By Ann Hattes
Photography by Neil Hattes
The old Lincoln Highway, from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, was the first road to join the East and West coasts of the United States. Today’s Interstate 80 across Wyoming follows the route of its fabled predecessor.
Nestled in cottonwood trees three miles south of the interstate (exit 255) and in the shadow of towering 11,156-foot Elk Mountain is the hamlet of Elk Mountain, population 192. The popular Medicine Bow River Crossing here became a stage stop in 1862 on the Overland Trail. In 1905 the Elk Mountain Hotel was built, the hotel and dining room serving the public until 2000 when it was closed for restoration back in time.
Today the small boutique Elk Mountain Hotel and Restaurant, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers a secluded respite from the long road trip between points east and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Surprisingly, co-owner and chef de cuisine Susan Prescott-Havers is a Cordon Bleu chef. British by birth, she grew up in Kenya, attended university in England, worked for the British Foreign Office in the Middle East and Europe, and owned her own restaurant and catering business in Brussels, Belgium.
Susan characterizes the cuisine served at her rural Elk Mountain Hotel restaurant as “American bistro with a European twist because all my training is European. To me American food is foreign, so I make it the way I think it should taste, a little different from what you’d get elsewhere.”
“Good food does not need to be complicated,” she adds. “Start with good ingredients and keep it simple. And one of the things you learn at Cordon Bleu is that all food should be in harmony. I don’t like it when one ingredient drowns out everything else. If I’m eating prawns, I want to know I’m eating prawns. The garnishes and embellishments shouldn’t be disguises.”
Susan believes that “when people come to a restaurant, they are coming for a little piece of indulgence. Nobody wants to go out to dinner and have chicken pot pie, no matter how good it is.” Thus she serves a very popular pecan crusted chicken, and items like buffalo meatloaf or seafood lasagna. As her guests may well have pie at home, Susan’s specialty dessert is white chocolate and raspberry bread pudding, “rich, light and not too sweet.” One guest placing a second order to take home confided that he planned to hide it behind the refrigerator’s vegetable bin so another family member wouldn’t find it.
For Valentine’s Day, romantic dining in the gazebo, and on special request, Susan serves Beef Wellington, a beef fillet seasoned with mustard, wrapped in prosciutto ham and mushrooms baked in a pastry crust.
Susan experienced Indian food in her childhood as her mother grew up in India. She explains that the appetizer of spicy triangles would normally be vegetarian or lamb but she uses beef with jalapenos and spices from India wrapped in pastry, deep fried and served with a mint and onion relish.
Being in ranching country, steak and buffalo are popular menu items. “We play around a little bit,” says Susan, “trying to introduce a few new things a little at a time.” The tender pork bites served with a spicy peanut sauce are her version, for example, of satay. And teriyaki salmon, “a twist on the oriental,” is offered as well as grilled salmon.
As the menu is modular, explains Susan, surf and turf “is not just one steak. Guests may choose whatever steak they like and then add a shrimp skewer or something for their surf and turf.”
At breakfast, Eggs Benedict Supreme is two poached eggs served on potato and bacon cakes with smoked salmon in a Hollandaise sauce, accompanied by the hotel’s own sunflower seed toast.
Many guests come specifically for the French toast with frosted flakes on it, deep fried and crispy. A guest making an overnight reservation told Susan that he and his wife would have dinner Saturday evening and “Sunday morning we’re going to have breakfast because I’m going to have French toast!”
The Elk Mountain Hotel with Victorian era restaurant is a member of Small Elegant Hotels and Historic Hotels of the Rockies. It has 12 finely appointed lodging rooms named after historical persons with a local or Wyoming connection. The elegant guest parlor displays numerous photos of famous band leaders and musicians who in the 1940s and 1950s played in a converted barn on the property, the Garden Spot Pavilion, as they toured along the Lincoln Highway between Denver and Salt Lake City. Though the building is long gone, people still come by who remember dancing there past its heyday in the ’60s.
Elk Mountain Hotel guests have priority for dining, with reservations requested for non-lodging guests, “for us to do our best,” says Susan.
Susan and her staff do just that according to guest comments. “A very classy establishment; great food; great service; first class,” writes one.
“You should be proud,” writes another. “You’ve scraped and polished a bit of Wyoming to a high gloss without ruining the underlying character.”
At the Elk Mountain Hotel and Restaurant in a hamlet of cottonwood trees you too can discover a slice of Wyoming history seasoned with Cordon Bleu cuisine.
* Telephone: 1-307-348-7774
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