For 20 years, North Texas has been Grady Spears' kitchen, as the Fort Worth celebrity chef has honed and perfected his "cowboy cuisine" at several area restaurants, including Reata and The Nutt House in Granbury. He didn't invent chicken-fried steak, but his sophisticated approach to it certainly made it exciting to eat again.
But anyone who has followed Spears' career knows that whenever he opens a new restaurant, it's best to get there quickly; he may soon be gone. This year alone, Spears disappeared from two restaurants: Clear Fork Station in Willow Park and the shuttered Grady's Restaurant on Forest Park Boulevard. Both relationships ended in litigation, preventing him from commenting about the departures, he says.
Spears recently resurfaced near the tiny town of Tolar, two miles south of Granbury, down a twisting, bumpy road, at Line Camp Steakhouse, an award-winning, 5-year-old restaurant that had already made a name for itself before Spears took over the lease last month; it's now named Grady's Line Camp Steakhouse. No more moving around, he says. Spears is now serving the type of food he wants to do in an atmosphere in which he wants to do it. Ask him yourself, since he's there most nights the restaurant is open.
Spears has slimmed down Line Camp's old menu considerably, offering a weekly, rotating menu with seven or eight entrees, five appetizers and two or three desserts; everything is made in-house.
During our visit, appetizers included calf fries ($15), barbecue bacon-wrapped jalapeños ($9) and a layered dip ($8) consisting of tender, shredded beef, creamy guacamole and mild queso, all stacked in a glass and surrounded by crisp, house-made flour tortilla chips.
Entrees were like an album of Grady's greatest hits: buttermilk- and beer-battered chicken-fried steak ($18), beef short ribs braised in Dr Pepper and served with macaroni and cheese ($23), and an 18-ounce T-bone topped with red chile-cheese enchiladas ($38).
Flame-grilled over pecan, steaks are still one of Spears' signature items, and our 16-ounce rib-eye ($38) was spot-on. It was perfectly cooked medium-rare -- warm, tender and pinkish-red inside, blackened crisp outside. It was well-seasoned, too, with salt, pepper and dark piloncillo, a Mexican brown sugar that offered a subtle sweetness. On the side came a plump sweet potato.
The dish's one shortcoming was the chile relleno served on top of the steak. A roasted green chile pepper was seeded and filled with a mix of melted goat and jack cheese. While it may have been intended for the cheese to melt onto the steak, it cooled and hardened inside the pepper; plus, the tartness of the goat cheese just didn't work well with the pepper.
Chicken and dumplings ($17) were cleverly presented in a small crock, still steaming and bubbling. This was chicken, two ways: A whole chicken wing had been dunked into the pot, while pieces of roasted chicken chunks floated beneath in a sea of celery, onions and carrots; the "dumpling" was a house-made biscuit.
The two kinds of chicken were a nice surprise that gave this familiar dish an added layer of taste and depth. And the crock was a whimsical touch that was also practical: It kept the food warm.
A basket of soft house-made jalapeño muffins accompanied the entrees, along with two excellent salads: a peppery Caesar topped with crisp tortilla strips instead of croutons, and a spinach salad, livened up with a dry mustard-infused dressing.
More proof that Spears' abilities aren't strictly limited to carnivorism: A side of oven-roasted Brussels sprouts ($6), served family-style, may have been the meal's highlight; there was crunch and smoke in every bite.
Desserts consisted of blueberry and peach fried pies ($6), but the restaurant had sold out, Spears said.
The chance to interact with Spears is one of several things that make dining at Line Camp a unique experience.
It's rare to see a chef sit with guests at each and every table, greeting them on their way in, shaking their hands on their way out. Servers were equally pampering.
Atmosphere plays a role in Line Camp's charm, too. Built on a 52-acre plot of land, the restaurant is one large room, big as a barn, with cedar walls covered in Western artwork.
Out back is a spacious open field, with not a city light in sight. Line Camp may be tough to get to, but it's even tougher to leave.