On Leaving Paradise for an Oasis
An Austin foodie falls in love with Marathon's gourmet meals, strong coffee, spa life, and liquid desserts on chilly nights
I went west following a chef, but like many who've headed in the same direction, I discovered much more. In my 22 years of living in Austin, I had never visited that part of Texas. Texans talk about the Big Bend, Terlingua, Study Butte, Lajitas, Marfa. They seemed like mythical names out of an old Western to me. Then, last spring, I learned that chef Paul Petersen had become executive chef at the legendary Gage Hotel in Marathon after closing his highly acclaimed Little Texas Bistro in Buda. That day, I decided West Texas would no longer be a long-lost movie set, but a place I would visit soon.
Last fall, my husband, Will, and I packed our bags for a long weekend at the Gage to get some R&R. We returned in late December, just before the holidays, to take my parents. On my first trip, the six-hour drive was exciting, and it seemed short, with the outer space landscapes of West Texas an awe-inspiring novelty. On our second trip, my cosmopolitan Mexico City parents thought we were about to go shoot them and leave them somewhere in the desert. Just when it seemed we had reached the official "middle of nowhere," we arrived in Marathon and pulled in at the Gage. To simply call this historic Texas landmark an oasis does not do it justice.
Founded in 1927 as a gathering place for miners and ranchers, the Gage was purchased and renovated in the early 1990s by J.P. Bryan, a Houston oil man and amateur historian who is the former president of the Texas State Historical Association. He brought an amazing personal collection of Texana to decorate the hotel as part of his self-appointed mission to preserve Texas' past. The decor at the Gage is a cross between a museum of Texas and Old West oddities and an elegant, stately manor. Since Wilma Schindler came on board as the general manager, the Gage has experienced an incredible growth and resurgence, with the addition of gorgeous new guest casitas, a marvelous 7.5-acre botanical garden for strolling, and the Desert Moon Spa.
To start the evening, we enjoyed cocktails at the Gage's White Buffalo Bar. The bar is named after the enormous white buffalo head that hangs on the wall, which Bryan acquired from a collector in Wyoming. Matt Hicklen, our bartender that evening, is an absolute expert on tequilas. He recommended some incredible high-end offerings that I had never tried before. Will was delighted to see they had Live Oak Pilz from East Austin on draft, all the way out in Marathon. "Steve Anderson from Live Oak brings it himself all the way from Austin," Hicklen explains. Anderson has been making regular trips to West Texas to visit friends for years, including Richard Fallon, a former Austinite who was part owner of the Blue Bayou restaurant (where Trophy's is now) and an acquaintance of mine since watching Saints football at the Shoal Creek Saloon back in the early 1990s. He is the co-owner of the now-famous Railroad Blues club in Alpine.
After drinks and the best smoked cabrito quesadillas on Earth, it was time for dinner, and my long-awaited reunion with Petersen's magnificent fare. The Chronicle's critics voted Petersen "chef we'll miss" in last year's Restaurant Poll, while his Little Texas Bistro was mentioned among the "restaurants we miss." He also took second place in the specialty variety category at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival in August. I am happy to report that since his move to West Texas, Petersen's skills haven't diminished a bit. Cafe Cenizo is a lovely restaurant: comfortable, warm, and unpretentious, yet with an aura of elegance and refinement.
The menu at Cafe Cenizo showcases his already well-known style of French technique applied to Texas ingredients to create an "upscale down-home" cuisine. Among his expert staff are chef de cuisine Juan Scott and Andrew MacArthur, both graduates from the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin. On our first visit, we let them take care of us with the five-course chef's tasting menu and wine pairings. The portions are just right to satisfy an appetite, and the wines matched perfectly. The smoked scallops paired with a glass of Prosecco spoke to us about things to come. I went loco over the ancho-chile-glazed quail appetizer, a perfectly bronzed little bird with a savory and spicy glaze and crispy skin, served over arugula and roasted pear salad with smoked red-onion vinaigrette and garnished with the cutest fried quail egg (I like this dish so much I ordered it every time we went in there, paired with the obligatory Sancerre picked by Petersen).
Next, he came to our table carrying two plates. "Now, this is a chunk of foie gras!" he declared. Indeed, the most unforgettable chunk of foie gras I have ever had, mind you, lusciously pan-seared with a wine reduction and seared pears over a frisée salad. It is an astounding accomplishment that Petersen manages to procure the freshest of gourmet ingredients like foie gras and fresh halibut and has them delivered to him in Marathon. The entrée, pepper-crusted elk medallions served with potato gratin and truffled mushroom demi are melt-in-your-mouth tender yet full of "manly" game flavor. For dessert, we had a delicious blackberry cobbler with homemade cinnamon ice cream and a Mexican chocolate cake with chocolate, pecan and caramel, and a dollop of Chantilly cream. The front of the house staff headed by amazing maitre d' Lane Williams is knowledgeable and friendly, and they help make the experience complete.
On our first morning in West Texas, Will, a sculptor by trade, wanted to check out the burgeoning art scene in nearby Marfa. Following our server Margaret's advice from the night before, we had breakfast at the Brown Recluse, a little neighborhood cafe in Marfa that serves gourmet breakfast and is also home of Big Bend Coffee Roasters (www.bigbendcoffee.com), a company that sells certified organic, certified fair-trade coffee that is freshly roasted on premise. We enjoyed huevos con rajas, scrambled eggs with roasted long green chiles, onion, and queso fresco, served with delicious beans and a side of shredded jicama dressed with cayenne powder and salt. The chile macho salsa on the side was fiery and flavorful. We picked up a couple pounds of coffee to enjoy at home.
