Monday, July 5, 2010

Hill Country Heaven

The raindrops, while cool and refreshing, were starting to bum us out. We’d waited almost one year to return to tiny St. Jo, TX, and the magical outdoor restaurant Ancient Ovens. We didn’t want the weather hampering our visit. But God didn’t let us down. Within a few minutes of our arrival the rain and clouds cleared, leaving us with a near perfect temperature in the low 70s (in July no less!) and a breeze to die for. But even better than the weather was the food… and the ambiance… and the view… and the price! Few restaurants engage every essence of your being and marry them together so wonderfully. But relative newcomers Denis and Susan Moody have hit the nail on the head. To sit on their patio and listen to the tunes of Sweet Home Alabama, Cats in the Cradle, and California Dreaming, while enjoying the view of the gently rolling hills, is not something us city folk get to partake of very often. Good food we have, but often at the expense of crowded highways and zero view.

Also lacking in your typical city restaurant is the personal touch. Upon getting to the restaurant, our second visit ever, Denis welcomed us by name and made references to things we talked about eleven months prior. But Denis isn’t the only friend you have at the restaurant. You’re immediately friends with everyone. There’s an essence of camaraderie probably unequaled in any restaurant we’ve ever been to. We not only talked with each other this night, we extensively talked with no less than eight other restaurant goers. That’s the norm at Ancient Ovens.

The oven used to bake the food, while ancient in design, was constructed in 2007 by Denis himself. The temperatures inside can reach 850 degrees while solely fueled by wood which has burned for five hours prior to your arrival. Please do not come with expectations of a complicated and convoluted menu. As a matter of fact, there is no menu, though if you leave hungry it’s your own damn fault. Like going to a good friend’s house, you don’t really get to order anything, but you get plenty of whatever is being served – and it is all delectable.

The night we ate we were started off with fresh made bread chunks perfect for scooping up the spinach & artichoke dip. This is where the print of paper loses the flavor of the night. It’s more than cliché to say that words can’t do this dip justice – or any of their food for that matter. Italian Teardrops were up next. A mind-blowing mixture of cream cheese, olives, and spices wrapped in wontons, brushed with garlic-butter, and briefly baked in the outdoor oven – exquisite! To serve the 55 guests in attendance, no less than 30 pizzas were then brought out and baked to perfection. The extremely hot nature of the oven cooked the dough and warmed the ingredients in seconds… about 90 to be exact. The result was a lively flavor on savory dough with veggies that were still fresh and crisp! Every combination from red bell pepper and basil, sun dried tomato and mushroom, to Canadian bacon and pineapple grazed the top of these savory pies. The final course was a sinful dark chocolate hazelnut dessert, again cooked in the outdoor oven.

The Moody’s grow many of the herbs and tomatoes used in their concoctions. About twenty chickens on site provide the eggs. They also purchase local meats to top some of the pizzas. Do yourself a favor and leave the kids at home. While children are allowed, it is definitely geared more towards an evening with your significant other or close friends. Find someone to watch the kids for the night (or even better, the weekend!). The only complaint we can come up with is the restaurant’s use of paper plates over ceramic. We didn’t really have a chance to talk to the owners about this – perhaps they hope to change to more permanent plates in the future? While it would require a bit more work on their part, it would certainly keep less trash out of the landfill.

Ancient Ovens is located about six miles north of St. Jo, TX. St. Jo is located about 20 miles west of Gainesville, and is about an hour and a half northwest of Dallas. Price is a paltry $20 per person (and this includes tax!) – cash only (tips welcome.) Check out www.ancientovens.com; the phone number for reservations is 940-366-4255. The restaurant serves iced tea and water with dinner, but is BYOB. Arche Winery (www.archewines.com) is within a mile of the restaurant and is an easy place to grab a bottle of local wine. The town of Muenster, a few miles to the southeast, houses Weinhof Winery (www.weinhofwinery.com). We were lucky enough to sit next to the amiable owners of Weinhof during dinner and eagerly sampled a few of their specialty fruit wines – and they did not disappoint. Jason's not much of a wine drinker, but never refused multiple offers of the strawberry wine, which perfectly complimented the chocolate hazelnut dessert pastry! Perfecto! As far as accommodations are concerned, Texas Kings Hotel is on the small town square of St. Jo. Recently renovated, we stayed there on our first trip to St. Jo a year ago, and it is definitely worth the visit (www.texaskingshotel.com). A warning – there is not much to do in St. Jo. It has the potential to once again have an awesome, quaint town square, but with only about 1000 residents it just hasn’t gotten there yet. The majority of the buildings are either empty and/or for sale. However, apparently a nice art gallery recently moved in and there is a building currently being renovated that plans to open as a restaurant this Fall.

Please go and have a delightful evening at Ancient Ovens. We promise it will impress even the pickiest palate. Let us know if you make it there – we’d love to hear about your experience. -Jason & Carrie

Addendum 7/31/10: Denis, from Ancient Ovens, called last night to thank us for the write-up, and also to let us know that they do indeed incinerate used paper products in the oven. He said they are very cognizant of the environment and try to reduce their impact in as many ways as they can. But with so few employees it comes down to the time it would take to deal with cleaning that many dishes every night. Well, just as in our own lives, there are always places to improve. Thanks for the update, Dennis! Can't wait to see you again within the next year.

6 comments:

  1. Carrie-
    We have still not made it back to St. Jo, so we have still never visited Ancient Ovens. This blog post makes me REALLY want to go now. Did the Wild Horses Cafe next to the hotel close down?
    Tori

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  2. What Pigs Don't KnowJuly 7, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    Hi Tori!
    No it didn't close. It is still open and sounds pretty good. The problem is they are only open for lunch all week and dinner only on Thurs - Sat, and we haven't been able to make it during those times. I would like to try it out, though. Hopefully next time. - Carrie

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  3. I love this! If I can find a baby sitter, maybe my husband will take me....; )

    Great blog! I had no idea you were so knowledgeable and talented. Keep up the good work!

    --Suzanne Feiler

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  4. What Pigs Don't KnowJuly 8, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    Suzanne -
    I'm available if you need me!

    "I had no idea you were so knowledgeable and talented." - Neither did I! :)

    Thanks for visiting -
    Carrie

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  5. Maybe they burn the paper plates in the oven and they don't go into the landfill. Just a thought as my husband and I have a wood burning hot tub and we burn paper in it to heat it instead of throwing it in the trash.

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  6. What Pigs Don't KnowJuly 25, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    I never thought about the burning possibility - thanks for bringing that up. I did send Ancient Ovens a copy of the link to this post, but unfortunately didn't hear anything back. So Dennis if you're reading this - maybe you can let us know how you dispose of the plates, and if you have any plans to change it up in the future. Still massively in love with your establishment, though! - Carrie

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