The Resort at Paws Up hosts a holiday weekend of gourmet grub and “glamping” in Big Sky Country.
Do grilled rib-eyes, great wines, and good times taste better in a spectacular setting in western Montana on the cusp of summer? If there’s any testing ground for this fiery debate, it’s happening on Memorial Day weekend at The Resort at Paws Up — home of the newly launched annual culinary bash, Montana Master Grillers.
The 37,000-acre luxury ranch resort nestled in the heart of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley (about 45 minutes northeast of Missoula) is no stranger to hosting epic, gustatory events that strive to match its grand Big Sky backdrop. For years, Paws Up has hosted Montana Master Chefs, an early fall affair featuring three nights of fine dining, imbibing, socializing, and adventuring in the same timeless whereabouts that Lewis and Clark once gushed about — but with the added comforts of five-star amenities, world-class guest chefs and vintners, and a cadre of resort staff catering to whims that early 19th-century explorers couldn’t fathom.
Now comes the next phase — Master Grillers, the property’s latest long-weekend, foodie-meets-Montana shindig. Think Master Chefs, but in late May with a more casual barbecue vibe in the same ruggedly refined atmosphere.
The lodgings: They range from 3,248-square-foot, double-floor Wilderness Estate vacation homes fully loaded with grand, vaulted-ceilinged living rooms, cook’s kitchens, three master suites, giant loft game rooms, and private Kia cars to several remote luxury tent camping — or, as they refer to it here, “glamping” — sites on the banks of the Blackfoot River, each appointed with cozy king-size beds, camp chefs and butlers, and, yes, heated bathroom floors.
The panoramic views: Wherever you turn, there it is — a wide-angle-lens-defying Montanascape of pine wilderness and pasture, studded with Black Angus herds (it’s still a working cattle ranch) posing before a tiered horizon of distant peaks.
The extracurricular activities: fly-fishing, river rafting, horseback riding, cattle driving, clay shooting, mountain biking, all-terrain vehicle touring, cliff rappelling, and various other outdoor pursuits that remind you exactly where you are.
The overriding theme for the weekend: food. The grilled kind. But not exactly the sort most of the country is turning ’n’ burning back home on the old Kenmore grill this holiday weekend. This is Master Grilling. A whole nother ball game.
At arrival on Friday afternoon, the itinerary kicks off with grilled kebabs, pork bellies, and smoked Wagyu brisket buns awaiting check-in guests on the front lawn of the resort’s Lewis & Clark Reception Barn. Just a little welcome snack. This will soon be followed with more grilled hors d’oeuvres next door in the property’s recently reno’d Bull Barn, an authentic cattle house turned rustic-chic conference facility.
After that, guests carry on to Pomp, the resort’s main dining room, for a multicourse meal prepared by resident executive chef Adam Cooke that will crescendo with roasted garlic and smoked bone marrow tortellini and Double R Ranch flatiron steaks with creamed black kale and spring onions. Courses are carefully paired with Hartley Ostini Hitching Post wines from the central coast of California. The party will carry on next door into the later hours at The Tank & Trough Bar & Grill, accompanied by some smokin’ hot, local bluegrass entertainment.
Welcome to Montana, Master Griller-style. Ready for more?
More keeps coming (and coming) this weekend in big, wild, savory doses — catering to a varied guest list of largely Type A personalities with sufficiently large appetites for grilled comestibles, and life in general.
“I just learned how to fly-fish and caught my first trout this morning,” notes one guest at a pre-lunch “Beef Breakdown” seminar hosted by guest chef Tiffani Faison, a Bravo TV Top Chef finalist, at the Paws Up equestrian center.
“We mountain-biked up to an old ghost town and I came within 10 feet of a black bear,” one-ups the person next to her.
Me? I opted for a deep-tissue massage at Spa Town — a restful row of canvas tents tucked on the edge of a giant pasture serenaded by crickets, chirping birds, ethereal music, and whispering massage therapists. No need to brag about it, but it was pretty sensational.
Then we’re all learning about grilling the perfect rib-eye steak and preventing peeled cucumbers from getting too watery from an acclaimed chef who will (more importantly) be preparing our lunch.
