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Dining Out: Holland Lake Lodge, Rustic Wonderful
This historic Montana getaway is a hidden gen in Swan Valley
There's a little place down the road where a great meal awaits. The table is set in the dining room of a rustic lodge where nearly every seat offers a view of a pristine lake. The hearty menu is peppered with Montana standards, such as steaks, chops, potatoes. But a few twists exist, too: daily risotto, fresh Dungeness crab cakes, pistachio-crusted halibut.
After dinner, walk out onto the grassy point, where on a clear day, you’ll see the lake is cupped in the wings of the Swan Range and surrounded by the Mission Mountains in the distance. To the east is a waterfall, framed perfectly by mountains and sky, feeding cold, mountain water into the lake. It’s a scene that belongs in a 19th century Albert Bierstadt painting. This is Holland Lake Lodge.
There aren’t any billboards or neon signs pointing you to Holland Lake Lodge. I almost don’t want to tell you about it … that’s how great it is.
Chances are, if you’ve heard of the place, that’s likely because a good friend passed on the word about this secret getaway. Yet it’s only 75 miles from both the Kalispell and Missoula airports and a short jaunt off Highway 83 in the Swan Valley.
“The lodge is a one-of-a-kind place,” says proprietor Christian Wohlfiel. “I’ve traveled all over the world, but when I come back here I still feel this is one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
“Spectacular solitude” is the tagline that Wohlfiel feels encompasses Holland Lake Lodge. It’s on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and there are no trophy homes on this gem of a lake. There isn’t even any privately-held property. The lodge and cabins are built to be unobtrusive to the lake and are built on U.S. Forest Service land that is leased. That fact fosters an uncommon sense of seclusion here.
Holland Lake Lodge is closed during the winter, making the fleeting months of June through October that much more precious. Most guests come during the summer, of course, but September and October are the golden time. This is when everyone else has gone home and you can have the lake all to yourself. When the morning mist floats off the glassy water, with the sun rising over the Swan Mountains, it seems like something from a dream.
The entrance to the lodge is so unassuming that it’s easy to miss. But once you arrive, Holland Lake Lodge is unforgettable. Checking into the main lodge or one of the six cabins is like returning to the idyllic days of childhood summer camp. The rooms are simple (Wohlfiel calls them “rustic wonderful”) but the beds are divinely comfortable, meals are all inclusive and use of a boat comes with a stay here.
In the lobby there is an old photo of the original lodge which was built it 1924. It burnt down in 1946 and was rebuilt the next year but it looks much the same as it did in that first picture. Today the building that houses the gift shop and activity center is the only original structure from 1924.
Holland Lake Lodge has a spotty history, with many owners over the last 90 years, but Wohlfiel has owned it the longest — 11 years. His connection to Holland Lake started in 1999, when he came from Northern California to work a summer job at the lodge. His father had been managing the property since 1997. It was special to both of them and they had aspirations to buy the lodge together. Christian purchased the property in 2002. Sadly, a month later his father died.
“I don’t have massive plans to change the place in the coming years,” says Wohlfiel. “I always want to protect the integrity of what is here; that it is an old Montana place that is quiet and special.”
Today, Wohlfiel is the owner-operator, and though it’s bittersweet that his father wasn’t able to take part in the business, in a full-circle twist, Christian’s mother, Nancy Wohlfiel, works at the lodge part-time. Together, they create a sense of family at Holland Lake Lodge, where personalized service is a priority. Christian’s experience working at Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, where customer service is a hallmark, extends to his own business. As a result, the staff will know your name by your second day at the property.
In the restaurant, Nancy’s influence can also be tasted — her recipes for granola (in the morning) and the chocolate sauce (anytime) have become guest favorites from the menu. Her personal touches complement chef Amber Lukas’ menu. Lukas has cooked at Holland Lake for six seasons. Her culinary experience in the field ranges from frat house cook to high-end restaurants to private chef. Yet at Holland Lake she has found her stride, creating a menu that is true to the honest nature of the lodge.
During the peak of summer, when the lodge is at full capacity, it can hold 40 guests. But you’d never know it — the atmosphere remains peaceful with a handful of canoes and kayaks gliding across the lake, kids fishing from the point and a string of hikers heading up to Holland Lake Falls. At the end of the day the dining room is where everyone congregates. Start with cocktails on the lawn or inside the lounge of the homey old lodge.
“What we do with our food is to keep it simple and homemade. High-quality meat, fish and produce is priority. Everything is fresh in our restaurant,” says Wohlfiel.
After a day on the lake or out on the trail to settle in with a home cooked meal as decadent as Lukas and Wohlfiel can dish up is the ultimate luxury.
Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie
Holland Lake Lodge | Swan Valley, Montana | By Chef Amber Lukas
Inspired by her Midwestern upbringing, Chef Lukas’ twist on quintessential comfort food presents beautifully and promises to be the best tasting pot pie you’ve ever had.
1 cup fresh carrots, cut into rounds
1 cup celery, cut on the bias
1 cup shallots cut into rings,
(set aside a little extra for sauce)
2/3 cup wild mushrooms
4 boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup Marsalla cooking wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup chicken stock
Puff pastry, cut into 3-inch diameter rounds — four rounds needed
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons corn starch slurry (optional to thicken sauce)
1. Preheat oven to 425. Lightly sauté vegetables and season with salt and white pepper, set aside when cooked thoroughly. Carrots and celery should still be crisp.
2. Rinse and pat dry chicken, season with salt and pepper and sear one side in large skillet with hot oil until brown. Place on baking pan, seared side up and finish in oven, about 7 to 8 minutes.
3. Use the same skillet to make sauce. Add a few of the shallots with butter and sauté until soft. Add Marsalla and light with long lighter to burn off alcohol. Caution! Will flame up. When flame subsides, add chicken stock, then cream. (The flame is optional, as the alcohol naturally cooks off gradually when the Marsalla is added to the sauté, if turned up to higher heat. But it is fun to flame things on the stove!) Simmer and reduce until thickened (use a roux or corn starch slurry if needed: about 2 tablespoons of either should do the trick in thickening), season with salt, pepper and a little fresh thyme.
4. Meanwhile, on a heavy metal baking dish brushed with melted butter, place cut puff pastry rounds and lightly brush tops with butter. Place in oven until they are puffed and golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.
5. To assemble: add vegetables to sauce until bubbly; slice chicken, peel top carefully off the puff pastry round. Place bottom portion of pastry on a plate, layer vegetables, sauce and sliced chicken and finish with pastry top. Serve with extra sauce if desired.