UTOPIA —Sometimes, you just need a gentle push.
We’d heard about The Laurel Tree for years and had always meant to get out there to try the chef’s lauded French fare in the middle of the Texas Hill Country. But it took some friends to nudge us just enough to set a date.
Even then, we weren’t sure what to expect from a place that’s only open on Saturdays. The usual round of questions emerged: What were we in for? Could the food really be that good if it’s open only one day a week? Would it break our budget? Would we even be able to find the place? All we knew was that the town is dry, so we were welcome to bring our wine with us.
We shouldn’t have had a single doubt, which we realized the moment we stepped out of the car and faced the cozy limestone building that houses The Laurel Tree. Instead of going through the restaurant, however, we walked around back, in keeping with the restaurant website’s invitation to stroll the grounds. There we found a tranquil lot shaded by a magnificent oak tree that, we would later learn, is believed to be 450 years old. Chandeliers gleamed from several lower branches.
Beyond the tree sits an upraised herb garden that has been tended with great loving care. Not a weed could be seen in the planters full of more types of basil than you could count, numerous sages, mints, thyme, oregano and more. A path leading further from the house led to a garden where fresh tomatoes, peppers and even sunflowers were growing.
When it came time to go in for dinner, we quickly found our table near the back doors and settled in for what proved to be several hours of heady enjoyment. The menu for the evening was set at each place so we knew exactly what was in store: small plate to start with followed by soup, salad, a choice of entree and dessert. We found out later that the menu changes every week, taking in to account what’s fresh in the garden or market as well as chef Laurel Waters’ fancy.
Judging from our experience, you can place your good faith in Waters’ hands. We began with a miniature goat cheese tartlet with olive tapenade set atop a slice of salami, all of which offered a delightful jumble of contrasting textures and complementary flavors. A rustic Fiesta soup of tomato, sugar snap peas, carrots and herbs tasted as if the ingredients had been picked shortly before serving.
Mixed greens with Manchego cheese, almonds and Champagne vinaigrette arrived with several slices of peach that we knew were not from the area, but they had a sweet juiciness that made them welcome no matter their origin.
For the main course, diners’ choices are always between a meat and a fish, we were told. That evening, a firm, moist fillet of striped bass — which arrived by way of Groomer’s Seafood — was served with roasted vegetables and lemon mashed potatoes while pork tenderloin, presented almost like a schnitzel, appeared with pineapple salsa, a sweet onion glaze and the same potatoes.
Crème brûlée topped with white-chocolate-dipped cherries provided a luxurious finish to end a most satisfying meal. Each of the dishes, including the dessert, incorporated those well-tended herbs, from purple bush basil to ginger mint flowers.
All five courses were priced at $39 and were served by a friendly staff who handled all of our many questions with great patience and no little help in making sure we had everything we needed, from ice water to help chill down a bottle of Chablis to providing extra wine glasses to go around with our party of seven. (You can bring your own, if you choose.)
After we finished, Waters came by the table to see how everything way. It was then we learned a little more of the history of The Laurel Tree, which has now been open for almost nine years.
Her training took place at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and included internships at three restaurants in Provence. “I almost moved to Provence,” she admitted, “but I figured I could bring it all back home — and visit Provence.”
Waters learned the importance of using the freshest and best ingredients available, including homegrown items. And what she doesn’t grow, she chooses herself. “I hand-select everything,” she said. It’s also why she requires reservations: She needs to know how much food to prepare.
The care she’s taken has paid off. Her clientele has grown steadily, and word-of-mouth has been a driving force. Through the years, her guests have included Robert Duvall, who enjoyed dinner there while filming in the area. “Imagine what you think Robert Duvall would be like, then multiply that by 10!” she said of her famous guest.
When Waters isn’t minding The Laurel Tree, she can often be found working at Antiques on Main Street, which is also located in the town here. She operates it with her mother, and it is the source of many of the well-chosen items featured in The Laurel Tree’s dining areas. The store is open on Saturdays, which means yet another reason to head back here in the near future.
The Laurel Tree
18956 N. FM 187, Utopia, Texas
Lunch and dinner Saturdays.
Bonnie Walker contributed to this review and the photographs.