The sun dips lower toward the mountains to the west, letting a few clouds bend and slant rays of golden light across the courtyard. It’s another beautiful dusk at the Gage Hotel in the Far West Texas town of Marathon (pop. 350, but nobody seems to be counting). And new executive chef Brandon Waddell is in the kitchen. At least he was in the kitchen, until he found me sipping a pinot grigio in the courtyard and started delivering appetizers. This campechana (a kind of Tex-Mex shrimp cocktail, with lovely white lumps of crabmeat along for the ride) was only the beginning of a dinner that started in the courtuyard, moved into the hotel’s fabled White Buffalo Bar, and ended up in the restaurant cleverly rebaptized 12 Gage a couple years ago.
As this golden-lit Texas quail on salsa roja with a pinto-mash chalupa demonstrates amply, Waddell is a darn good chef. His resume is strange and wondrous for Far West Texas, however, beginning in restaurants in Seattle before coming of age as sous chef at the posh Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs. It was there that the owner of the Gage – oilman and Western art collector J.P. Bryan of Houston – tracked him down and eventually invited him to work as his family’s personal chef. When the Gage needed a solid chef more than the family did, Waddell began the process of becoming a West Texan.
So no, this is not all that’s left of some previous Gage chef – though the place has had bunches of them over the years since Bryan aquired it as a wreck and began one of the state’s most loving restorations. Some of these chefs, like Grady Spears and Paul Peterson, parlayed fame from cooking at the Gage into later opportunities. Others just quietly went away. Since Waddell is ridiculously gifted in the kitchen, as well as ridiculously young, good-looking and well spoken, he may prove as likely to leave to host a TV show as to open some other restaurant.
The White Buffalo Bar takes its name from the head of a white buffalo mounted on the wall; but it surely takes its fame from excellent cocktails (many of which seem variations on the top-shelf margarita) and a bar menu that includes the sampler pictured here. Left to right, the dips for chips include a smoke-kissed salsa, a chunky guacamole and an array of pickled vegetables. According to Gage GM Carol Peterson (definitely no relation to Chef Paul), the veggies are a tribute to a tradition in Tex-Mex restaurants in bigger Texas cities. That’s a list that, seen from Marathon, includes just about everyplace with a road.
For me, last night was Dinner-as-Moving-Target, with Chef Brandon finding out where I was (well, whrre I was drinking) and sending me something wonderful. Before I decamped from the White Buffalo for 12 Gage, he sent out this salad of luscious roasted beets and grilled crimini mushrooms. I couldn’t resist setting the salad on a bar stool against the wall beneath a light fixture. I wasn’t sure what would turn up in the photo, but it sure is a nice memory. Of a very nice salad.
With so much Seattle in his early experience, Waddell knows how to cook seafood – a product that doesn’t exactly sell out nightly in cattle-centric Far West Texas. Still, I was very impressed with what this chef did with shrimp and grits. The grits are molded together with cheese, so it is a Texas spin on the Carolina classic. It’s an appetizer, really, but I’m sure that if you ask him real nice, Chef Brandon will serve you a bigger portion for a main course. And if you’re a hardcore vegan, he’s doing something great with spaghetti squash and grilled asparagus, toasted pinenuts and Parmesan cheese shavings.
Since I’m not the least bit vegan, here is what I ordered for my entree. There were several things I wanted to try, including the new braised lamb shank and the hotel’s classic chicken fried steak with roasted jalapeno cream gravy, but there was room for only one. The grilled New York strip showed up with ultra-thin truffle Parmesan pomme frites and a sauce given pungency by Maytag blue cheese. It was incredible enough I didn’t even regret not getting the Gage’s chicken enchiladas, a dish I always try to have at least once per visit.
Desserts can take a lot of forms at the Gage, ranging from plain to fancy, as you’d expect from a hotel that does weddings practically every weekend of the year. With the last of my Josh cabernet sauvignon from Napa, I opted for something plain that ended up a little bit fancy: this pear and blackberry cobbler. As Chef Brandon explained how his cobbler was more a cake-like clafoutis than the typical Texas version with pie crust or biscuit dough, I realized just how happy I am that this chef found the Gage. And that it found him. For nearly all of us anywhere, Marathon is a haul. But I’m already looking forward to my next dinner!