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Top Tables: Utopia’s French Connection

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By Maxine Mayes


Two years ago, on a trip to the Hill Country community of Utopia, I was prowling the aisles of a shop that specializes in French country antiques and came upon a stash of old cookbooks in a back room. I bought two, and learned they had once belonged to Laurel Waters, chef-owner of The Laurel Tree, a restaurant just south of town. The cookbooks soon led me to visit the restaurant, which has French connections of its own.


The Laurel Tree sits amid the oak-covered hills that ring Sabinal Canyon in northwestern Uvalde County. Styled after a European “guest table”—a small establishment that emphasizes fresh ingredients and local specialties—The Laurel Tree opens for lunch and dinner only on Saturdays. The menu changes weekly, depending on the herbs and vegetables in season, but always includes a choice of two main courses, one featuring beef, pork, or poultry, the other, usually fish.


The ambiance is relaxed and intimate, in keeping with the restaurant’s Provençal inspiration. Antique French furniture and accents displayed throughout tempt diners to browse the rooms as if they were in a boutique. Vintage culinary collections adorn the walls: wooden cheese- and potato-graters, hand-forged chopping knives, and chocolate and butter molds in myriad shapes.


After meeting Laurel Waters, I understood The Laurel Tree’s “French connection.” As a fashion design major in college, Waters studied abroad at the Paris Fashion Institute. She says she “fell in love with Paris completely” and returned to France a few years later to focus on food instead of fashion, earning Le Grand Diplome in cuisine, pastry, and wine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.


“I would find wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and taste their specialties,” recalls Waters. “Often I would be mistaken for a food critic when I was alone and writing in a notebook … .” She sketched appealing features of Provençal architecture as she planned the guest table she hoped to open someday back home in Utopia.


By all indications, she has succeeded.


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Read 13147 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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