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Cowboy Junkie

F&W's Salma Abdelnour, a lapsed Texan, gets in touch with her inner cowgirl at a spectacular new Wild West ranch.

"Damn it feels good to be a gangsta." I'm humming the catchy rap song by Houston's seminal Geto Boys as I drive to the Inn at Dos Brisas, a 300-acre ranch in East Texas. I spent my high school years in Houston doing everything possible to avoid becoming a Texan. Back then, while my classmates were listening to country music radio, I would drive through our suburban neighborhood blaring hip-hop out my car window. Now, as much as I love living in New York, I've been missing Texas like crazy, even craving some of the things I used to hate. These days I have seven Willie Nelson discs on my iPod. And I think the English language has yet to find a suitable alternative to the pronoun "y'all."

Nostalgia was part of what brought me to the inn, an hour from Houston, on a summer weekend. Related to that was the urge to cast off certain tiresome aspects of my New York persona (high-strung, over-scheduled, indoor-dwelling) and try on a more iconic Texas one (low-key but sly, steely, sunbaked).

The Inn at Dos Brisas opened two years ago out in the prairies of Brenham, where there's not much around except the Blue Bell ice cream factory and some country houses owned by wealthy Houstonians who want to escape the city without missing opening night at the Houston Grand Opera. A few miles away from Brenham is Washington-on-the-Brazos, where Texas signed its Declaration of Independence from Mexico in 1836, just before getting slaughtered during Mexico's siege of the Alamo in nearby San Antonio. In an episode drilled into the brain of every local schoolkid, General Sam Houston then waged a massive don't-mess-with-Texas battle that decimated Mexican general Santa Anna's troops.

In 2000, Houston tech mogul Doug Bosch bought a sprawling old Brenham ranch—which housed Confederate troops during the Civil War—to build a getaway for his family. Two years ago, he decided to use the land to create the kind of restaurant people would drive out of their way to visit—sort of an Inn at Little Washington in the Texas outback. He rounded up some staff with impressive culinary résumés: Chef Jason Robinson was chef de cuisine for five years at Tru in Chicago, working under star Rick Tramonto; innkeeper and sommelier Christopher Bates trained at the Amangani in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and at chef Shawn McClain's Green Zebra in Chicago. For overnight guests, Bosch built four casitas, small Spanish mission-style houses. Maximum capacity of the inn: just 10 people. In case guests care to do something besides eat, drink and lounge in their deluxe casitas while watching horses graze in the pastures, Bosch hired some sporty staff members to give private skeet shooting, horseback riding and fly-fishing lessons.

I called to book a long weekend and sign up for some riding and shooting sessions. I must have sounded suspiciously eager to get on a horse, because the staff member I spoke to on the phone made a point of informing me that the inn is primarily a dining destination and a peaceful retreat, "not a five-star dude ranch." But yes, he admitted, they do offer horseback riding and skeet shooting, should anyone want to sign up. I began to think that, as much as I might be a self-loathing New Yorker, these people are self-loathing Texans.

Driving to the inn from the Houston airport, I pass a sign somewhere in Brenham that says, COME LET'S HAVE A CUP OF COFFEE AND TALK ABOUT JESUS, then, down the road, some homes intriguingly named the Gun and Rod Estates. Soon I'm bumping down a long, winding gravel driveway toward a cluster of white houses sitting on what looks like an infinite stretch of green grass, gentle hills and ponds. In the distance, I can see horses roaming under the fat blue sky.

It's absolutely glorious here, but my heart sinks a little when I spot some golf carts parked in front of the main building, a small red-roofed white house with the classic Spanish-mission arches, sitting on a vast grassy lawn. Figures that such a lush landscape would be converted into a golf course. It turns out there's no golf on the property: The carts are just there for guests to tool around the grounds, since the East Texas summers are too hot for walking long distances—plus there's the occasional snake out here. I drive my personal cart up to my casita, and as soon as I walk in, I instantly regret the shooting-and- riding itinerary I've cooked up; what I really want to do for the next few days is loll around on the big wrought-iron bed under the luscious chocolate-brown sheets, or hang out with a book on the shady patio.

But I can find beds or books anywhere—horses and shotguns are harder to come by—so the next morning I meet Lesia Washmon, the inn's riding instructor, for my beginner lesson. Washmon gives me a tour of the riding arena and the immaculate stables—a five-star resort for the inn's 17 very lucky horses. The arena, which could be a Hollywood rodeo set for a Western movie, is what attracted Doug Bosch to the property in the first place. He renovated the old structure into the biggest and snazziest indoor riding arena in the county, and these days, Washmon and her staff use it to train horses in rodeo sports to develop their reflexes and obedience skills.

Washmon gives me the gentlest horse of the bunch, a blond-maned mare named Skip. As she teaches me some rudimentary horse vocabulary and helps me get into the saddle, I silently panic—and Skip immediately picks up on my wimpiness. Sensing an opportunity to be lazy, he launches into an impressively slow four- mile-per-hour trot. Washmon and her more industrious horse, Rocky, bound a few steps ahead of us. Within minutes my panic is gone, replaced by impatience, and I start wanting Skip to pick up the pace. I squeeze my knees against his back, his cue to giddyup, and Skip begins to live up to his name. We're going faster and faster now, and my heart is pounding, but soon enough I'm addicted to the adrenaline rush and wishing Skip would break into a full gallop, jump over the fence and tear out across all these gorgeous green pastures. Washmon points out the ranch next door, over a fence in the distance, and I spot a few of the stunning elks the owners imported from Africa. Just as I'm feeling as though I could get used to life as a cowgirl, Skip pulls over next to a tree, sticks his head in it, and begins to munch on the branches. I yank him away, but he moves over to the next tree. Evidently, he too wants to remind me that the inn is a dining destination. After a while it becomes clear that Skip wants to do nothing but eat trees and shrubbery, and Washmon and I take the cue and decide to break for lunch.

