With the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup serving as the busy tourist season’s final hurrah, the park and region are now entering a quiet time during which wildlife, staff and a few lucky stragglers passing through get to experience something different. It’s a pretty magical time, a time when the park seems off-the-clock, and in its truest form. While not every amenity is available, the most important is — experiencing a world-class park — with the added bonus of little traffic and turning leaves.
Custer State Park Resorts started the annual Friday night Harvest Feast series seven years ago to celebrate the end of the busy summer season and lure visitors to experience the magic of fall in the park. The wine-paired, five-course meals are served in the historic State Game Lodge, and take place over four Fridays each October.
According to Custer State Park’s Executive Chef Chris Keller, this dinner series gives he and his young team of culinary upstarts a chance to flex their creative muscles, take some chances and try for great things without the pressures of feeding the summer masses. Chef Keller introduces each course (usually with his team members craning their necks from the doorways to see how diners are responding) and the whole crew is available throughout and after the meal to discuss any aspect of the dining experience.
As Chef Keller admits, the summer through the Roundup (during which him and his dedicated team can pull some insane hours—the uncelebrated part of their profession) is about doing what they can to make sure everybody is happy and fed. The menu at park restaurants like the State Game Lodge is definitely elevated beyond the mundane — it includes popular dishes featuring indigenous animals, like the Elk Osso Bucco or Rabbit & Rattlesnake Sausage. Other dishes incorporate pheasant, trout and, of course, buffalo. But often it’s the typical burgers, sandwiches and salads that feed the thousands daily. So the Harvest dinners are a refreshing opportunity to reach more in the direction of fine dining and take more risks.
The chef’s love of Southwestern flavors influences the State Game Lodge’s year-round menu, and was evident during the first week of the Annual Custer State Park Harvest Feast (see the third course, below). In subsequent weeks, diners will also see the influence of Keller’s twenty-plus years as a chef in Colorado and his Culinary Institute of America – Hyde Park training in traditional French techniques. A sampling of dishes from upcoming menus includes Raspberry Ale Braised Pork Belly with Blueberry Black Pepper Jam, Roasted Fennel & Carrot Soup, Buffalo Ravioli with White Truffle & Black Garlic Cream Watercress & French Bread Crisps, Venison Tenderloin With Lingonberry Glaze with Goat Cheese Risotto Cake & Roasted Root Vegetable. If any of these combinations or ingredients seem adventurous to you, trust me when I say stepping out of your food comfort zone will be rewarded.
My favorite thing about the first Friday night’s meal, held October 9th, was that it held so many first-time experiences for me and many others dining that evening, judging by questions other diners had for the Chef and wine representative from Cask & Cork, a local distribution company providing wine for the night’s meal.
First course – Blue Point Oyster with Blood Orange Foam. Finally, my first experience with raw oysters and I can say that they’re not really my thing, texturally. The course was two mild Blue Point Oysters, an Atlantic variety from New York and Connecticut, punched up with a citrusy blood orange foam. A testament to the chef and his team though – I can honestly say that the delicate foam did make them tolerable for me. The pairing of Picpoul de Pinet, a highly-acidic French white I’d never heard of, let me quickly forget any displeasing and lingering personal feelings about raw oysters. My wife, who loves all things fishy and/or shelled, had no qualms with the slimy beasts and thought they were delicious.
Second Course – Sous Vide Beet and Goat Cheese Salad with White Truffle Vinaigrette & Red Wine Vinegar Powder. This was my first time trying sous-vide beets or red-wine vinegar powder. It was also a new experience smelling buttery popcorn notes from the paired Pinot Noir ( that’s my take, tasting notes by actual experts might call that more a hint of earthy oak, cherry cola or hints of rose petal). I will also say that this was probably my favorite wine pairing of the night. The chef and distributor had chosen Kokomo Pinot Noir and it definitely had great play with the salad and its components. I also learned from Tate – the wine distributor – that the buttery notes of the wine are similar to what you get from a higher-end chardonnay, and come from the use of French oak barrels during aging (versus American oak) which I’ll remember next time I get that silky, buttery smell from a wine.
Third Course – Lava Lake Lamb Kebob with Smoke Ancho Mole & Cucumber Creme Fraiche. For many in the crowd, the Smoked Ancho Mole was a first. For me it was the amazing Cucumber Creme Fraiche. Paired with tender lamb chunks from the kebob, the taste combo was like a high-end lamb gyro sans pita bread. This was not a bad thing. In fact, it was the course I immediately wanted more of. It was paired with a bold Rule Cabernet Sauvignon, which balanced the strong mole flavors nicely.
Fourth Course – Red Deer Chop with Yellow Chanterelles & Huckleberry Bordelaise. Being from South Dakota, I’ve had deer many ways, and have found that outside of pepper sticks or jerky, I’m about as fond of it as I am of oysters. I would have not have ordered this from a menu and I would have missed out. I can say the common sentiment of the dining room was that for nearly all, this was also their first time, not just enjoying, but straight loving venison. The Red Deer (or maybe you know it by: the Monarch of the Mountain, Red Stag or if you’re European, the Red Elk) chops from Australia were insanely tender and meaty – not gamey or tough like North American deer might be considered. The deer and black truffle mushroom potato croquette, paired with The Crusher Petite Syrah, were amazing.
Fifth course – Rhubarb & Green Peppercorn Crepe with Housemade Blackberry Ice Cream. Between sautéed strawberries and the mild peppercorns, this dessert was really like a slightly savory take on berries and ice cream with a presentation like a pasta dish. Like the other courses, this was another where the wine pairing really harmonized well with the dish. The subtle fruit and floral qualities of the Riondo Prosecco Spago Nero ended the two-hour plus event on a high note.
Of course, dining in the Historic State Game Lodge nestled in the breathtaking natural setting of Custer State Park elevated the entire night further. Since we were staying just steps away at the Creekside Lodge that night, my wife and I made the most of our night out with a post-dinner chat sitting around the State Game Lodge’s ancient stone fireplace. Our exciting walk back to our room included dodging buffalo chips (couldn’t miss them all) and keeping an eye out for actual buffalo, but it was made easier as our eyes adjusted to the black night with the help of the brightest sky of stars you’ll ever see. The whole evening was something we’ll remember for years.
I wish I could come back for all four dinners, or at least for the final one the night before Halloween, when it’s rumored the chef and his crew pull out all the stops and everyone is encouraged to wear costumes. Life is busy and it probably won’t happen, but I encourage others to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind event.
The next three dinners take place the next three Fridays — October 16, 23 and 30 at 7pm. Space is limited, so call today for reservations – (605) 255-4541; cost is $75 per person. Rooms are available for $139 at Creekside Lodge by calling 888-875-0001. Visit http://custerresorts.com/specials/7th-annual-harvest-feast-wine-dinners1/ to see full menus or for more information.