We feasted over flames and fermentation at Chico Hot Springs at the new Chef’s Table in the Wine Cellar. Compatriots from my wine study group, the Swirl Girls, gathered in the old wine vault for the debut live performance of Executive Chef Dave Wells and Sous Chef Nate Sanford. Now a small kitchen has been added to the cozy stone cellar allowing Chef Wells and his team to showcase their creative culinary magic, where in the past, meals from the dining room menu were served.
The full moon rose on this mystical evening as we crossed the parking lot behind the main hotel building into the cellar. Autumn leaves shivered as we settled into our chairs to be greeted by dining room manager Lindsey Stone and server Morgan Heath.
A couple of years ago, Chico’s new owners, Colin and Seabring Davis, opened the Tasting Room adjacent to the main dining room for an intimate culinary experience for up to six people. The setup allowed for creative cooking for Chef Wells, James Beard Foundation Semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest in 2019, and wine pairing possibilities for Colin.
“We had groups larger than six that wanted to dine in the Tasting Room,” Colin shared. “Having the larger Chef’s Table option allows for more people, up to 12, to have the multi-course experience.”
In 15 courses, over five hours, world and local flavors interplayed on the plates that appeared before us. The experience began with a Miso Crème Brûlée ensconced in a caramelized shell flavored with fish sauce and miso made from Montana black chickpeas. Koji, Chef’s miracle ingredient of the evening, an Asian edible fungus was used to inoculate the legumes for the miso and the aging of the Grass Fed NY Strip and Bison Ribeye. Wells’ Nashville roots and Montana grounding showed in his Smoked Duck Breast served with Carolina Rice Grits, Pickled Huckleberry dish.
Erin Kennedy, one of the Swirl Girls said, “Each course was individually delicious, and the entire meal was greater than the sum of their parts. While none of the ingredients were lead, Chef Wells and his team certainly turned them into gold! The combinations were amazing.”
Amazement continued through the dessert courses, when Pastry Chef Natasha Platt served up pumpkin cake in the shape of the season’s squash accompanied with Fromage Blanc Ice Cream, Candied Pepitas, Caramel Apple Popcorn finished with drizzles of brown butter poured from a glass container with a lighted wick.
Fire carried into the second dessert of S’mores. While a chocolate covered graham cracker in the shape of a stick held a Pine Marshmallow rested on a log platter, a plate of Charcoal Meringue, Toasted Marshmallow Semifreddo and Cinnamon Whiskey Ice Cream fashioned to look like a campfire was set aflame for each of us to roast our very own treat.
Wines of the world accompanied each dish. A Tokaj from Hungary partnered with the Country Ham while a California Pinot Noir paired with the Hazelnut Fed Pork Cheek with Golden Lentil Tofu, and a Roero Arneis from Piedmont drank well with King Salmon and Halibut Sausage.
This evening, we experienced some of the first “best plates” while on the next night, we revisited a “last best plate” in the main dining room. In this cozy room anchored with rustic wood panels grounded with rich red patterned carpet and striped curtains, romance was in the air with many tables of two. Like returning home and seeing family, Linsey Stone waited on us again tonight.
Though we have fond memories of the Trout Almondine and Chico Prime Rib, we opted for two specials: Seared Hawaiian Black Cod and Wild Mushroom Pasta. For dessert, for nostalgia reasons, we ordered The Flaming Orange, the signature dessert created by Chef Larry Edwards in the 1970s.
The orange shell filled with Livingston’s Wilcoxson’s Vanilla Ice Cream and spirited with Grand Marnier, Triple Sec and Vodka crowned with meringue was the classic ending. The moment Lindsey lit the dessert on fire, the room silenced with all eyes focusing on the charring of the swirled meringue tower.
On this visit to Chico Hot Springs, while my spirit warmed with nostalgia, innovation ignited new memories of many “best plates.”
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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