On the way into downtown Bigfork, a bistro serving imaginative cuisine and distinctive wines is quietly gaining a loyal following
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Sally Finneran
Driving into the Bigfork Village, you’d be forgiven for gazing at Flathead Lake on your right. But if you stare too hard, you’ll miss what’s on your left: a culinary experience unlike any other in the Flathead Valley. And if you stop by Great Northern Gourmet, you’ll still be rewarded with those pretty views of the bay, from the comfort of your dining table.
Since chef Bradley Yaeck and sommelier Deva Grear opened Great Northern Gourmet in Bigfork in June 2014, they have been dishing out fine fare that tickles the taste buds and challenges local dining habits with a menu that is both painstakingly compiled and innovatively imagined. Sure, you can find French fries at a lot of restaurants, but not many are cooked in duck fat. Nor are the pastrami, bacon and pork belly on your sandwich usually smoked and cured in-house. In fact, pretty much everything at the eatery is made from scratch, including sauces and condiments.
“About the only cans or jars we have here are San Marzano tomatoes and imported mustards,” Yaeck said.
Given that much of the food seems straightforward on its surface — sandwiches, salads and such — but then offers up epicurean twists, it took a while for Yaeck and Grear to find a sweet spot between broadening the horizons of local palettes and meeting their ingrained expectations. But after three years of tinkering, the owners have settled on a small-plate dinner menu that showcases their creative diversity in portions that are priced and sized to encourage sampling of multiple items, along with heartier lunches and specials.
The result is a bunch of five-star online reviews and a quietly growing reputation for unique fine cuisine. As the restaurant’s name suggests, it’s gourmet, but it doesn’t necessarily break the bank. And the wine list is similarly eclectic and thoughtfully conceived, not to mention huge.
“Three years in and we finally feel like we’re where we want to be with our menu and branding and everything else,” Grear said.
Yaeck has been a chef for 29 years, most as executive or head chef, including stints at so many restaurants around the country while traveling that he “can’t even remember half their names.” Among the most influential was an acclaimed trattoria in Portland near the culinary institute, while his time at the Iron Horse Bar & Grill in Missoula taught him the ins and outs of running a busy operation, under the guidance of Tami Ursich.
“She was definitely a big influence in my life as far as learning how to manage and run things,” he says.
More recently, Yaeck was chef at the now defunct Red’s Wines and Blues in Kalispell and the Boat Club at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. This is his first time owning a restaurant. The Great Falls native says he feels at home in Bigfork, following years of bouncing around, including moving back to Montana eight times.
Grear assisted with launching Whitefish’s Stillwater Fish House and Kalispell’s Brix Bottleshop, and has worked in restaurants in some capacity most of her adult life. She serves as a muse of sorts for Yaeck, throwing out ideas that might be unconventional but often lead to pleasant surprises on the menu.
The expansive and “versatile” wine list is a product of Grear’s rigorous research, and she similarly tries to think outside of the box, offering a broad selection of unique varietals. Bottles average in the $18-30 range, with none over $80, and hail from locales across the world, including countries like Macedonia that don’t frequently appear on wine menus in Montana. Roughly 200 glass pours are available, and bottles are sold for retail. Great Northern Gourmet also sells deli meats and cheeses by the pound and offers catering services.
While the menu’s framework and philosophy are in place, the specific offerings change depending on season and the owners’ inclinations. Yaeck and Grear source ingredients locally, emphasizing organic, non-GMO, and maintain a talented kitchen staff of sous chef Mat Wells and chef de tournant Justin Foster.
The list of delicacies has included apple- and fennel-stuffed quail with pomegranate-thyme demi glace; beef tenderloin with black truffle butter; duck with apricot and pistachio in a puff jacket served with honey bourbon gravy; char sui pork with kim chi and hot mustard; sandwiches such as the smoky Cuban and bison sliders; an assortment of distinctive salads; and, of course, those mouthwatering duck fat truffle fries. Lunch and dinner are served seven days a week.
Meeting their own self-imposed high standards has led to a trial-and-error period of growth for Yaeck and Grear, but they feel like they’re getting there. Other circumstances have also tested them, such as Bigfork’s shoulder seasons and the gradual process of melding their gourmet vision with local preferences, not to mention the unforeseen challenge of getting people to peel their eyes away from the bay and notice the little bistro on the left.
“We’re so passionate about what we do,” Grear says. “We just want people to have the best experience possible here.”
Great Northern Gourmet is located at 425 Grand Drive in Bigfork. It can be reached at (406) 837-2715 or online at www.facebook.com/greatnortherngourmet.