In the mood for exceptional French cuisine? Looking for a peaceful night’s sleep in a historic bed and breakfast? Fancy hanging out with some ducks and geese while taking in the sunset over Mount Helena? You can have it all at the Oddfellow Inn & Farm, minutes from downtown Helena.
This unique inn was originally the Montana Lodge No. 1, Independent Order of Odd Fellows Home, constructed in 1910. The building burned down in 1926 but was rebuilt in 1928. Up until the mid-1970s, the property functioned as a retirement home for the members of this fraternal organization, along with their widows and orphaned kids. Over the years, the inn has seen a handful of owners, mostly operating the brick building as a bed and breakfast.
Jared Engels and Paul Mabie purchased the 41-acre property in July 2019. This couple, both dreamers and doers, has created more than just a farm or restaurant. The Oddfellow Inn is an unforgettable experience for anyone fortunate to dine or settle in for the night in one of their bed and breakfast rooms.
The first step was building a sustainable farm and garden under the direction of then farm manager Alan Griffith. Sadly, Alan moved on, so Mike Noonan joined the team to manage the garden and produce, while Jared oversees the farm. Using a holistic, ecological and ethical approach to both the animals and land is critical to Paul and Jared. Today, the farm is teeming with a menagerie of animals, including chickens, ducks, geese, goats, emus, yaks, turkeys, sheep, quail, pigs, peacocks and a donkey named Jethro.
Once the farm was established, Jared and Paul focused on creating a farm-to-table French bistro named Maison, meaning “house” in French. When asked why French-focused, Paul is quick to say, “I love French cooking. I’m a Francophile, so the choice was easy for our restaurant. I think it’s a cuisine underserved in Montana, and in fact, across the U.S.”
The search was on for a chef who could share their passion and vision for French food. In February of 2020, Chef James Richmond from California came out to interview. James had attended the California Culinary Academy and had an extensive background working under several notable French chefs. He had previously opened a French restaurant. The chemistry was there, helped by the fact that James was smitten with Montana. By April, he was on board, and the team prepared for a soft opening of Maison in June. No one anticipated COVID-19 creating havoc for all of us and would require a change of plans on how Maison could operate.
The Maison team was able to take some of the bedrooms on the first floor of the Inn and turn them into private dining rooms to address social distancing and privacy with their guests. While there are a few ways to enjoy Maison, the chef’s tasting menu is the most exquisite option. By reservation only, the menu involves five courses crafted by Executive Chef James that changes monthly. His creations feature farm-fresh ingredients grown seasonally on site paired with locally sourced products. One of his recent tasting menus started with Pork Belly Confit, followed by Gnocchi aux Champignons, Monkfish à la Nage, d’Agneau Braisé, and Soufflé au Chocolate.
Another choice for dining is à la carte. Entrees such a Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon, and Canard à l’Orange are featured. Eggs fresh from the farm play a significant role, offered as an Omellette, Qeufs Mimosa (deviled eggs with bacon lardons and cornichons), and Maison’s version of Croque Madame. A unique hors d’oeurve is Quenelles de Dore, wild walleye dumplings, served with lobster veloute and shaved bottarga. The name of each dish on the menu appears in French, but the ingredients are spelled out in English for those who don’t know French.
Chef James describes himself as “adventurous” in the kitchen. He is keen on preparing food unfamiliar to many, such as sweetbreads, caviar, and dishes with bone marrow. He offhandedly mentions it can take three days to prepare a dish. “Three days!” I exclaim. “Yes, sometimes,” he replies. This chef’s passion for food perfection runs deep.
With holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Chef James has created a special dinner menu and a brunch. Beausoleil Oysters with aged vinegar mignonette, served with fresh lemon and cocktail sauce, and Onion Soup Gratinee, using Wagyu bone broth, are featured on the holiday menu. The bistro has a robust selection of French wines to enhance any of the meals.
The brunch, available Feb. 13-14, features a 72-hour Wagyu shortrib with a demi-glace and horseradish creamed spinach. Another tempting dish is Duck Confit Hash, made of a poached Oddfellow duck egg, duck confit, and Yukon gold potato hash. With my sweet tooth, I might opt for the Valentine’s Day dessert first. Beignets de Carnaval served with sugar and spice and a warm chocolate ganache sounds divine!
To diversity with the pandemic challenges, Maison now offers meal kits with a five-week or 10-week subscription. Pickups for the kits are Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m., or delivery is available for a nominal charge. The Feb. 24 meal kit includes Macaroni Au Gratin, Veal Blanquette en Croute, and Fresh Fruit Galette. Fresh pasta and heritage chicken or duck eggs are also available for purchase.
Paul had invited me out to take a tour and chat about the inn. We started in a small library, where guests are treated to a bit of the bubbly before dinner. We wandered through the basement, where a vertical hydroponic garden on a few walls will be built, enabling Chef James to have access to fresh herbs and vegetables year-round.
With a grant from the state of Montana, the farm will be getting a “plant in a box” this spring, a modified shipping container for processing poultry. Maison will utilize the processed products in the restaurant, and the hope is to sell some at the Helena Farmer’s Market. Plans are underway for an orchard, with 75 fruit and nut trees on order. I’m in awe of the energy being poured into this farm and bistro. Then Paul shares that he also manages the Smokejumper Station at the Helena Regional Airport. And Jared works as a realtor in Helena. I’m not sure where this team is getting all their energy, but I would like some of it!
The original Odd Fellow dishes, emblazoned with the fraternal organization’s symbol of three linking rings, are still used in the bistro today. The rings represent friendship, love and truth. I’m struck by what Paul, Jared and their team have created adheres to these same principles. Love of food and love of the creatures that are part of their farm shines through. Truth in how food is prepared and the ingredients used is evident. All that happens at the Oddfellow Inn & Farm is intended to give their guests an extraordinary experience embodied in the staff’s friendship. The spirit of the Odd Fellows lives on!
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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