Executive Chef Ryan Van Winkle prepares a meal at the Chef's Table at Dawt Mill Resort in Ozark County.

During a short getaway last weekend, my wife Wendy and I found ourselves in an extremely memorable situation involving food.

We took a trip south to Dawt Mill Resort, in Ozark County on the North Fork of the White River. We stayed in a quaint little cabin above the river, and were literally the only guests at the entire place, which in itself made the occasion special.

The resort’s two restaurants were closed (The Landing and Henegar’s Grist Mill, named after resort owner Dr. Ed Henegar), but we had arranged ahead of time to eat at Friday night the “Chef’s Table,” a personable, intimate eating experience featuring Executive Chef Ryan Van Winkle in his own, specially designed space adjacent to The Landing.

Being the sole guests at Dawt (a haven of paddling, fishing, sight-seeing and general pleasure during warmer months), we were of course the only partakers in what turned out to be a truly extraordinary meal.

To describe the setting, Chef Ryan welcomes you into a long, large room equipped with a long counter-like table that seats up to 12. He stands behind the table, with a nicely outfitted cooking station in front of him and proceeds to create a wonderful meal as you watch.

The decor in the room was both rustic and modern, with lots of local wood on the walls and an expansive collection of wine bottles lining a shelf above Chef Ryan’s cleaning, storage and refrigeration area.

Some of the food items were prepped in advance, while others are heated or cooked during the experience. To say the overall outcome was great would be a major understatement.

Chef Ryan is a well-schooled culinary expert who obviously enjoys what he does – both the cooking and public relations aspects. As he works, he talks with his guests as if they were friends.

“I want you to feel like you’re in my kitchen,” he said.

Mission accomplished.

While in Chef Ryan’s kitchen, Wendy and I enjoyed dishes fixed and arranged as well as could be imagined. We had made suggestions for what direction the meal could go (as far as what types of ingredients to use), but the execution and final product were entirely born of Chef Ryan’s prowess, style and love for his trade.

The result was smelling, tasting and consuming insanely delectable courses, including green lettuce salad (garnished with bacon, goat cheese, dried okra crumbles and rye bread crumbs, and topped with a delicious homemade dressing), French onion soup (that made you go “mmmmm” with every spoonful) served with baked bread topped with melted cheese on the side, fried mushrooms and onions, potato and sweet potato and awesome, tender flank steak. There were even tomatoes involved that were grown in Dawt Mill’s spacious “restaurant garden” and had been picked only a matter of days earlier.

What a year – garden produce all the way into November and December!

And there was this thick, tomato-based sauce Chef Ryan had created. Oh, man, I want some more right now. And yummy, chilled “chow chow” to augment the rest – of course made exclusively from restaurant garden vegetables.

Anyway, everything Chef Ryan presented was perfectly seasoned and perfectly prepared.

The sum total was far more than just a meal.

When we were finished, we felt as if we had just had a full body massage and were lying on a bed of cotton balls. It was like, “ahhhhhh.”

Dawt Mill is only 77 miles from Houston (I watched the odometer) and isn’t hard to find at all. And to find a place like the Chef’s Table in a setting of such beauty as the North Fork River region, and be accompanied at dinner by someone as rarely talented, interesting and friendly as Chef Ryan, well, that’s what makes south-central Missouri so great.

Hidden gems are somewhat the norm in these parts. And this one’s worth the jaunt – whether you’re in a party of two, four, six or 12.

And by the way, the bald eagle we saw flying over the river says “hi.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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