Open Road

Dos Texans

Reconnecting with our Texas roots in Brenham and College Station.

By Katharine Shilcutt September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The main lodge at Dos Brisas houses the restaurant, bar, and pool. Photos courtesy Dos Brisas.

Dos Brisas is the only Forbes five-star restaurant in Texas.

We didn’t set out to recapture our Texas roots, yet here we were, my mother and I, sixth- and seventh-generation Texans, riding horseback through gently rolling pastures on a rare cool summer morning—the sun hadn’t yet burned off the fog from the ground. Our family ranch in East Texas was sold years ago, and we haven’t owned horses in decades. But riding a horse is just like riding a bicycle, it turns out.

We were following the trail guide from The Inn at Dos Brisas, a resort that sits on 300 acres of beautiful land, just east of Brenham, about an hour from Houston. It’s one of only two Relais & Châteaux properties in Texas, an ultra-luxe designation that counts European castles and country manors among its portfolio. 

The scallops aren’t harvested at Dos Brisas, but the fava beans are.

These verdant fields are where people from all over the world come to play at being Texan. They don Stetson hats and Lucchese boots and ride cutting horses under the watchful eye of O.K. Estes, one of the state’s last living “real” cowboys, a man never without his heavy silver spurs, which thump and jangle as he walks through the stables. They hoist shotguns into the air and shoot clay pigeons. They fish in immaculately maintained ponds, man-made bodies of water that any other Texan would rightly call “tanks.” And in the evenings, they dine at the only Forbes five-star restaurant in the state, featuring French cuisine made Texan by chef Zachary Ladwig. 

Carrots from the organic garden at Dos Brisas

The menu features an array of items made with produce grown on the resort’s 24 acres of organic farmland. To call it Texas’s version of California’s The French Laundry or Chez Panisse would be unfair—to Dos Brisas. Neither of its West Coast counterparts is as committed to preparing cuisine with its own sustainable, organic harvests as Dos Brisas.

Our horseback ride took place the morning after we indulged in a massive, 15-course tasting dinner, when Ladwig and his brigade marched out plate after plate: rare varieties of spinach leaves paired with speck, razor clams with fava beans, duckling breast with figs, lobster with celery—all of it either imported from specially selected purveyors (the lobster from Maine, the speck from Italy, the figs from Ladwig’s home in Wisconsin) or harvested from the gardens that morning. Wine pairings from Dos Brisas’s massive, 7,000-bottle cellar had been generous too, making me grateful that my bay roan had a slow, gentle rhythm to her ambling gait.

A hacienda at Dos Brisas

The Barn at 7F is a rustic retreat.

Twinkie, as she was called, was also gassy and hungry. “Don’t let her stop to eat,” our young trail guide warned me in his soft Central Texas drawl. “She’ll try to fool you, but she already had breakfast this morning.”

I tugged at Twinkie’s leather reins every time she stopped to graze and nudged her along when she fell behind, my canvas Toms certainly much lighter than the spurs Twinkie was used to. Despite my choice of footwear—the only vaguely “horse appropriate” shoes this city girl owns anymore—I suddenly felt more Texan than I had in years, squinting across the pasture to make out the red Spanish tiles of the roofs of Dos Brisas rising in the distance against the bright, jasmine-hued light of the rising sun.

Full disclosure: reconnecting with your inner Texan at Dos Brisas isn’t cheap. A casita on the property runs close to $800 a night, and a fully equipped hacienda with 3,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor living space—as well as its own golf cart, private pool, two fireplaces, outdoor showers, and other opulent amenities—is nearly $1,200. Both afford plenty of privacy, although only the haciendas greet you with chilled bottles of Krug Champagne.

Dos Brisas Chef Zachary Ladwig rarely makes the same dish twice.

A meal at Dos Brisas is far less pricey, running $95 for a five-course tasting menu, and one you will never encounter anywhere else. There’s a unique sense of place afforded by those freshly harvested fava beans, by tomatoes still warm from the sun, by berries still saturated with morning dew.

“These blackberries were picked along our fence-line this morning,” Ladwig said as he presented a dessert of buttermilk pots de crème with the plump berries. Little-girl memories of hot summer mornings spent berry-hunting in Henderson came rushing back, days when I’d bring basketsful back to my mother and grandmother for pies, jellies, and jams.

Such a variety of fruits and vegetables thrives in Texas that Ladwig never quite knows what his master gardener will bring into the kitchen each day. But he refuses to waste even a single pea pod, making stocks out of any and all scraps or finding nimble ways to work parsley root into a dish of whey-fed veal breast and sweetbreads.

The Hill Country Lodge is the largest cabin at 7F.

It’s hard to believe Dos Brisas is just a short hop from Houston. I wouldn’t hesitate to cruise up Highway 290 again for Sunday brunch, if only to once more taste the perfectly brined and battered fried chicken I enjoyed after our morning horseback ride. I felt utterly restored, although what was principally responsible for this—whether the food or my bloody mary spiked with house-infused, house-smoked jalapeño vodka—is impossible to say.

In fact, I’d like to come back for the whole weekend, if only to indulge in a massage under the cool, airy rafters of the hacienda’s screened porch, or to take gardening and cooking classes from chef Ladwig himself. And if you’re like me—a magazine editor’s salary doesn’t quite permit such indulgences—don’t let that stop you from going for dinner at Dos Brisas. The area has other hotel choices, some quite interesting indeed. 

Downtown Bryan by night

My mother and I compromised during our weekend getaway, doing one night at Dos Brisas on Saturday, and one at the 7F Lodge, just south of College Station. It was sunset when we made the drive down the long dirt road to its door amidst the darkening yaupon thickets and dense trees. At last we came across an old barn, a wrought-iron chandelier inside casting a welcoming glow onto the broad front porch. The door creaked when we pressed on it, opening onto the mournful strains of Don Williams and “If You Could Read My Mind.” 

Much like Dos Brisas, the 7F Lodge prides itself on privacy—so much so that there isn’t even a check-in desk at the property. Your key dangles from the door of your cabin, waiting for you. Outside there are rocking chairs, inside no television or phone, only a basket of sundry items and groceries to get you through your stay, along with a few other creature comforts: a Bose stereo system and a hot tub for two—standard in each of 7F’s eight cabins. 

After check-in, my mother and I headed back down the dirt road to explore nearby Bryan, its revitalized downtown awash in summer pastels and neon from the LaSalle Hotel and the Queen Theater, art deco beacons both. Neither of us expected the town to be this pretty and alive at night, with packed wine bars, live music venues, and restaurants like Madden’s Casual Gourmet, where chef/owner Peter Madden takes a page from Dos Brisas’s produce book.

Madden’s serves delicious vegetables and herbs harvested from its own gardens: fresh eggplant on the day we visited, as well as bright ribbons of yellow and green pattypan squash drenched in butter. It was enough to make me fall in love with Texas all over again. 

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