Fifteen minutes from downtown Bozeman is the Gallatin River Lodge. On Jack Rabbit, the road to Big Sky is a sign with a cowboy riding a trout. For those who choose to turn at W Valley Center Road, a 20-acre retreat anchored by a log-hewed building awaits. Vistas of surrounding mountains and an on-site pond provide bucolic views for the 12-room “luxury boutique hotel.” Executive Chef Scott Meyers presents artistry on the plate to nourish both the appetite and the senses.
On a Saturday morning early this summer, my husband Joe Dillard and I finally made the turn at the sign. For years, the Gallatin River Lodge was a secret to me. Our single-mindedness focused our travel either straight ahead to Big Sky, or directly home to Billings. No stops were allowed. Eighteen years later, we were glad to venture onto the road less traveled.
PJ Wirchansky, the General Manager, welcomed us to the lodge. We found him in the large great room with high ceilings and anchored with a large stone fireplace. Here guest exchanged fish and tall tales according to Wirchansky. But magazines and a glass pitcher of lemon and mint water begged for staying awhile.
Founder and creator, Steve Gamble opened Gallatin River Lodge in 1999. Wirchansky explained, “Steve was an outfitter in Big Sky for many years, did chef position, and took people on horse pack trips and then decided that he wanted to have a place where people could come inside at the end of a nice day out of enjoying fishing, hiking and have a good dinner, some great wine.”
Though we did not hike and fish on this day, we looked forward to just relaxing after a long week. Wirchansky led us upstairs to our room in the corner. Mission style furniture made for a rustic ambiance with framed prints of fishing and trout on the wall by David Ruimveld and CD Clarke. A fireplace, Jacuzzi and walk-in shower provided for the luxury touches. The desk by the window framed the view of the on-site pond below, and the Gallatin Range in the distance while Frank Sinatra era music serenaded from the flat screen TV. A chocolate dipped sugar cookie sat on the desk tempting me.
The Gallatin River Lodge has a reputation of being a fly fishing destination. “It is definitely a haven for those who like to fish because you are surrounded by some of the best fishing in the world. And you have folks that are coming through for a variety of reasons,” Wirchansky shared. “Everyone needs a place to stay and sleep and enjoy some great food and good company.” The lodge even offers a blanket and homemade organic treats for the canine guests.
With the addition of the new Trout Lodge built a few years ago, six more rooms are available bringing the total to twelve. Patios outside the accommodations, some facing the on-site pond, provide for gathering or relaxing. Then on the back lawn games of horseshoes and cornhole await. For me, I relished the option to spend the night after a cocktail, glasses wine and dinner.
Executive Chef Scott Meyers joined the Gallatin River Lodge team last season. As a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, and chef at the Inn at Westerfield in Vermont, and Relais and Chateau Hotel Fauchere in Pennsylvania, and a fan of the great outdoors, Montana was a good fit. As a bow hunter, “I love to eat wild game,” he said. From a culinary standpoint, Meyers viewed, “Vermont and Montana are very similar in a lot of ways. Its kind of easy to fit in.”
Meyers planned on changing the menu to fit availability, “During the season we are looking at about 80 percent local from meats to vegetables to dairy,” while off-season the menu may be more constant.
With Garden and Landscaping manager, Brianna Dudek, Meyers planned on utilizing the harvest from the property’s garden, “This is relatively new so we are kind of going through our growing pains with it.” Meyers continued, “The weather has been hit and miss lately and we’re just kind of playing with Mother Nature at this point,” but throughout the outside of the lodge, Dudek grew herbs in pots and both the bar and the kitchen harvested bounty. Last year, Meyers brought beets, radishes, Swiss chard, spinach, salad greens and edible flowers onto the plate while sourcing from Gallatin Valley Botanical, Catamount Farms, and Trout Culture locally.
A few weeks back, Meyers met a couple from Manhattan staying at the lodge that grew baby potatoes that he may bring into his menu. “Basically I just want to meet more people. The more people we meet the more products we can get on hand,” Meyers shared of his search for bringing bounty to his kitchen.
He wanted to break the expectation of steak and potatoes, to be able to provide an element of surprise to his diners. Not only did he want to impress visitors, but also to make locals aware of the bounty of the season. For him, the best reward was the relationship he built with farmers and producers, Meyers shared, “I would say it is even better than getting the product.”
