A Grand Feast

The Last Best Plates - Montana

I’m not typically an all-you-can-eat buffet enthusiast, unless the meal-in-question happens to be one of three annual smorgasbords held at The Grand Hotel in Big Timber on Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving. Each of these high-energy feasts features a staggering array of seasonal delicacies, but my favorite menu is Easter Sunday’s.

The Last Best Plates - Montana

Photos by Lynn Donaldson

“It’s not often that you can get slow roasted, all-you-can-eat Leg of Lamb with Raspberry-Mint Sauce,” says Executive Chef Amy Smith, who sources lamb locally through Montana Natural Lamb—a small group of Big Timber area sheep ranchers who work together to try and create a market for their product.

Right now, Chef Smith is busy preparing for the 26th Easter Buffet she’s orchestrated since she began working at The Grand 27 years ago. From behind her carving station, where she greets and chats with guests, she’s seen a generation of children grow up as they file through the buffet line year after year. “I just love seeing all the ladies in Easter bonnets and little girls in frilly dresses. It’s nice to see people out and enjoying their families…and Mom not having to cook,” says Smith—adding that it makes her smile every year to see that kids still enjoy putting olives on their fingers.

The Last Best Plates - Montana

“It absolutely amazes me how far people will drive for this meal and what a large following Chef Amy and our crew have built over the years,” states Chris Dern, who with his wife Tami bought the historic hotel on January 1, 2015 from longtime owner Larry Edwards.

“Meats are definitely the big draw,” says Dern.  In addition to leg of lamb, the Easter Buffet features prime rib and baked jumbo bone-In ham. “And we don’t skimp on the quality of any ingredients. The prime rib on our buffets is the same $9–$12 per lb. certified Angus prime rib we serve in our dining room on Friday and Saturday nights.”

The Last Best Plates - Montana

The focal point at each of these culinary extravaganzas is an impossibly long table spanning the length of the Victorian dining room (plus half of an adjoining wall!). On Easter, it’s laden with the three featured meats plus quick breads, sweetbreads and rolls, fresh fruit and relish trays, full sides of house-smoked salmon, steaming trays of asparagus, wild rice pilaf, French green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, and a dozen homemade salads (including sweet potato with pineapple; shrimp and avocado; Asian noodle with snap peas and sesame-ginger sauce; and The Grand’s infamous pea and peanut salad with bacon and cheddar cheese). At the end of the line is a towering dessert table stacked with layer upon layer of bite-sized cakes, cookies, brownies, cream puffs, éclairs, cupcakes, lemon bars, mini key lime tarts, fresh strawberry tarts and slices of pie.

The Last Best Plates - Montana

While Chef Smith is out front carving at the buffet table and greeting guests, sous chef Kenny P. Winters, a Big Timber native who’s worked at the Grand for eight years, is back in the kitchen with an assistant cooking “reinforcements” for empty bowls and trays up front—while simultaneously babysitting each slow-roasting hind leg of lamb.

“One of the things about lamb is that it has to be raised correctly, fed correctly and finished in a certain way or the quality suffers,” explains Winters.  “Montana Natural Lamb does an outstanding job with it. Their lamb has a really nice mild, earthy flavor. It’s never dry, unless you overcook it. The texture is always nice and tender.”

The Last Best Plates - Montana

Harv Van Wagoner, managing member of Montana Natural Lamb, attributes his product’s delicate taste to feeding practices. “Our goal is to produce a consistent product. We strive for a mild flavor and feed a grain-based vegetarian diet for approximately sixty days,” says Van Wagoner. “A lot of people say, ‘This doesn’t taste like lamb,’ and we take that as a complement.”

Though the menu at The Grand features lamb year-round, Easter is the only day they offer leg of lamb. For anyone wanting to try a bite (or all you can eat), call (406) 932-4459 immediately. (Cost is $32.95 per person; $1 per year of age for children under 12). Reservations are required, but they may already be at capacity.

The Last Best Plates - Montana

“We book seatings every 15 minutes from 10:45am to 5:00pm, and we’ll run through 450-650 guests each time. We’re usually 100% booked by about Wednesday of Easter week,” says Dern. “I took my first reservations for this Easter’s brunch in February, and Mother’s Day is already a quarter of the way full.”

If you can’t get a reservation and don’t want to wait a year to try it, Chef Smith has graciously shared her recipe so you can make it at home.

The Grand Hotel’s Leg of Lamb with Raspberry-Mint Sauce

by Chef Amy Smith

Leg of Lamb:
1 Leg of lamb
Olive oil
2T kosher salt
1T cracked pepper
2T chopped garlic
2T chopped fresh rosemary
Rub roast with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Cook at 350 degrees for
ninety minutes until meat until 135 degrees. 

Raspberry-Mint Sauce:
One jar raspberry preserve.
One c chicken stock
1 T chopped garlic
Some cracked pepper
2T chopped fresh mint
Simmer in pot for 10 minutes and thicken with a little roux (a mixture of flour and butter) or cornstarch.

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