferns I see on occasion at Central Market, or discover firsthand the spring ramps I've read about in Saveur? Who could have dreamed that it would be on a Texas ranch that I'd rekindle my love affair with the tiny morel mushrooms I used to splurge on so shamelessly in France? Or be blown away by the perfection of a simple tomato-lime vinaigrette? Or thrill in the authenticity of a kids' menu that features real (not processed, preformed, or prepackaged) foods that parents can be proud to order?

Clearly, I was impressed. Rough Creek Lodge seduces, and my infatuation grows with every thought of the place. It was love at first sight when I picked up the day's brunch menu (as well as menus from previous lunches and dinners), and read of house-cured salmon and handcrafted breads, earthy sauces and glazes like caramelized shallot rosemary Merlot sauce, and unique cooking techniques such as grilling romaine lettuce as an appetizer. Then I noticed the "little things," details that set Rough Creek apart, like the monogrammed Christofle silverware and leather place mats, the big basket of cloth hand towels in the bathroom, the overflowing bread basket, and the twine-tied bundles of crayons for my kids in an array of colors much more inviting than the ordinary red, yellow, green, and blue.

As appetizers, the grilled blue prawns with sautéed arugula, pea shoots, spring ramps, and tomato-lime vinaigrette and the smoked salmon with Belgian endive, watercress, lemon-parsley biscotti, and caper vinaigrette were divine. The two blue prawns were served heads-on and measured well over five inches each, their dense flesh grilled until meltingly soft and succulent. Underneath, the sauté of assertive greens, tender shoots, and silky, white-bottomed ramps completed the dish, the ramps imparting a light garlicky kick that gave the blend life. Ultimately, it was the tomato-lime vinaigrette that brought the flavors together, finishing the dish with astounding finesse. It was vinaigrette at once spirited and refined -- a fusion of flavor surprising in its perfection.

The salmon composition shone as well. Endive and watercress decorated the plate and then the palate, offering a counterbalance to the rich fish. The caper vinaigrette was tart and bright, and the lemon-parsley biscotti proved a wonderful adaptation of a typically sweet preparation.

Our main dishes built on this sound foundation. There was a pan-roasted wild king salmon fillet nestled atop a sauté of surprisingly nutty fiddlehead ferns, unctuous fingerling potatoes, diminutive morel mushrooms, and ramps, all of it swimming in a smooth beurre blanc lightly scented with saffron, and a grilled flank steak with caramelized shallot mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach, and tomato chutney dressed with a rosemary Merlot sauce. Both plates were studies in balance and restraint, offering flavors that coalesced rather than competed, yet still tasted new and excitingly artistic. The tomato chutney, if tasted on its own, was incredible. Added to the soft spinach, dense mashers, and medium-rare beef enrobed in its slightly sweet wine sauce, it rose to the heavenly -- it was purely divine.

Dessert seemed less earth-shattering, probably due to the fact that we had little room left for unbridled enjoyment. A pear-blackberry crisp with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce offered a pleasing variety of textures, and a soft, comforting compilation of flavors, while the lemon angel food cake with fresh strawberries and cream presented a light, bright finish to the meal.

I could go on about Rough Creek Lodge, praising its interior decor, the view from the dining room, wine list, obliging service, and its impressive lineup of chefs, including executive chef Gerard Thompson, who took his last kitchen, the Stonehouse Restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, to four-star standing. For now, however, I've way overstepped my bounds for this short assignment. So in conclusion, I'll insist that you make the time this summer to plan a trip to Rough Creek Lodge. When you do so, you can taste for yourself what I call real gourmet food with no gimmicks.

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