Cafe Cenizo (Marathon, TX)

In the middle of nowhere, in the blank interior of the triangle formed by Big Bend National Park, Alpine and Fort Stockton, Texas lies the small ranching and oil town of Marathon. In that town sits the magical Gage Hotel. Originally constructed by Alfred Gage in 1927, the hotel also served as the ranch headquarters for the 500,000 acre ranch owned by Gage, a transplant from Vermont. The hotel then sat unoccupied for many years, the commerce of Marathon no longer able to support it. That is until an oilman and Son of Texas, J.P. Bryan, bought it and took on the decades long restoration process to restore the hotel to its old glory. With that mission accomplished and, new hacienda-style rooms, Los Portales, added, the Gage Hotel is now a destination not to be missed. The Gage’s beauty and mystique is matched equally by its restaurant, Café Cenizo. The painstaking attention to detail and the authenticity to culture and lifestyle found throughout the property are also most certainly found at Café Cenizo and in the food it serves. http://www.gagehotel.com/

We began our evening at the White Buffalo Bar (the White Buffalo also a transplant – this time Wyoming), the intimate and authentic Texas bar adjoining Café Cenizo. And while it serves up a wide array of specialty tequilas and margaritas, I decided on a fine Pinot Noir, the Mr. ordered a Cab, and we sat back with our son enjoying the warm atmosphere and toasty fire before our meal. Once seated, we again were treated to a decidedly relaxed, comfortable atmosphere where the only outward indications of fine dining came with the quiet, candlelit setting and the white table linens. No pretention here.

The same holds true for the food. But don’t equate lack of pretention with ordinary or uninspired. Rather, the food is sophisticated and imaginative, while honoring the ingredients and flavors of the southwest. Appetizers include Grilled Quail with black currant veloute sauce, persimmon bread salad in apple vinaigrette, Pan Seared Sweetbreads, Scallop Cocktail with a red pepper sorbet, Duck Risotto, Braised Shortribs with a green chile polenta, Ginger Sweet Potato Soup, Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Entrees include Mole Rubbed Tenderloin with mashed potatoes in a poblano cream sauce and chayote squash, Crispy Skinned Adobo Rubbed Chicken with a cilantro rice and refried white beans, Duck Enchiladas, Pan Seared Scallops with a roasted sweet corn chowder, Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace, Wagyu Ribeye with oregano roasted potatoes, ranchero sauce and sautéed kale, Chicken Fried Steak, Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace.

As you can imagine it took some time to order. No matter, we just continued to sip our wine leisurely. The server checking in occasionally, not rushing or pushing, answering questions about the menu, at which he was obviously uncomfortable or untrained. We are still unsure of whether the venison my Mr. ordered was local axis, as another server indicated to the patrons sitting beside us, or shipped in from eastern New Zealand as our server told us. My Mr. ordered it anyway and it was excellent (more on that a little later). Decisions made, we started with the Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Visually, the dish was beautiful, the taste…incredible. Not usually a big bean fan, it is amazing what a lot of butter can do to change one’s mind. The bean puree was creamy and silky, with none of the usual chalkiness. The richness of the beans played wonderfully against the heat of the chipotle on the perfectly cooked shrimp and in the chipotle sauce drizzled on top. Not tangential, the rich avocado mousse rounded out the flavor by adding a touch of sweetness. The tortilla crisps while mostly decorative brought some crunch to the dish, which I always appreciate. Needless to say, the plate had not a spot left on it – we used the remaining bread served earlier to literally wipe the plate clean.

For my entrée, I ordered Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace. The dish, an obvious nod to traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, was delicious. While one of the chops was slightly undercooked and fatty, the other was cooked to a succulent medium rare. Both chops had a good sear on the outside and great overall flavor. The herbed couscous was a delightful and appropriate side. I particularly enjoyed the tomatoes and onion confit, sweet and fun as some of the tomatoes had not burst in the cooking process, so I got to “pop” them in my mouth. Bringing the dish together was the orange-coriander demi-glace. Not in the least overpowering, the sauce scented and accented the dish nicely. As with our appetizer, this entrée was a complete experience for your palate; there was no lingering feeling that something, somehow was missing.

In keeping with Texas, the portions are substantial at Café Cenizo. Not wanting to be wasteful, I ate the last of my lamb by dipping it into the extraordinary, wildly addictive, truffled mushroom demi-glace served with my Mr.’s entrée. As said before, his Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace was excellent. The venison grilled to a spot on medium rare. The potatoes au gratin were very well done – the potatoes fork tender, the sharp cheese sharp matching well with the strength of the pepper and venison, and the top fabulously golden. But the star of the show was the definitely the sauce. Once I finished the lamb, I was still looking around for things to dip into it.

Finally, not wanting to skip dessert, but having no more room and barely able to move, we ordered a Chocolate Blueberry Peanut Butter Tort to go (which the kitchen did with absolutely no problem, even including cloth napkins and silver) and we rolled back to our room. After some time to settle, we dug into the dessert, which was only average. The chocolate glistened, but the other elements were disappointing. I am glad the dessert experience was separate, in both time and place, from our main meal since the dinner was so wonderful.

This is not the first time we have eaten at Café Cenizo and it will not be our last. The Gage Hotel holds a special place in our hearts; and we are not alone – we met a couple who have been going there every year since 1983. The Gage is also incredibly popular – it was completely booked. We would come to the Gage regardless since it is a wonderful place and makes a perfect one night layover before heading into Big Bend National Park for a few days. The fact that one can get amazing food here as well is just a cherry on top.

Cafe Cenizo on Urbanspoon

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