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Chef-driven fine dining gets cooking in the East Texas town of Palestine

From the vineyard he planted about four years ago, Simon Webster, owner of Sabor a Pasion, is beginning to produce his own wines.<252><137>Chef Simon Webster. Credit: Photo <137><137><252><137>
From the vineyard he planted about four years ago, Simon Webster, owner of Sabor a Pasion, is beginning to produce his own wines.<252><137>Chef Simon Webster. Credit: Photo <137><137><252><137>

The chef himself comes out to clear our salads (perfect leaves of romaine, fresh blueberries, roasted almonds, goat cheese, balsamic vinaigrette) at Sabor a Pasion, a cozy French-style bistro on a dark country lane near Palestine in East Texas, but essentially in the middle of nowhere. (No, really. Our GPS couldn’t find it. It insisted we turn down an unmarked dirt road and when we refused, it basically gave up.)

“People told me I’d never make it out here if I didn’t serve a chicken-fried steak,” Simon Webster tells us, somewhere between entrees (roasted pork loin with a mushroom-apple crust) and dessert (New Zealand pavlova, an ethereal meringue, draped with a cloud of barely sweet whipped cream, fresh berries and kiwi fruit). “But I’ve never served one, and I’m going on 10 years here. I must be doing something right.”

Or maybe he was just ahead of the curve.

In the past couple of years, more chef-driven restaurants and food-centric businesses have joined Webster in modest little Palestine, population of 20,000. Together, they’re making this historic railroad town, about two hours southeast of Dallas, into the up-and-coming epicenter of East Texas foodie culture.

There’s a brick-oven pizzeria; a fine-dining destination with foie gras on the menu and a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef in the kitchen; and a bakery with pies praised by Top Chef Masters winner Floyd Cardoz.

The Texas State Railroad, based here, offers occasional moonlight dinner tours, and festivals always include a foodie component, like the New Orleans chef demos that will coincide with the Feb. 7 Mardi Gras parade.

“East Texas has been sort of easy to overlook — we get overshadowed by Austin and the Hill Country — but there’s really something happening out here behind the Pine Curtain,” says Breezy Lake-Wolfe, marketing manager for the city’s economic development department. “We have that Southern hospitality, we love to eat, and we love great food.

“And people don’t just want chicken-fried steak anymore.”

Red Fire Grille

After years cooking at private clubs and fine-dining destinations from New England to the Caribbean, chef Christian Mailloux — trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and recently honored with a listing in Best Chefs America — wanted his own place.

As soon as his wife, Dawn, a marketing consultant, saw the shuttered space at the old Redlands Inn in Palestine’s historic district, she was sold. High ceilings, original tile floors, tall windows — she could totally see it. The chef? Not so much.

The restaurant had been closed for at least five years. The windows were trimmed in red, the floor was covered in years of dust, and the kitchen needed a complete redo.

Eventually, won over by his wife’s enthusiasm and reassurance from locals that the town needed an upscale dining option, Mailloux said yes. In October 2012, the couple opened in a completely remade space, furnishing it with contemporary white leather chairs and silver-slate walls, but saving the striking white-and-black tile floor.

Service is refined but friendly, with touches you normally don’t see in rural East Texas. Iced tea is served with frozen tea cubes. The coffee is French press.

The menu changes frequently. Last month’s Texas Gulf oysters might be supplanted by escargot in puff pastry with blue cheese. You may see duck confit one visit, pan-roasted duck breast the next. But a mainstay is the silken slab of Hudson Valley foie gras, perfectly seared, placed atop buttery French bread toasts, with sweet-tart orange marmalade. It may be the best you’ll have outside of Paris — and I don’t mean Paris, Texas.

Details: Open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and for lunch Tuesday-Friday; reservations highly recommended. 400 N. Queen St., Palestine. 903-723-2404; http://redfiregrille.com.

Switch

Philadelphia native Carmen Santone moved to Texas in 2000 and to Palestine seven years later, but he never stopped missing the thin wood-fired pizzas and imported Italian salamis he grew up with.

Slowly, the former software sales director and his wife, Regina, started pursuing the dream. At an auction, they picked up a Wood Stone pizza oven, a high-temperature brick oven used to produce thin, crispy crusts and airy breads. It sat in their barn for almost two years while they looked for the perfect location and created a menu with the help of Santone’s brother-in-law, who once worked for Wolfgang Puck.

Nearly two years ago, they opened Switch in a former Jehovah’s Witness hall, after an extensive renovation that included building a wine room for private dinners and installing the pizza oven in a place of honor in the dining room.

Santone is a stickler for authenticity: Switch imports flour for the pizza dough from Italy, makes fresh mozzarella, and tops pizzas with soppressata instead of Americanized pepperoni and speck instead of Canadian bacon.

“I’m just a foodie who cooks a lot,” Santone says — but now, he’s a foodie who works the room, and the pizza oven, most days. The crust is stellar — thin and crispy but sturdy enough to hold up to the toppings.

But our favorite dish recently? Giant hand-rolled meatballs in a San Marzano tomato sauce, served with crusty bread and slabs of salty, slightly chewy house-made mozzarella.

