When I was young, adventure often meant a fast ride on a motorcycle, but as I have aged I have come to realize even a commonplace experience such as a meal with my grown son can be a fun adventure. If you share my view, then you need to plan a road trip one weekend to The Laurel Tree restaurant outside of Utopia, Texas. The drive is interesting, the setting is beautiful and the food is uniquely wonderful.
Reservations are a must as The Laurel Tree is only open for lunch and dinner on Saturdays. But, once you have a table it is yours for the entire time. “Unlike most restaurants we don’t turn our tables during lunch or dinner,” said Laurel Waters, owner and Chef. “We want our guests to relax and not be pressured because there is someone waiting for their table.”
Plan extra time for the drive and the meal. In other words, slow down and let your senses experience the time you have here. Regardless which road you travel to get here you will be immersed in the beauty of the Hill Country.
You will see clear water streams, tree covered ridges, many kinds of critters and in the spring, numerous flowering plants. Perhaps the vivid purple blooms and pungent smell of a Texas Mountain Laurel will catch your eye along the way.
However, it is the huge oak trees that will garner your attention when you arrive at the restaurant. Specialists who have examined the massive trees say they are about 400 years old. There are three that are especially prominent. The canopy of one covers the restaurant’s entire back yard area.
Other elements at the setting are worthy of your attention too. The stone building is reminiscent of something you might see in Europe. If you arrive early explore the grounds, greenhouse and garden areas. There are little treasures everywhere. Inside the building are wooden beams, a central fireplace, French antiques and tasteful art pieces, cultivating a calm atmosphere. It is a perfect place to enjoy a good meal with friends.
The menu is already set. You will choose from two main courses, but the other courses are previously decided by Chef Laurel Waters. The evening meal consists of five courses – appetizer, soup, salad, main dish and dessert. Lunch is just as tasty, but a bit lighter with smaller portions in four courses.
Fresh, quality ingredients are always used, but often in unusual combinations. The main course I selected was the “Lasagna” of shaved sweet potato, Black Forest ham, spinach and smoked mozzarella. It turns out the “Lasagna” was not actually pasta it was a specially sliced sweet potato.
My son, Jarrick, had the Shrimp quesadilla with cilantro pecan pesto, provolone cheese, roasted salsa and sour cream. We swapped a few bits of each other’s main course, and they were both great. The appetizer and soup were good too, but it was hard to beat the Crème Brulee that topped off the meal at the end.
Don’t get caught up in these options because the menu is never the same. Chef Laurel says her culinary inspirations come from her garden, taste buds, sense of smell, heart and travels. She came out to visit with us as we were lingering at the table after the meal. “I visit with everyone who dines with us here,” said Laurel.
She excused herself from our interview to go join her servers as they sang to a patron who was celebrating her 80th birthday. When she returned I asked her where all these people come from each week. “About half have been here before and the other half are discovering us for the first time,” she explained. “They come from all over, some from other states and even from other nations.”
It is an inviting environment. Her vision for a European-style “Guest Table” came after years of world travel and some special time in France. In fact her talent for expressing her heart in her food was developed after earning Le Grand Diplome in Cuisine, Pastry and Wine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, plus working in Provence in the restaurants of 3 world renowned chefs - Edouard Loubet, Jean-Andre Charial, and Alain Ducasse.
A key element is her attention to detail in selecting what goes in her art. Even the best chefs are dependent on quality components. Many of her ingredients especially the herbs and spices come from the grounds or the green house behind the building. She grows over 30 different types of herbs, plus other edible and ornamental plants in her gardens.
Plus, Chef Laurel personally selects the meats, poultry, fish, vegetables and fruit that she buys weekly to support her ever changing menu. She only buys enough fresh ingredients to use during lunch and dinner on Saturday.
Waters recognizes she is also dependant on quality help to be successful. Some of the folks who work with her have done so for many years while others are newer and are in college or high school. Several drive from other towns. “We are like a little family,” she said. Even her mother comes in on some Saturdays to lend a hand. The service is friendly and efficient.
Everyone who comes here feels welcomed. We noticed one customer standing near the kitchen door was approached by a friendly waitress. “You are welcome to walk on back in the kitchen if you want,” she said. At many food joints that would be an unusual invitation, but not here.
The Laurel Tree just opened their brand new Treehouse for private, intimate occasions. The treehouse has only one table that will seat 2-6 people max, so it is an ideal place for small celebrations! Click here to see how to book the treehouse for your next anniversary, birthday, or engagement.
Bring Your Own Wine
Utopia is a self-elected dry precinct, but you are welcome to bring your own wine to enjoy with your meal.
The Laurel Tree
18956 N FM 187, Utopia, TX 78884
Located 2½ miles south of Utopia, Texas on Highway 187
Open Saturdays for lunch and dinner, reservations required
*Photos provided by www.utopiagourmet.com & Hattie Barham*