Even though we didn't stay in Marfa for dinner, I found another Austin connection, this time in reverse. Turns out Alex Manley, current pastry chef at El Gringo on Manor Road, used to work her magic at Maiya's, Marfa's best-known fine-dining restaurant. Maiya's is famous for its eclectic menu of seasonal specialties using fresh, local ingredients. Manley's creations garnered her praise at Maiya's, and she continues to contribute food columns to Marfa's Big Bend Sentinel.
On our second morning in Marathon, we walked across the street from the Gage to the Marathon Coffee Shop, a staple establishment that has recently been taken over by new chefs. The coffeehouse is open from 7am to 3pm, serving great coffee, breakfast dishes, and sandwiches and panini for lunch. When our order came, my husband was speechless: It turns out that the new chef/owner, Paul DuPuy, is a longtime childhood friend, also born and raised in Austin. Chef DuPuy is a TCA graduate who also attended culinary school in Piedmont, Italy. Last July, DuPuy and wife Caroline decided they needed a change of scenery and moved to Marathon to try their luck when the Marathon Coffee Shop became available. We ordered spicy huevos rancheros and the fantastic Flying Frenchman, a warm croissant sandwich stuffed with ham, melted cheese, and a fried egg, served with ultracrispy hash browns.
While Will went around town visiting little art galleries, I went to the Gage's Desert Moon Spa, where former Austinite Kelly Kruyshoop gave me a body scrub and wrapped me in French seaweed for about an hour. I smelled and felt like a giant maki sushi roll. I'd never done anything remotely like it, and it was one of the most relaxing experiences I've ever had. Kelly's professionalism, sparkling personality, and wonderful energy put me at ease right away. Plus, my skin was softer than a baby's afterward. I truly enjoyed it and recommend a visit to the spa to anyone looking for pampering.
Upon our return trip to the Gage in December, it felt like we were back among friends. Everyone remembered us and received us with big smiles, welcome hugs, and more drinks. This time we picked our own menu items at Cafe Cenizo, which proved quite difficult, since everything sounds so good, and a decision is hard to make. But the staff offered every bit of advice we could possibly need. Both our servers, Margaret and Justin, were courteous and friendly without being overbearing. Just the kind of service I enjoy.
The seasonal soup, a silky cream of butternut squash, was a soothing and savory way to start the meal. In contrast, the romaine wedge salad was refreshing and crisp, chock-full of smoked bacon, chopped egg, and tomatoes, with a creamy buttermilk dressing made from the Gage's garden herbs. Another appetizer not to be missed is the prosciutto-crusted morbier cheese, served with figs stewed in red wine and balsamic syrup. The crispy prosciutto holds in the warm, melting morbier, and the sweet-tangy figs and balsamic syrup are the ideal foil. And the spinach risotto with wild boar sausage, porcini mushrooms, and truffle oil was ethereal.
Every entrée we had was outstanding. The pan-seared duck breast and duck leg confit over a barley cake with a roasted pear demi-glace is probably my favorite, and the enormous chicken-fried venison with smashed potatoes and wild boar sausage, grilled leek, and poblano gravy put my husband in food-coma bliss. The mole-rubbed buffalo rib eye with roasted potatoes and roasted poblano blue-cheese cream was perfectly cooked and a tad spicy without killing the amazing flavor of the meat. We like to end our meals back at the White Buffalo, to chat with the locals and have liquid dessert like the Gage Coffee (with Kahlua, Irish cream, Cointreau, and Frangelico, topped with whipped cream) or a nice glass of single malt scotch or port. A warming liquid dessert is the perfect foil to the chilly West Texas nights.
During our second trip to Marathon we drove to Alpine and visited some fun art galleries, including Kiowa, which proudly shows artwork by Austin artist Bob "Daddy-O" Wade and musician Joe "King" Carrasco. A few steps from the gallery is the historic Holland Hotel, which houses the German-inspired Edelweiss Restaurant and Micro-Brewery. We popped in for a quick snack and a brew and were very surprised with the authentic German menu offerings and the quality of the beer. We quaffed a pitcher of the Alpine Blonde, a lager with lots of flavor, and enjoyed some homemade warm pretzels with grainy mustard. Yum.
On the road between Alpine and Marfa is Luz de Estrella Winery, a relative newcomer to the Texas wine industry. Owner Linda Armstrong purchased what was left of Blue Mountain Wines, a winery and vineyard just outside of Fort Davis (addressed in Wes Marshall's The Wine Roads of Texas: An Essential Guide to Texas Wines and Wineries, Maverick Publishing) and brought along their winemaker, Patrick Johnson, to the new location. The temporary winery and tasting room are located in a picturesque setting surrounded by mountains, and the mysterious Marfa Lights can literally be seen from the winery's back yard. They even host viewing parties on Fridays (weather permitting) on their deck atop the Marfa plateau. The best thing is that Johnson is still making good wines and working on refining their styles. Luz de Estrella currently has eight wines, made mostly from Texas-grown grapes with additional grapes from New Mexico. Their small vineyard is currently growing cabernet sauvignon, Shiraz, sauvignon blanc, Viognier, and Gwerztaminer. Their first crop will be harvested in 2007, so their initial estate wines should be available in 2008 for whites and 2009 for reds. We bought a bottle of their 2005 Chenin Blanc, made from grapes grown in the Guadalupe Mountains, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back at the Gage, we fell back into the rhythm we and others, old friends and new ones, have established there: drinks at White Buffalo, dinner at Cafe Cenizo, more drinks at the bar, then back to our room for another amazing evening. It's a routine we could get used to. As we maintain our Austin-Marathon connection, Peterson maintains his Marathon-Austin version: a sold-out class at Central Market this weekend, as well as one in March for the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival.