I’m not typically an enthusiast of all-you-can-eat buffets, 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. Though each of these high-energy feasts features a staggering array of seasonal delicacies, my favorite meal is Easter Sunday’s.
“It’s not often that you can get slow roasted, All-You-Can-Eat l Leg of Lamb with Raspberry-Mint Sauce,” says Executive Chef Amy Smith, who sources lamb locally through Montana Natural Lamb and is busy orchestrating the 26th Easter Buffet she’s prepared since entering The Grand’s kitchen 27 years ago.
“I love seeing all the ladies in Easter bonnets and little girls in frilly dresses. It’s just nice to see people out and enjoying their families … and Mom not having to cook,” says Smith.
“And every year I notice kids still enjoy putting olives on all ten fingers.”
“It absolutely amazes me how far people will drive for this meal and what a large following Chef Amy and our kitchen crew have built over the years,” states Chris Dern, who with his wife Tami bought the historic hotel on Jan. 1, 2015 from longtime owner Larry Edwards.
Prime rib and baked jumbo bone-in ham are also served on Easter. “Meats are definitely the big draw,” says Dern. “And we don’t skimp on the quality of any ingredients. The prime rib on our buffets is the same $9-$12/lb. Certified Angus prime rib we serve in our dining room on Friday and Saturday nights.”
The focal point at each of these culinary extravaganzas is an impossibly long table that spans the length of the Victorian dining room (plus half of an adjoining wall!). The Easter Table is laden with the three featured meats plus quick breads, sweetbreads and rolls, fresh fruit trays, 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, water chestnuts and sesame-ginger sauce; fresh broccoli salad with Craisins and pumpkin seeds, and The Grand’s famous pea and peanut salad with bacon and cheddar cheese). At the end, a dessert table towers with layers of bite-sized cakes and cookies, brownies, cupcakes, lemon bars, mini-key-lime tarts, fresh strawberry tarts and slices of pie.
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 been at the Grand for eight years) and an assistant are back in the kitchen babysitting each slow-roasting hind leg of lamb after massaging each with a mixture of olive oil, kosher salt, cracked pepper, ground-up garlic and rosemary.
“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.”
Montana Natural Lamb is a sort of cooperative of Big Timber area sheep ranchers who work together to try to create a market for their product.
“It’s a natural product with no antibiotics or grown hormones. We feed a grain-based vegetarian diet for approximately sixty days, “says Harv VanWagoner, managing member of Montana Natural Lamb. “Our goal is to produce a consistent product. We strive for a mild flavor. A lot of people say, ‘This doesn’t taste like lamb,’ and we attribute that to our feeding practices.”
They market about 800 lambs per year, primarily to restaurants and grocery stores in Montana and northern Wyoming, from whole animals down to chops and ground lamb. “We’re one of the main suppliers of lamb to Yellowstone National Park,” says VanWagoner.
The Grand’s Easter Buffet costs $32.95 per person ($1 per year of age for children under 12). Reservations are required; first seating is at 10:45 and the last at 5 p.m.
If you want to go this year, you'd better call quick, and even then you might be out of luck. “We’re usually 100% booked by Wednesday of Easter week,” says Dern. “I took my first reservations for this year’s brunch in February, and Mother’s Day is already a quarter of the way full.”
The Grand’s Leg of Lamb with Raspberry-Mint Sauce
by Chef Amy Smith
Leg of Lamb
1 leg of lamb
2T kosher salt
1T cracked pepper
2T chopped fresh rosemary
2T chopped garlic
Rub roast with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Cook at 350 degrees for ninety minutes until meat reaches 135 degrees.
One jar raspberry preserve
One cup 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.