San Antonio Express-News "This food is to the Manor born" STONEWALL

 

To get to Rose Hill Manor, you have to turn off U.S. 290 and leave what initially seem to be the last vestiges of civilization behind. The narrow road is dotted with signs telling you to watch out for livestock in the road, but that's only stating the obvious as a herd of sheep or several inquisitive deer will likely keep you from progressing at too great a speed.

 

After twisting and turning for a mile or more, you come to a clearing where stands a sign announcing the inn. But you're unlikely to notice the manor itself until you've turned up the long driveway. Once you do, you'll be hard-pressed to keep your eyes on the road.

 

Everything about the place is vast, in an unbelievable, Texas-sized way, from the sweep of the fields that stretch before the two-story building to the size of the veranda that practically invites you to pull up a chair and relax.

 

It's satisfying to learn that epic grandeur carries over into the prix fixe menu that Chef Ernest Briggs and his wife, Anne, the pastry chef, craft each weekend (Dinner is served only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Reservations are a must).

 

A recent bill of fare (they're posted weekly on the manor's Web site, www.rose-hill.com) promised Grilled Portobello Mushroom with Provolone Cheese and Peppercorn Sauce followed by Sautéed Escargot in Tomato Basil Sauce on Grilled Peasant Bread. The entree choice was between Grilled Pork loin Topped With Herbed Goat Cheese and Mustard Sauce or the ever-present Black Angus Tenderloin. For dessert there was a cobbler with peaches and blueberries.

 

If my two visits are any indication, those dishes tasted even better than they sounded in print - admittedly somewhat of a surprise considering how wildly inconsistent we have found Briggs' other venture, Ernie's Mediterranean Grill in Fredericksburg.

 

One key to the success of Rose Hill Manor is the freshness of the ingredients, and Briggs has selected foods of such a fine quality that their bold, ripe flavors can't help but come through. The size of the dining room is also limited to about 10 tables or so, which gives you more of a feeling that the chef is cooking directly for you.

 

So when you order that beef tenderloin, you know that it will come out of the kitchen a perfect medium rare. The meat will feel as if it is melting on your tongue, and that intense beefiness will linger long in your memory. It is simple in its appeal and simply perfect (No one asked how we wanted the tenderloin prepared; the chef should know best, after all. But if you are one of those who wants it burnt, it may take some doing to make your preference known.)

 

A recent dinner began with a tomato and chévre salad adorned with a basil vinaigrette that tasted like pesto and blended well with the tomato's acidity. One might have wished for, say, an heirloom tomato instead of the Roma that was used, but at least it was juicy.

 

Chowder filled with chunks of chicken, whole kernels of corn and a touch of cilantro followed. Admittedly, we were hungry, but we would have gladly drained every drop with the same greedy glee that succeeded the first taste.

 

For those not into Angus, the second entrée choice that evening was a firm, moist slice of Florida Key swordfish. It came with a pineapple salsa that had a little pepper heat to cut back on the sweetness of the fruit. The fish was the textural opposite of the silky, creamy and equally memorable Orange Roughy With Citrus Butter Sauce that we had sampled on an earlier visit.

 

For dessert, the Chocolate Truffle Cake was as dense as it sounded, yet its mysteries were brightened by a Bailey's Irish Crams sauce and assorted fresh berries. Berries can add magic to most any plate; on our first visit, they appeared alongside an exemplary flan.

 

The ambience of the dining areas adds immeasurably. You sit in the romantic patio-style dining room, lined with windows to allow you a view of the sunset, or amid the shelves of wonderful old books that are for sale.

 

The owners of the inn, Patricia and Robert Vander Lyn, double as servers. Patricia Vander Lyn also can adeptly guide you through the three-page wine list, which includes some of Wine Spectator's top picks as well as Texas wines. The Carneros Creek Pinot Noir bent beautifully to match our swordfish and beef.

 

Good food, good wine, good books, even a good cup of coffee on the veranda after the meal. It doesn't get much better.