On beautiful days like this, the staff can arrange picnic lunches for guests and serve them at shady spots near the inn's creeks and ponds. Bates and co-innkeeper Christopher Roberts drive up in a golf cart, find a smooth spot under an oak tree and lay out the lunch chef Robinson prepared for me: sliced tri-tip steak of juicy, medium-rare wagyu beef to layer onto a crusty baguette with Dijon mustard; a tangy pasta and bean salad; some creamy French cheeses; candied pecans; and a pitcher of iced tea. After the meal, to my surprise, I find I'm more eager to get back in the saddle than to take a siesta.

Later, in my casita, I find a bottle of homemade lemonade and a tray of pastry chef Sam Moffitt's exquisitely crispy, thin chocolate-marshmallow "crinkle" cookies. I kick off my cowboy boots—now caked with real mud, not just dirt from the Manhattan streets—and head to the patio for a snack in the late-afternoon shade.

I'm certainly not the only ex-Texan who fears Dick Cheney and the NRA, but I'm probably one of the few who snuck back into the state to play with a fully loaded shotgun. My skeet-shooting instructor the next morning is Travis Nelson, a cowboy-hat-wearing 18-year-old college student who seems to be at the ranch pursuing his own Wild West dream. We head out to one of the prairies, where Nelson sets up the skeet-shooting machine, which fires rounds of yellow clay disks that mimic the flight trajectory of a game bird. Then he teaches me how to hold the shotgun, a shiny 20-gauge Beretta: with my cheek resting on the barrel, left leg forward, knees slightly bent. I picture Barbara Stanwyck, looking fierce as head of a gunfighters' gang in Forty Guns. My stance needs work, but I'm digging the way it feels to point the shotgun at a target and fire; oh, yes, I can do this. What I can't seem to do, though, is hit anything. The machine hurls one skeet after another, and I miss every single one. Nelson tells me that women usually shoot better than men, since they have an easier time calming their nerves before pulling the trigger; I feel pretty calm, but am nonetheless incompetent. Nelson, meanwhile, seems born to blow pheasants to bits. He nails just about every skeet. After 20 tries, I finally hit one, and proudly watch it shatter into pieces in the sky. My shoulder is aching a bit from the shotgun kick and I decide to quit while I'm ahead.

I reward myself with a long soak in the inn's infinity pool, and think about the eight-course tasting-menu extravaganza I'm having later. As I'm floating on the water and staring out at the horse pastures, I hear a whirring noise, notice the horses running around panicked, and look up to see a helicopter circling overhead. It comes in for a landing on the lawn right in front of the restaurant, and two young couples saunter out. I learn they're here from Houston for a double-date anniversary dinner, and they dropped in by helicopter to shave 40 minutes off their travel time.

Helicopter commotion aside, the dining room feels like a quiet, elegant country escape, done in warm burgundies and gold tones, and full of that sense of peace most city restaurants lack. Bosch furnished the room with an 18th-century fireplace from the Loire valley, and commissioned Bernardaud to custom-design plates with the inn's logo, a line drawing of a horse. Robinson doesn't offer the Texas-food menu I was half hoping for (no tongue-in-cheek riffs on grits, brisket or chicken-fried steak). Instead, he uses American and French classics as reference points for his completely modern, completely delicious and often witty dishes. His interpretation of local cuisine is to use as many ingredients from the inn's organic gardens as possible. Working with landscape manager and organic gardener John Chandler—who is expanding the gardens and orchards, which already include many heirloom varietals of fruits and vegetables like figs, persimmons, peaches and tomatoes—Robinson is planning to eventually rely on the inn's homegrown produce and herbs for almost all his cooking.

I start with a cooling shot of pineapple-and-tarragon-infused water. Sommelier Chris Bates brings a glass of Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine poured over lightly crushed lime leaves, which give off a citrusy fragrance. Then comes a brilliant take on a club sandwich, made with foie gras from Labelle Farm in New York's Hudson River valley, layered with bacon, avocado and wild sorrel from the garden and piled on a fresh-baked brioche; it's served with a side of homemade miniature potato chips. I sometimes balk at sorbet as a palate cleanser—it can feel silly and outdated—but this one is an exception, dense with the flavor of fresh coconut and garnished with a leaf of chocolate mint. Robinson's concession to Wild West cuisine takes the form of a fancy steak: tender Texas wagyu beef in a red-wine reduction, with wild mushrooms and pearl barley, paired with a terrific Bordeaux, a 1996 Clos L'Église. For the cheese course, I try an appealingly stinky Fleur-de-Lis, from Bittersweet Plantation Dairy in Louisiana. Dessert should feel like torture by now, but there's no way to pass up Moffitt's oozingly rich banana, chocolate and caramel tart.

The helicopter group seems pleased to have discovered a place like this so close to the city—far enough to escape, but near enough to swoop in for dinner. I grab a lounge chair by the pool, sip some cognac and watch the helicopter take off, then linger awhile staring at the starry Texas sky.

Published September 2006
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