I just returned from Marathon, where I was a finalist judge at the 2nd Cowboy Chili Cook Off hosted by the Chili Appreciation Society International and sponsored in part by the Gage Hotel. Most of the chilies were good, yet surprisingly the most common weakness in the least striking bowls of red was the beef: shallow, listless grains that almost sucked the life out of what were mostly compelling sauces. What the frick? Panty-waist beef in Texas? Note to chili cook-off fetishists: Secure the highest grade beef you can, have it freshly ground, and taste test it before dumping it into your cook off entry. Food at Cafe Cenizo in the Gage Hotel was tantalizing, though, crafted as it is by Culinary Institute of America grad Paul Petersen, who founded the defunct Little Texas Bistro in Buda. Riveting dishes include pan-roasted chicken livers in wine and spinach, white fish ceviche (actually a ceviche-gazpacho hybrid), pan-roasted lime game hen and pan-seared duck breast and duck leg confit.
The Gage opened in 1927 by rancher and banker Alfred Gage, who gathered some 400,000 acres of ranch land before he died in 1928. (A nice chunk of the Gage Ranch ended up in the hands of Joan Negley Kelleher, wife of Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher.) Alfred's namesake hotel was neglected for decades before it was purchased by amateur historian J.P. Bryan, founder and senior managing partner of Houston's Torch Energy Advisors Inc., and his wife Mary Jon Bryan in 1978. The Gage has been undergoing restoration and expansion since it reopened in 1982.
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I also took a spin at the Ocotillo Restaurant, part of a 2,100-acre rustic resort in Lajitas--itself a 25,000-acre private estate (population roughly 300) propped on a desert scorched bluff pinched between the Rio Grande River and Big Bend National Park. Ocotillo specializes in wild game and Mexi-Spanish specialties crafted by chef Jeff Blank of Hudson's on the Bend in Austin. Food is startling: cabrito egg rolls, diamondback rattlesnake cakes coated crusted in ground pistachio and served on a rock, venison in Corona-chipotle "beer blanc." One question: Why can't Dallas do artsy-fartsy Mexican with this much dazzle? --Mark Stuertz