By JOHN DeMERS
Scottish poet Robert Burns, who made that famous comment about the “best-laid plans of mice and men,” must have worked in the restaurant business. At least that’s what Alicia Bryan Haynes of the Gage Hotel must be thinking right about now.
It was only a couple months ago that Alicia and her good friend, Chef Kevin Williamson of Ranch 616 in Austin, were hosting a delicious-delightful party in Marathon to announce their partnership. The Gage’s restaurant, which had struggled in recent years after helping make culinary stars of Grady Spears and Paul Peterson, would slowly evolve into something called Ranch 616 at the Gage. Williamson would be its guiding light, and his funky-downhome mantra about “South Texas icehouse cuisine” would miraculously become a West Texas mantra as well.
Except, despite the fun party, the change didn’t work out that way.
“Ranch 616 came in,” narrates Alicia, whose Houston-based father J.P. Bryan rescued the original mansion designed for Alfred Gage by legendary Southwest architect Henry Trost in 1927 and, beginning in 1978, made the place a destination hotel. “They trained my staff. The menu is inspired by 616. And they brought in Chef Mike (Alvarez), who had worked with them previously. But Mike wanted to take the menu and make it his own. And we wanted Mike to be a part of that.”
That he has. In the weeks after the big kickoff bash, Alicia and Kevin parted company, at least for this project – they’re still talking about doing a food and wine festival in Marathon someday, which fits since Kevin was longtime president of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. And under a clever new name – Twelve Gage – Mike Alvarez has settled down the staff in the kitchen and the dining room to deliver a memorable dining experience.
“The Twelve Gage of my dreams would serve the best steaks in Texas,” says Alicia. “We’d serve an array of different wild game selections. I want this to be easy, I want it to be good, I want it to be fresh – with the Gage Gardens an integral part of the menu. And I want terrific desserts, for a great ending to a wonderful meal.”
Asking someone with a luxury hotel and a fine-dining restaurant in a town of only 500 people who she sees as her customer is inviting the inevitable response.
“Everybody,” Alicia giggles.
That means the Gage’s guests, of course – who seldom have many choices in Marathon but need to be seduced all the same. That means people from Austin, Houston and Dallas, plus considerably farther afield, who think they’re only here for Big Bend National Park, to which Marathon is the most natural gateway. And that means locals from the town, as well as from nearby Alpine and ever-artsy Marfa just west along Highway 90. The first menu prepared by Chef Mike, still under the influence of Ranch 616, shows every promise of inspiring such a special trip. And in Guide Michelin terms, a recent meal at Twelve Gage showed every sign of being worth it.
It’s hard to not love any restaurant that offers the “Quesadilla of the Day,” but skip over that for any appetizer the kitchen is doing with quail. There’s an unbelievably good quail entrée – one grilled, one fried, separated by an “enchilada of the day,” tomatillo sauce and cracked pepper cream gravy – and a smaller version seems to keep turning up. Another starter of note is the buttermilk batter crispy calamari with chipotle tartar sauce, or equally satisfying, the fried fish tacos with cabbage slaw.
Twelve Gage offers a lot of salads – and considering the success of greens in the gardens, expect to see even more, moving in and out with each season. Suffice it to say the basic Garden Salad is a winner for its cilantro lime vinaigrette, as is the Trost salad, which ought to make the late architect hungry (wherever he is) with its field greens outfitted with candied Texas pecans, sliced mushrooms, shredded carrots and Gage tomatoes.
Though Alicia promises that Fridays will be Fish Night, with the freshest flown in from all over the world, the Twelve Gage menu is undeniably a carnivore’s paradise. There’s the West Texas mixed grill (its components change with what’s getting shot), along with the spice-rubbed and ancho honey-glazed pork tenderloin, paired with poblano cheddar mashed potatoes. Beef lovers can gather for a revival meeting around the cracked black pepper-crusted tenderloin (its mashers with bacon and goat cheese, plus an enchilada on the side) or the spice-rubbed Texas ribeye. You get your choice of Brie or Blue cheese on top of that steak, and you can even add a fried egg.
Dessert is an impressive work in progress at Twelve Gage. There’s a decadent Mexican chocolate cake with pecan-chocolate glaze and prickly pear-blackberry ice cream, plus some colorful “dessert nachos” made with three homemade ice creams and a convention of fresh berries and caramels. All the same, our recent visit turned up a diamond in the rough: an amazing combination of caramelized apple, toasted pecan meringue, espresso panna cotta and a dried apple chip. You can assemble that in any order you want, if you ask me: it’ll still be great.