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So Good. . .It's Badu

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By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
ONE SLICE of chocolate-Kahlúa cheesecake—boxed to go and sent compliments of a well-meaning chef—nearly triggered marital mayhem in my household. “Touch that cake, and that’s it, Buster—divorce court,” I told my husband, James. I was joking, naturally. But a small part of me meant business, too. I let him know he’d better not eat that cheesecake without me.

“Well, you’d better not, either!” he countered.

The surprise gift had arrived after we’d finished eating lunch a few months ago at the Badu House in Llano. (A former inn, the Badu House is now a restaurant that specializes in Southwestern cuisine.) Regretfully, we had lacked room for even a sample taste. So, we had made a deal to split the piece at home later. Lucky for both of us, the luscious slice remained intact until we could share it. So did our marriage. Which meant we could return together to experience the Badu by candlelight.

WE LOVE visiting the regal, two-story Badu House, a Renaissance-Revival beauty that stands like a mighty fortress. Literally. Built of solid brick and local granite in 1891 during the town’s brief iron-ore boom, the former First National Bank of Llano survived fires in the early 1890s that razed neighboring businesses. Historians speculate that those blazes were likely set to collect insurance on properties that had become worthless.

The bank eventually failed, and one of its directors, N.J. “Professor” Badu, bought the building in 1898. He and his family—and several generations of his descendants—lived there comfortably.

In 1980, writer Ann Ruff and her husband, Earl, purchased the building from Badu’s granddaughter Carrol Phelan and opened it as a restaurant and country inn called the Badu House. The Ruffs operated the Badu for more than a decade, and then the property passed to a succession of owners who ran various combinations of restaurants, B&Bs, and other businesses there for the next decade. Then, it stood empty for a while.

Enter Ted Lusher, an Austin businessman and Llano County rancher with a passion for good eats, as well as Texas art and history. For a long time, he’d been admiring the abandoned Badu property—a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark—whenever he and his wife, Sharon, drove into town for barbecue. In 2005, the couple bought the building and started renovations.

“We tried to keep the interior as original as we could,” says Ted.

Mission accomplished. For instance, the front dining room—once the bank entry—still features the original marble-tiled floor and brass door pulls with tiny flower motifs. Even the glass panes in the windows date to the Badu’s banking days.

Ted and Sharon opened the Badu House restaurant last May. For now, they’re focusing on the restaurant aspect, but they plan to restore some of the eight rooms upstairs and add a B&B operation this fall.

As for the Badu’s Southwestern cuisine, we gave it a hearty thumbs-up after our lunch date. That day, James—an ardent connoisseur of chicken-fried steak—wasted no time in deciding what to order.

As for me, well, the entire menu sounded intriguing—grilled Angus sirloin and rib eye, seafood enchiladas (stuffed with shrimp, crab, and crawfish), pork tenderloin fillet (bacon-wrapped and grilled), and chicken Franchesca (pan-roasted with artichoke hearts and topped with a white wine-garlic-butter sauce), to name just a few temptations.

Finally, I narrowed my choices to two: Sharon’s spinach salad (baby spinach kissed with feta cheese, candied pecans, and a cranberry-orange vinaigrette) and the tortilla-crusted catfish. The fish won, and I savored each bite of my fillet, which was coated with spicy bits of crushed tortilla chips, lightly fried, and topped with a green chile-cream sauce.

Across the table, James closed his eyes and chewed his way to chicken-fried heaven. Piping-hot and fork-tender, his steak—fried to golden-brown perfection and served with velvety peppercorn gravy—covered more than half the plate. “This is THE best I’ve ever eaten!” he said, sighing with conviction.

That’s because well-seasoned chefs Roger Kinzel and Jimmy Regan prepare their culinary creations using only fresh ingredients. “We also cook to order,” adds Roger. “That means it takes a little longer to be served.”

That was just fine with us when we returned the following month—dressed to the nines—for our candlelight dinner. To start the evening, we ordered spinach-artichoke dip, a house specialty served with toasted baguette slices. The bread’s crunchy texture complimented the creamy blend of melted cheeses, spinach, and artichoke hearts.

James almost ordered his beloved CFS, but changed his mind in favor of the Southwest fettuccine Alfredo. His heaping bowl of pasta arrived artfully dusted with flakes of Parmesan cheese and fresh parsley. Tossed with a mildly spicy cream sauce, the medley of noodles, red bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and grilled chicken—which James let me sample—tasted wonderful.

My plate of two grilled Bandera quail—Ted Lusher’s personal favorite—came with pico de gallo and a scoop of guacamole. Glazed with a chipotle-honey sauce, the meat went well with the slightly sweet grilled eggplant topped with sautéed carrots and cabbage.

As the evening sun slipped away, the flickering candles and soft lighting heightened the Badu’s romantic ambiance. When Addie Pinckney, our attentive waitress, tempted us with coffee and dessert, we succumbed. Why not? James ordered peach cobbler; I opted for white chocolate cheesecake.

She returned about 10 minutes later, desserts in tow.

“So far, everyone I’ve served this to has finished theirs,” Addie told James, who stared wide-eyed at his big bowl, which was brimming with warm fuit and a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I bid him good luck, then sampled my cheesecake, a luscious triangle nestled in a crisp Oreo crust and topped with a strawberry glaze. In between bites, I watched as—magically—the peach cobbler disappeared. Addie was impressed. So was I.

“Don’t you just love the Badu?” said James with a contented sigh as we headed home. I nodded in the dark, and then smiled to myself. Lucky for him there’d been no cheesecake left to stash in a to-go box.

That meant we could avoid potential marital mayhem and count on returning to the Badu soon.

THE BADU HOUSE is at 601 Bessemer Llano, 2 blocks north of the Llano River bridge. Hours: Tue-Thu 11-10, Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-midnight (candlelight dinners on weekends). Closed Sun-Mon. Reservations recommended. Call 325/247-1207; .

The Badu holds outdoor deck parties on occasional Saturdays during spring and summer. The restaurant also hosts a wine-and-food-pairing event every other month (one is slated for July) that features a Hill Country winery. The 4-course meal includes a different wine with each course and costs $50-$75 per person. Reservations required. Check the Web site for dates.

Badu Hall, a renovated 1900s warehouse across the street, is available for special events and seats up to 200 people. When it opens, the adjacent art gallery will also serve as a gathering place for smaller groups. The Longhorn Garden is available for outdoor events.

Read 20129 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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