“My biggest piece of advice is to let the grill do the work — and to use lots of salt,” says Faison, while discussing what a perfectly marbled rib-eye should look like as she’s demo’ing proper cutting and seasoning techniques before a rapt, ravenous audience. “Your doctor may not love you, but that’s the secret in restaurants. Salt. And butter,” she adds, moving on to a summer salad demonstration complete with handy tips about things that have people nodding their heads (e.g., “de-seeding cucumbers will help prevent your salad from getting waterlogged”). Then lunch is served at long tables right inside the stadium grounds — perfectly grilled rib-eye steaks on homemade flatbread with a cucumber-watermelon summer salad that carries itself like a dry martini.
About an hour later, it’s off to a more watery adventure. Floating down the swift Blackfoot River ’neath soaring hawks and eagles, paddle in hand, I’m joined by an assorted crew of slightly stuffed but gung-ho resort guests getting their second — or third, or fourth — wind.
“What’s that big bird up there?” someone asks our straight-faced local wilderness guide, who’s been fielding enough questions to start having a little fun with us.
“Pterodactyl,” he says without missing a beat, as we swiftly paddle under the area’s one sign of civilization — a steel bridge — that we’re informed “was constructed by Lewis and Clark.”
“You’re forgetting Sacagawea,” someone volleys.
“Oh, yeah. Phenomenal welder,” the guide bats back. “Her work on this bridge was very underappreciated.”
Next we’re parked on the riverbank, drying off with tea and snacks by a crackling fire — and it’s only Saturday afternoon. Tonight a giant, 10-dish feast from Chicago chef Giuseppe Tentori (BOKA and GT Fish & Oyster) will include guinea hen, braised rabbit leg, triple-seared Kobe strip loin, and a sublime grilled corn, red pepper, and shrimp salad at a single long table set for about 120 guests in the equestrian center’s tack room. This will be followed, for all who dare, by cowboy karaoke in the facility’s Sky Box.
What else fits on the bulging agenda of such a weekend? A Sunday lunch for the ages from the central coast of California’s Hitching Post II owner/chef/winemaker Frank Ostini and executive chef Brad Lettau, featuring red oak-grilled, Santa Maria-style rib-eye, smoked duck, and grilled corn quesadillas. For dessert? Shortbread. Grilled, of course, because as it turns out shortbread grills rather nicely.
“Is there anything you can’t grill?” I ask Ostini.
“We’re still trying to perfect our oak-grilled scrambled eggs,” Ostini quips — except that he’s not kidding. “If you whisk them quickly, they don’t fall through the holes of the perforated pan. We’re always discovering new things to grill,” he adds. “And I hope that never stops.”
This weekend, it really doesn’t stop. The afternoon carries on with the resort’s first ever “Bad-Ass Burger Dash” competition — a back lawn, best barbecued burger contest pitting another Top Chef finalist, Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, against Tiffani Faison, each of them teamed up with an impromptu ensemble of sous-chefs selected from the crowd while a jocular emcee spells out the rules.
“You have a half-hour to create the best barbecued burger ever constructed — and, don’t forget, there’s a mandatory drink-in-hand policy for both contestants and judges.”
What’s in a winning Bad-Ass Burger Dash creation? Again, nothing like the kind folks are flipping back home this weekend. Lee’s winning grilled cheeseburger includes garlic, chipotle, grilled bell peppers, horseradish, and something called sweet chili bacon jam. Nuff said.
“This is the proudest moment of my career,” cracks Lee, hoisting a prize bottle of 44º North Mountain Huckleberry Flavored Vodka and bursting into crocodile tears, while fellow sous-chefs collect their prize: $100 gift certificates from Idaho’s Double R Ranch.
The following morning, after a light breakfast of biscuits ’n’ gravy, roasted potatoes, cheesy grits and eggs, and blackberry scones, a few die-hard guests who haven’t quite had their fill are onto the next bucket list event on the weekend’s agenda.
Yep, it’s cattle roundup time. And, no, those big flakes of snow softly blanketing the property’s vast, mountain-framed prairie in late May (hey, it’s Montana; it happens) aren’t going to deter us from one last one-of-a-kind opportunity in a place like this.
“Hell, yeah. We’re still going,” says riding champion Max Salisbury, the resort’s head horse trainer and instructor. “That snow’ll be gone in about 10 minutes, and you’ll be keeping this experience for the rest of your lives.”
We mount up. We head out. We ride across Montana on a brisk, beautiful morning with full hearts, open minds, and stretched bellies while getting grilled on the finer points of cattle driving. Just one more sensual feast on a long weekend to be savored.
From the April 2013 issue.