Details: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Friday; dinner only Saturday; closed Sunday-Monday. 1615 S. Royall St., Palestine. 903-729-7700; www.switchbrickovenpizza.com.

Sabor a Pasion

After receiving his culinary training in New Zealand, then cheffing his way through England and California, Simon Webster was considering buying a bed-and-breakfast in the Texas Hill Country when his broker showed him a 25-acre plot in the countryside outside Palestine. He stopped looking elsewhere.

Midway between Dallas and Houston, shrouded by tall trees, it would be the perfect location for a small inn, bistro and event space, he thought.

In 2004, he opened Sabor a Pasion, converting the garage of the land’s ranch house into a dining room seating about 40 guests, and adding a couple of simple B&B rooms.

Though he has since added an event hall for weddings and parties, the bistro remains open most weekends.

The prix fixe menu tends toward continental fare — New Zealand lamb, hand-cut rib-eyes, salmon — and Webster works the room himself, taking orders, cooking and delivering plates. On theme nights, Webster makes crusty pizza in the wood-fired pizza oven outside, or creates private Tuscan-style dinner parties on the patio, at a long wooden table that he built himself.

The newest addition? He recently added two cabins, doubling the amount of accommodations and making it simpler to host family reunions or girlfriend getaways. And from the vineyard he planted about four years ago, he is beginning to produce his own wines.

Details: Dinner on weekends by reservation only; dining/lodging packages available. 110 Anderson County Road 406, Palestine. 903-729-9500; www.saborapasion.com.

Eilenberger’s Bakery

“What’s good today?” a customer called to manager Evelyn Robinson, gesturing to glass cases stuffed with chocolate-chip cookies, fruit bars, and brownies, and shelves stacked with the bakery’s famous fruitcakes and pecan cakes.

“Everything,” Robinson said with a big smile, offering samples of softly chewy apricot angel cookies, studded with apricots and white chocolate chips.

Robinson and her staff make the goodies right here, some from recipes little changed from the originals created by a German immigrant who founded the bakery in 1898.

The bakery is cited as the oldest in Texas still operating in its original location, but with an asterisk. Several years ago, the bakery was sold to a Florida company that began baking off site and concentrating on a booming mail-order business. It closed the Palestine facility completely in 2012.

When Palestine businessman Bill Jones purchased it in 2013, he went back to its roots: He hired several former staffers, started baking in Palestine again, returned to old recipes, and then re-opened the storefront.

He restored the original bakery showroom with its stamped-tin ceilings and welcomes shoppers for breakfast and lunch as well as baked goodies. More recently, he purchased the Texas retailer Mary of Puddin’ Hill, and now produces those goodies in Palestine, too, including their buttery, bite-sized pecan pies and fruitcakes.

If you go to the bakery, try those angel cookies, the Texas pecan cake or the fruitcake bars, even if you think you don’t like fruitcake. Moist, sweet and packed with fresh pecans, Eilenberger’s versions put some of the more famous fruitcakes in the shade.

Details: Open Monday-Saturday. 512 N. John St., Palestine. 800-831-2544, 903-729-0881; www.eilenbergerbakery.com.

Oxbow Bakery and Antiques

After a lifetime in the restaurant business, Becky Wolfe thought she’d just relax and sell a few antiques and collectibles when she opened this shop in a converted mule barn a couple years ago.

“But I knew that you always have to have a little something extra to stand out,” she says. Having made desserts for her family’s restaurants for years, she started making a few pies every day — chocolate and coconut to start.

Soon, joined in the business by son David, a restaurateur with experience in barbecue and burgers in Austin and Palestine, the pies took on a life of their own. The flavors grew to a dozen, with the addition of buttermilk, pecan and seasonal favorites like cherry.

Next, so people wouldn’t stand around eating, they created a rustic dining area. Finally, they added lunch specials, such as homemade chicken salad, Frito pie and pinto beans with cornbread.

Top picks include the seasonal strawberry pie (Top Chef‘s Cardoz tweeted his love for it after visiting the area) and the unusual pineapple meringue. On a recent visit, however, the standout was the red velvet cake, with a wonderfully moist crumb and a thick cream cheese frosting that hit just the right note of sweetness.

Details: Lunch only, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Antique mall open 9 am.-5 p.m. daily except Sunday. 215 E. Crawford St., Palestine. 903-723-5100.

O’Sweet Pea

This little shop launched in 2005 as a high-end baby boutique, but when that business started foundering during the recession, owner Heather Calhoun diversified by adding a small kitchen section.

“I always wanted to have a store like Williams-Sonoma,” she says.

The selection of Le Creuset cookware, table linens, cookbooks and gadgets proved so popular that Calhoun added an entire kitchen boutique to the front of the store. Though she still sells jewelry, toys, baby clothing and gifts, the kitchenware and gadgets have attracted a new following, she says.

The store hosts cooking classes at least quarterly, bringing in local chefs and cookbook authors, or teaching recipes by favorite Texas authors, like pastry queen Rebecca Rather.

Details: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 105 W. Oak St., Palestine. 903-723-7321.

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