Horn & Cantle opens at Lone Mountain Ranch

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – A feeling of warmth, enhanced by quilt-draped lodgepole pine chairs and a blazing fire on the veranda, exudes from Lone Mountain Ranch even before stepping inside its newly rebranded restaurant Horn & Cantle. The guest ranch celebrates the official relaunch of the restaurant on Saturday, Feb. 18.

That feeling of a polished rusticity carries visitors over the threshold where it’s further reflected in the staff’s casual, friendly attentiveness, the décor and the cuisine.

Lone Mountain Ranch has been undergoing a slow and steady makeover since Makar Properties purchased it in 2013. But each choice has been made in service of the preservation of the ranch’s biggest asset, the history and aesthetic that has attracted visitors through its many incarnations since the land was homesteaded in 1915.

Lone Mountain Ranch’s newly re-envisioned restaurant Horn & Cantle will open to the public for normal lunch and dinner service beginning Sunday, Feb. 19. PHOTO BY SARAH GIANELLI

Lone Mountain Ranch’s newly re-envisioned restaurant Horn & Cantle will open to the public for normal lunch and dinner service beginning Sunday, Feb. 19. PHOTO BY SARAH GIANELLI

The opening of Horn & Cantle, a restaurant concept that began to take shape in early 2016 with the hiring of Executive Chef Eric Gruber, is a key component of Lone Mountain’s Ranch’s reinvention of itself.

The fanfare around the opening of Horn & Cantle intends to dispel any uncertainty about LMR’s accessibility once and for all—to establish an independent identity for the restaurant and to let the Big Sky community and its visitors know that all are invited to partake, not only in the dining and saloon experience, but in the ranch’s many offerings, including its world-class Nordic skiing trail system.

Although in part a marketing strategy, Horn & Cantle is worthy of the buzz. During a trial dinner for friends and family on Feb. 12, the restaurant expertly fulfilled the three-pronged criteria of a truly memorable dining experience: stellar service, pleasurable atmosphere, and exceptional food and drink.

The evening began with sampling two of the saloon’s eight new specialty cocktails: the Lone Mule, served in the classic copper mug but filled with Montana moonshine white whiskey, smoked apple puree, sage syrup and ginger beer; and the Ritz on the Ranch, made with Montana Cold Spring vodka, lemon, St. Germain liqueur, mint and prosecco. Both cocktails supported the cohesive vision of the Horn & Cantle experience, by honoring the local, the classic and the familiar while keeping it fresh.

Prior to taking a seat in the dining room, we enjoyed our beverages in the fire-warmed saloon accompanied by the country-folk sounds of Ric Steinke and Linda Hauser of Open Range. Steinke and fellow true-blue Montanan Bruce Anfinson have long been musical fixtures at the ranch. Both men regularly perform their individual brand of cowboy songs and storytelling during après hours in the saloon and for patrons of LMR’s enchanted sleigh-ride dinners.

The changes in the dining room are subtle—new artwork, more comfortable chairs, new glass-, stone- and flatware, some pieces mindfully mismatched. But the aesthetic anchors of the room remain, such as the enormous antler chandeliers and stuffed mountain lion stealthily stalking in the rafters. The overall impression is, again, warm: flashes of copper and accents of leather and flannel amid stone, cast iron and wood.

“A lot of it is based on that initial impression you get when you arrive on the ranch,” Gruber said. “When you walk into the dining room, it has to fit. I try to create food that creates that same ambience—to me it’s authentic Montana. If you’re coming here, this is what you would expect.”

Cowboy singer-songwriter’ and Montana native Bruce Anfinson has been entertaining patrons of Lone Mountain Ranch for a quarter of a century and is a musical fixture in the saloon and at the ranch’s sleigh-ride dinners. PHOTO BY KENE SPERRY

Cowboy singer-songwriter’ and Montana native Bruce Anfinson has been entertaining patrons of Lone Mountain Ranch for a quarter of a century and is a musical fixture in the saloon and at the ranch’s sleigh-ride dinners. PHOTO BY KENE SPERRY

The new Horn & Cantle menu has an option for all types of diners and appetites from shareable appetizers, traditional soups and salads, feasts served family style for two or more, and single entrée options. All are built around regionally sourced ingredients and product, and sometimes a piece of Montana history.

For example, one might wonder how the Deadwood pork belly appetizer—prepared in the Chinese char siu, or barbecue, fashion—falls in line with an authentically Montanan experience. But as Gruber points out and has passed along to his servers, in the 1870s Chinese immigrants, riding the gold boom and building the railroad, comprised nearly 10 percent of the Montana Territory population.

When our server brought the homemade bread to the table, she shared another story about how they still have the original sourdough starter three years later. The kitchen crew named her Betty and cares for her almost like a beloved pet.

“Served in a cast iron pot, it epitomizes the effect that LMR and Horn & Cantle [are] all about,” Gruber said. “It’s very approachable—everyone knows what [sourdough bread] is, but there is a lot of effort that goes into it; it’s not easy to bake bread in cast iron, but it really fits the ranch.”

Despite the tempting Amaltheia Dairy fondue and smoked elk meatballs, we settled on the Montana trout spread, steak tartare, and beet and grapefruit salad for starters.

The trout spread, a whipped mixture of house-cured local trout and mascarpone, arrived in a jelly jar, and was refreshingly light and tangy. Warm olives, pistachio pesto and delicately grilled bread were the perfect accompaniment. The tartare was a timbale of hand-chopped New York strip steak from Yellowstone Grass Fed Beef, topped with a quail egg and served with a side of truffled potato chips. It was so spot-on in texture and cleanliness of taste that my companion was compelled to temporarily suspend her vegetarianism to try it.

Candied spiced pumpkin seeds delivered the finishing touch on a beet, grapefruit and arugula salad that harmoniously intermingled sweet, citrusy, creamy and earthy notes.

Throughout our expressions of culinary delight, our server was readily available but not hovering, graciously allowing us to set the pace of the evening. She was knowledgeable about each dish, as well as the wine list, and comfortable offering suggestions for both.

Although near-to-full, we selected the McFarlane Farms pheasant from the “feast” category and the braised bison short rib from the main options, despite our server’s endorsement of the maple-brined Heluka pork chop. Both entrées offered pleasant surprises in terms of texture and taste—a lemony parsley gremolata cut through the richness of the tender short rib jus; and soft figs and crisp apple brightened the earthy farro and Cipollini onion in the pheasant dish.

The meal was complete with the flourless chocolate cake, served warm with cinnamon crème fraiche and berry compote; and a delectable hazelnut panna cotta, which had more of a whipped cream consistency than that of a custard, dolloped over a delicately granular sea salt caramel sauce.

We headed back into the frosty night, the ranch in its cozy winter dress of snow, towering pines and hunkered cabins, flushed from an evening defined by warmth and, in line with chef Gruber’s hopes for guests of Horn & Cantle, one we would remember, “not just for the food, but for the entire experience.”

Horn & Cantle will be serving lunch daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The saloon is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. For more information visit hornandcantle.com or lonemountainranch.com.