Few restaurants in Montana truly embrace the ambiance of the Old West, but the Horn and Cantle dining room at Lone Mountain Ranch has hit the mark.

While the Ranch is located just a few miles off U.S. Highway 191, it feels like you’re off the beaten path deep into the forest. Designated as a National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, the ranch has been hosting guests for more than 100 years, with a dining room serving guests and visitors to the Big Sky area. In February 2017, its commitment to welcoming the public was re-emphasized, along with a rebranding of the dining room, a fresh menu and a new chef, all under the name Horn and Cantle.

Like many who find their way to Montana, executive chef Eric Gruber was lured in by trout fishing and the desire to raise his family away from big cities. A California native, Gruber attended both the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. His experience in the kitchen is wide-ranging and includes serving as executive chef at the La Jolla Country Club in San Diego, as well as executive sous chef at the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle.

It’s abundantly clear that the ranch is a perfect fit for Gruber, allowing him free reign to use his imagination in preparing food authentic to Montana. 

“Eric doesn’t need some ingredient you’ve never heard of to prepare his creations,” said Paul Robertson, who served as ranch manager for five years. “He is a genius in finding local food sources that guests want and working his magic.”

Gruber is fond of looking back into Montana’s history and seeing how he can incorporate some of the state’s culture into his dishes. With his Deadwood pork belly, he developed a Chinese-style barbecue, also known as char siu, that honors the heritage of Chinese immigrant labor that factored into Montana’s mining days in the late 1800s. The sauce features fresh ginger, local Montana honey, brown sugar, soy and hoisin sauces. Sourdough bread is baked daily in cast iron pans, much like pioneers did back when Montana was being settled. Served toasty warm and fresh from the oven drizzled with butter, it’s irresistible.

The crispy-skinned Montana trout is a guest favorite. Locally-sourced trout is paired with local root vegetables and garnished with house pickled mustard seeds. The presentation is colorful and the food is delicious. A personal favorite is a homemade pappardelle served with a tasty elk bolognese. For those hankering for bison, the Tomahawk bone-in bison rib-eye is a feast of epic proportions. The Swiss cheese fondue falls into the “Sharables" offerings on the menu and is served with crusty sourdough, green apples and smoked garlic oil. I can testify that this scrumptious fondue is not an appetizer I care to share, but instead hog for myself.

Horn and Cantle has a rustic chic feeling enhanced with Western art on the walls. A bison head hung over the massive fireplace commands attention, along with a full-sized mounted mountain lion looking down from a beam. Sizable elk antler chandeliers give off a soft, buttery light. Exceptional service, sustainability and a farm-to-table mindset are essential to why the Ranch is now a National Geographic lodge.

Dinner is served from 5:30 to 9:30 every evening at Horn and Cantle. For more casual dining, you can eat in the saloon or out on the covered deck in warmer weather. A full slate of Montana microbrews, along with an extensive wine list, and inventive cocktails, complement selections on the menu. Another dining option unique to Lone Mountain Ranch is a sleigh ride dinner (December-March) into a backcountry cabin for a family-style prime rib dinner, complete with entertainment.

In case you’re wondering about the name, Horn and Cantle, the cantle is the back part of a saddle that curves upward. Like a comfy saddle, Horn and Cantle is the right fit for anyone looking for an exquisite meal in a gorgeous Montana setting. If you can carve out some time for an overnighter or even a few days to enjoy the guest ranch experience, even better.

Montana rainbow trout with warm root vegetable salad

Serves four people

Ingredients:

4 whole fresh rainbow trout

1 pound assorted root vegetables, cut and blanched

4 cups baby kale

1/4 cup tarragon mustard sauce (recipe follows)

Directions:

Place trout on cutting board and remove the head. With tweezers, remove all bones or have the butcher remove bones before you bring fish home.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add root vegetables and saute for 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add tarragon mustard sauce and toss to incorporate, then remove from heat. Add baby kale and toss to wilt the kale.

In a cast iron pan over high heat, add 1 tablespoon oil. Season both sides of trout and place skin side down into cast iron pan. Cook 2 minutes, then flip trout and cook one more minute, then remove trout from pan.

Place wilted root vegetable salad on center on plate. Place trout skin side up over kale. Drizzle plate with one teaspoon tarragon mustard sauce and serve.

Tarragon mustard sauce

Ingredients:

1 shallot, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced

1 tablespoon tarragon, minced

2 cups red wine vinegar

4 cups canola oil

2 tablespoons salt

3 tablespoons pepper

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk

Directions:

Add all ingredients except canola oil in a large bowl and mix well. Drizzle oil into the bowl while whisking until incorporated.

Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 from a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.

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