Destination: Texas Hill Country
It has been called the Provence of Texas—an exaggeration, sure, but lavender, herb and dairy farms and vineyards blanket Texas Hill Country, bluebonnets paint the fields a vivid azure in spring and peach stands dot country roads in season. The towns are small and so are the hills, but the area is vast—sprawling 15,000 miles north of San Antonio and west of Austin in central Texas—and so is the number of fine dining restaurants, specialty food shops and wine bars clustered in towns like Fredericksburg (pop. 10,000) and Marble Falls (pop. 7,000).
In fact, Texas Hill Country is the second-largest Viticultural Area in the U.S., featuring 30 of the state's 100-plus wineries and events like the Texas Hill Country Wine Festival, which is held in April in Austin.
For upscale Hill Country cuisine and prices to match, Hudson's On the Bend (3509 Ranch Road 620 North; www.hudsonsonthebend.com) in far-west Austin's Lake Travis area is renowned for wild game like venison and bison, and scrumptious signature sauces like tomatillo white chocolate and mango jalapeno (sold bottled at the restaurant and in Whole Foods, which after all began in Austin). The setting is country elegance, a cottage whose whitewashed small rooms are splashed with vivid art. The crab cake towers are standouts, crusted with almond and sesame and packed with goat cheese ricotta, corn and salsa, and the international wine list offers many Texas and California choices.
In Marble Falls in a sleekly sophisticated room dominated by a long granite bar, dark purple walls and a central seating area of red leather sofas, The Falls Bistro & Wine Cellar (202 Main Street;
www.thefallsbistro.com) serves nearly two dozen wines by the glass, tapas plates like duck tostadas and entrees like paella for lunch and dinner. Monthly five-course winemaker dinners and cheese-and-wine pairings are also hosted here.
At Mandola Estate Winery (13308 FM 150 West; www.mandolawines.com) in Driftwood, a half-hour's drive from Austin, the wines are mostly traditional Italian varieties like Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. Co-owner Damian Mandola also co-owns an Italian restaurant chain in 15 states, as well as Mandola's, an Italian specialty market in Austin, and his Trattoria Lisina here serves country-style Italian cooking in a Tuscan-style stone building whose large patio overlooks the vineyards, gardens and winery.
The region's oldest winery, founded in 1975, is Fall Creek Vineyards (1820 County Road 222; www.fcv.com) in Tow, on the shore of Lake Buchanan, and owner Ed Auler applied for and won designation for the Texas Hill Country appellation in 1990. Fall Creek's super-premium wine, Meritus, is an award-winning Cabernet-Merlot blend, but Chenin Blanic, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are also among the wines produced. Events range from the popular Grape Stomp in August, to patio lunches and chocolate tastings.
Picturesque Fredericksburg, about an hour's drive north of San Antonio or west of Austin, was founded by German immigrants in 1846, and its National Historic District features many century-old limestone and halftimbered buildings that recall this heritage. The over 150 shops selling gifts, antiques and specialty foods include Chocolat (330 West Main Street; www.chocolat-tx.us), whose liquid-center chocolates contain fillings like Jack Daniel's and various wines. But for a dining experience to remember, skip the German biergartens, and head instead to one of the following.
In a rustic log house warmed by a massive limestone fireplace in Fredericksburg, Cotton Gin Restaurant & Lodging (Highway 16 South; www.cottonginlodging.com) offers an all-Texas wine list of 75 choices and a menu of local game and Gulf seafood. Texas winemaker dinners, which sometimes include cheesemakers and other food producers, are hosted regularly. Seven luxe log cabins are furnished with country antiques, quilts, Jacuzzi baths and wood-burning fireplaces, and surrounded by waterfalls and herb and flower gardens.
Rose Hill Manor (2614 Upper Albert Road;www.rose-hill.com) in nearby Stonewall is a plantation-style country inn whose secluded hilltop setting offers expansive river valley views from wraparound verandas and the only AAA Four Diamond lodging in Hill Country. Austin's, its restaurant, offers a gracious candlelit dining experience and French- and Italian-accented cuisine from chef Seth Bateman, formerly asssistant chef at Napa Valley's Meadowood Resort. The menu changes weekly, with specialties like seared pompano with Japanese eggplant, shiitakes and scallions in sake broth, and a five-course prix fixe dinner menu can include wine pairings from the list of 160 selections, drawn largely from Texas, California and Italy.
For its elegant rusticity, wine, wildflowers and white tablecloths, Texas Hill Country can't be beat as an epicurean escape, especially for big city refugees.