COLUMBIA FALLS – Since opening Three Forks Grille in January, Tim and Sara Seward have discovered that even a good business plan might not prepare you for a hungry town.
They had their budget and numbers plotted out, and they had a lot of restaurant experience between them, but it turns out they underestimated themselves.
“We’ve really been overwhelmed by the reaction,” Tim Seward said. “We knew people would be happy, but we didn’t expect it to be like this. We’re way beyond our projected numbers and we’re doing way better than we thought we’d do.”
Tim Seward and his wife Sara own Three Forks Grille on Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls. Both have been in the restaurant business since they began waiting tables at 18 years old, though they had never previously owned their own restaurant.
But when they saw an opportunity for a fine dining restaurant in Columbia Falls, they couldn’t resist it. With so much experience in the food business under their belts, the Sewards believed they had most of the tools necessary to start their own establishment.
All they needed was a chef who was talented and inventive enough to carry out their vision, and one who had his own creative vision as well. Who they needed was Chris DiMaio.
DiMaio was a sous chef at the Kandahar Lodge at the same time Tim Seward was a server. They worked together for several years before branching out to other restaurants. But they kept in touch and when the Sewards decided to open their own restaurant, they knew DiMaio was the missing link. DiMaio has operated his own restaurant and cooked at Pescado Blanco and other local restaurants.
“We thought if we put our heads together, we could do really well,” Tim Seward said. “But we couldn’t do it without Chris – we wouldn’t have ever tried to do it without him.”
DiMaio’s philosophy meshes perfectly with that of the Sewards. He uses locally derived ingredients whenever he can and isn’t afraid to adjust his menu on the fly, depending on customers’ wishes. If someone has special dietary needs or prefers a certain dish without meat, DiMaio can adapt his recipe. Every dish, sauce and dessert is made from scratch in house.
“He always works with (customers) and creates something amazing,” Tim Seward said.
The menu is adjusted seasonally. As the weather warms, the fare gets lighter. Lasagna turns to Sicilian style pasta and cream sauces lose a little of their richness.
Even the winter meals, while sticking to the ribs, don’t weigh you down. The Sewards and DiMaio said they’re conscientious about portion sizes and use olive oil in lieu of butter when appropriate. In general, food is prepared with a nod to health.
“You can tell when you leave here,” Sara Seward said. “You can taste it and feel good and not feel overwhelmed.”
Tim Seward calls it “energy food.” He said it’s healthier for the customer and for the environment, as it discourages waste.
“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants in my life and you see all the waste and it’s kind of disgusting sometimes,” he said. “I’ve never been in a restaurant with less waste.”
Whenever possible, the food at Three Forks Grille is local. All of the beef and pork is from Montana, as is the bison and elk. The burger for the popular bison burgers is fresh ground at Columbia Falls’ Perfect Cuts from quality meat, instead of throwaway trim.
Chickens are purchased whole from the Sage Creek Hutterite Colony, butchered there and used in their entirety, with the carcass reserved for making into stock – again, with the focus on producing minimal waste.
The seafood obviously comes from out of state, but it’s usually garnished and seasoned with local ingredients. When in season, vegetables and herbs are purchased from local growers.
The menu includes homemade potato gnocchi, pan-roasted manila clams, bison short ribs, a grilled pork chop, DiMaio’s specialty chicken marsala, shrimp risotto, various burgers and salads, among other delectables. Only one dish costs more than $20, a rarity in modern fine dining.
In addition to the reasonable prices, DiMaio said the restaurant tries in other ways to make the food “approachable.”
“We don’t get crazy with the long Italian words and all of that, but we’re still elegant,” DiMaio said.
For DiMaio, who doesn’t like to be a slave to recipes, the freedom to experiment is exhilarating. And it works out pretty well for the customers too.
“It’s kind of my dream,” DiMaio said. “To have two open owners and to do whatever I want and create menus that turn me on and turn other people on, it’s great.”
Three Forks Grille is located at 729 Nucleus Avenue and is open seven days a week from 5 p.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. For reservations or more information, call (406) 892-2900 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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