In searching for a chef, co-owner Cindy Gamble said of finding Meyers, “We were looking for someone with cutting edge skills, creativity and open-mindedness, who could relay the feel of Montana in his food.” She shared Meyers’ humbleness in not needing to be addressed with the title “Chef” and yet he was a good leader.
In the historic bar, with an entire counter savaged from a hotel in Big Timber, breakfast was served in this more intimate space and often times, long term guests eat here to share the day’s adventures. Joe and I sat in the patio dining room with an entire south wall of sliding glass windows. On this night with windows opened, a light breeze brushed in as we watched light glimmer off the pond.
Andy Galloway, our server, enthusiastically recited the night’s specials. I opted for the Red Quinoa Salad followed by the Pan Roasted Moulard Duck Breast, but not before ordering a cocktail named “Rye me a River.” Galloway described the drink as made with Bulleit Rye Whiskey topped off with fresh squeezed lemon, a little bit of honey water and Domain De Canton ginger liqueur, “similar to a whiskey sour with more flavor.” Joe ordered an “Herbal Gin and Tonic” adorned with sprigs of thyme.
The “Red Quinoa Salad” arrived at the table garnished with pink pickled wild ramps, vibrant pea shoots and delicate violet flowers. The quinoa, found at the top of the plate, was molded into a cylinder topped with airy shoots and flower petals. A delicate pile of shoots located below was tossed lightly with oil and then salted, a detail usually not considered by other kitchens. On first bite, the ramps popped sourness and sweetness while the slight crunch of the quinoa released the burnt blood orange, turmeric and lemongrass flavors of the vinaigrette.
Sitting near us were Susan and Martin Fisher who lived nearby. The couple was celebrating Martin’s birthday. “We come to the Gallatin River Lodge for special occasions because it’s so beautiful and so peaceful,” Susan shared. She lauded the lodge for the best food in Bozeman with close proximity to their home.
My main entrée “Pan Roasted Moulard Duck Breast” arrived at the table on a large rustic rectangular plate. The thick duck meat, made for Montana style eating - reminiscent of a robust cut of beef, presented medium in doneness, was crowned with a crispy skin shell garnished with a quenelle of pickled mustard seeds. A line of dots of red currant and basil gel above the duck, and splashes of lemon thyme jus below provided additional flavors to the plate. A scoop of kamut provided the carbohydrate accompaniment. Then sprigs of sea grass and violet flowers finished the artistry on the plate. Each bite supplied a sensory experience with crunch from the skin, textured softness from the meat, crackling feel and sourness from the mustard seeds, and sweet and sour from the currant basil gel, and finally chewiness from the kamut. Even the sea grass contributed dimensions of saltiness and sour.
The grand finale was the “Banana Pain Perdu.” Galloway described the dessert as “Homemade banana bread that we turn into bread pudding. Pan-fried that to order, served with a homemade maple bacon ice cream. A bacon caramel sauce and an almond toffee crumble.” Pastry Chef Nicolas Belew said of he and his team, “We’ve kind of played with bits during the winter and everyone kind of collaborates.” Though Chef Belew was not a fan of bacon in desserts, after playing around with the parts, the sweet finale came together. But the secret ingredient that anchored this dessert was the banana bread made from his girlfriend’s grandmother’s recipe.
After a restful night, I had the “Elk n’ eggs” with the house made elk and flathead cherry sausage while my husband chose the “Wheat Montana Oatmeal.” Now energized and nourished, we headed straight back to Billings.
Wild Chanterelle and Spring Onion Bisque
Recipe from Executive Chef Scott Meyers
I use potato instead of rice as I prefer the flavor better, but either is fine
2 pounds cleaned wild chanterelles
1 cup spring onions, small diced plus green tops
2 ribs celery, small diced
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 cup basmati rice, rinsed (or two russet potatoes, peeled and small diced)
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
Salt, to taste
Sweat mushrooms, celery and onion in grapeseed oil and butter for 3 minutes. Add rice or potato and thyme. Next add stock and minced garlic. Bring to a rolling boil then turn down to a simmer for about 45 minutes or until potatoes break easily or rice is cooked. Remove from heat. Purée in blender and strain through a fine mesh strainer. Slowly add cream and season to taste.