For farm-to-table meals cooked with expertise and served with enthusiastic hospitality in a grand dining room, the Keeter Center restaurant is the only game in Branson town. It is part of the College of the Ozarks, a Christian university where students earn their education (rather than pay for it) by working on campus — in this case, in the kitchen and as the waitstaff.
The bill of fare is a sophisticated repertoire of reconfigured country classics that use local ingredients including cured-on-campus ham and campus-raised pork, tomatoes grown in college gardens, Ozark trout, and ice cream from the college creamery.
I spent a few days eating in this dining room, and couldn’t get enough. Among the highlights is a dish called Peachy Pig, which is a combination of smoke-cooked pork and ham in peach glaze piled atop a bed of smoked gouda cheese grits. It comes surrounded by nuggets of fried okra. Another favorite is an appetizer of deviled eggs flavored with pimento cheese accompanied by a cup full of shattering-crisp pork rinds. The contrast of creamy egg and crunchy pork is inspired.
Desserts are over-the-top wonderful. Alas, I missed the Thursday-to-Saturday evening special of 10-layer chocolate cake served with whipped cream and raspberry sauce. But the raspberry white chocolate bread pudding I did savor rocked my world. I am not a fan of white chocolate, but this sweet, fruity, butter-rich concoction inspires reconsideration. Flake-crusted apple pie, served warm under a scoop of vanilla ice cream, is another winner.
All this extraordinary food is served by students who are good at their job and truly seem to relish doing it. College of the Ozarks is nicknamed Hard Work U; and it is clear that for these young men and women, good hard work is a joy of life.