Smooth Rough Ride
Our range guide was a veteran of the first Gulf War, so it wasn't hard to steer the conversation to the lingering mysteries of the sequel. Saddam? "Dead," he said tersely. WMD's? "Buried deep in the desert," came his reply. The paltry resistance of the vaunted Republican Guard? Only a select few are well-trained in the use of weapons such as tanks and field artillery, so most of the troops on the ground can't mount anything close to an effective counterattack, he says. This policy was instituted presumably so some lone infantryman wouldn't attempt to shoot Saddam in the butt.
I listened intently as I stuffed my bolt action rifle with five .22-250 rounds. The .22-250 is a high-powered .22-caliber round that could, in theory, be used to fell a deer, but is more at home harassing coyotes and maybe the occasional feral tabby. I was plinking away at targets 150 yards away but was getting bored perforating pieces of target paper. I wanted to friggin' kill something.
So our guide put a split log about 30 yards in front of the barrel and invited me to blast away. One little kick later, the log lifted from the ground and the guide retrieved it to point out the tiny hole at the point of entry and the gaping shattered gouge at the point of exit. I must've killed at least one pill bug with that shot, so I'm happy.
Blasting pill bugs isn't the only thing you can do at Rough Creek Lodge. You can fish for largemouth bass in Mallard Lake, shatter clay pigeons with a 12-gauge, knock birds out of the sky with the same or stop a charging wild boar with a .30-06. And what self-respecting hunter would hit the brush without a fresh manicure, pedicure and facial? It's all here.
Extremely good food, too.
Rough Creek Lodge sits on some 11,000 acres near the Hill Country on what's known as Chalk Mountain Ranch. It's a working cattle ranch with nearly 3,000 acres devoted to a hunting preserve. It's the creation of John Adams, a retired pharmaceuticals executive who grabbed the land in the early 1990s and then hired a battalion of consultants and focus groups to help him decide what the heck to do with it. Some $25 million later, he got an executive retreat where powerful CEOs can execute decisions with Remingtons instead of those dull Mont Blancs.
You'd think with all of this casting and ammo consumption that Rough Creek Lodge would serve little more than liver sausage and Reubens. But Executive Chef Gerard Thompson, who comes from the San Ysidro Ranch resort in Santa Barbara, California, says diners in Texas are far more adventurous than those Californians.
"It's unbelievable here," he says. "We sell sweetbreads. There [Santa Barbara], people are just so uptight; especially in Santa Barbara, because it's such a health-conscious type of place. I would do 250 dinners some nights, and I wouldn't sell one quail. If I did 250 dinners a night here, I'd have to start another quail farm."
He'd have to because quail is a staple on the Rough Creek Lodge menu. The bird is marinated in a mixture of herbs and oil before it is seasoned with a house-made chili seasoning, grilled and glazed with a sherry wine vinegar and maple syrup reduction. The grilling is rapid, to seal in the juices and keep the gamy sensuality from collapsing into the dreaded liver sausage effect. The results are astounding. The meat is chewy but tender and exceptionally plump. Pushed next to it is a sculpted disc of slightly chewy Parmesan grits studded with ham bits: cheese tang framed in cured pork savoriness.
While Thompson may downplay the adventurousness of his fussy Santa Barbara guests, he saw fit to steal a dish from their finical jaws. It has a gritty name: grilled romaine lettuce. Thompson says the recipe evolved from a conscious quest to come up with a twisted Caesar. It begins with a head of romaine, cleaved in half, seasoned with lemon, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt and tossed on the grill for a couple of minutes a side. A brilliantly potent "Mediterranean salsa" composed of tomato and capers serves as a little acid/brine hot button among the creamy rich Romano cheese dressing that flaunts its very own lusty tang. Leaves arrive singed and delicately wilted, as if anticipating those rejuvenating acids.
Believe it or not, this is a menu of core principals. Sure, Thompson tosses around those tiresome "fresh, fresh" buzzwords. But there's more here. "I'm trying to surprise people," he says. "We're out in the middle of nowhere. The perception is that you're driving down this almost gravel road to have dinner at this place." And without a stitch of camping equipment or a roll of toilet paper, terror understandably sets in.
Yet at the end of the road you're confronted with a bizarre, postmodern stab at rusticity. Done up in stone and steel, it looks like a hunting lodge from a colony on the fringes of the solar system. Rough Creek Lodge is beautiful, with some 39 guest rooms and conference facilities outfitted with sophisticated audio-visual gadgets. The main lodge is a stranger thing still. It has high vaulted, curvaceous ceilings stapled with clean steel cross beams. Wood, huge tracts of "supple" leather, a 40-foot-high limestone fireplace, massive rustic chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows serve as accents. Paintings of dogs with dead birds in their mouths add interest.
It's the kind of place where you'd expect to find obnoxious steaks and equally crude pork chops served with spuds the size of rocket-propelled grenades. But salmon draped in fussy fungi? "We call that shake 'n' bake," Thompson jokes of his porcini mushroom-crusted salmon. One thing this chef does is trim the piece of fish so that it is the same thickness from edge to center. This minimizes the risk of dry patches mixed with spots of pink mush. He seasons the fish with salt and pepper before covering it in a blend of buttermilk, egg, panko bread crumbs and ground porcini mushrooms. Then he slowly sautés it in butter and finishes it in the oven. The flavor is impeccably balanced, with clean marine notes beautifully offset by the dusky porcini earthiness. The mushrooms seem to yank the often-hidden natural sweetness from the salmon and frame it with dazzling precision. It was accompanied by white truffle whipped potatoes and a puddle of tomato broth--more like a purée than a simple stock. The resultant rich tang was the perfect canvas for this dish, pestering both the salmon sweetness and placid mushroom earthiness with a velvet acid punch.
Thompson works the same sort of wizardry with steak, a thick prime filet wedge. It's billed as "three peppercorn crusted filet of beef." But the peppercorns are finely ground and judiciously distributed, so you don't get numb-tongued by an outsized molten corn chunk before the meat richness has a chance to swamp the mouth. It's an effortlessly satiny and juicy beef experience. Thompson pairs his beef with an ingenious dab: shrimp and corn hash. It's a dainty mix of diced sweet and white potatoes, pepper and scallions slowly sautéed until they caramelize. To this he tosses in herbs and shrimp pieces. Thompson says the beauty of this Rough Creek standard is that it also doubles as a surf 'n' turf. "We use that as a selling point," he says without a chuckle. "You get a little bit of everything."
You do, at breakfast and lunch, too, the former with exceptionally fluffy scrambled eggs and supple omelettes. They also serve house-made pork sausage that's as coarse as 12-gauge buckshot (and almost as hard).
Rough Creek Lodge is easily among the best restaurants in Dallas--the top two or three. Or it will be as soon as the city annexes the place and gets to work paving that road.
County Road 2013, Glen Rose, 254-965-3700 or 800-864-4705. Open daily 7 a.m.-10 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch and 8 p.m.-10 p.m. for dinner. $$$-$$$$
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