By Darby Lightfoot
Driving north on Route 219 in winter the bucolic cow fields and rolling farms of southern Pocahontas County give way to snow-frosted mountains as you wind your way towards Snowshoe Mountain. From humble beginnings, the combined resorts of Snowshoe and Silver Creek are now one of the premier snowsport destinations on the East Coast. One of the original restaurants in the Snowshoe area still offers an authentic, deep-rooted, yet modern dining experience to powder chasers and foodies alike.
Fresh out of college and looking for adventure, Mary McCormack moved to West Virginia in 1983, where she met up with Gil Willis, the man that would soon become her husband. Gil’s family owned property along the banks of the Elk River, in Slatyfork, a quick jaunt from the entrance to Snowshoe Mountain Resort. He had been renting out rooms in the old farmhouse on the property and as Mary began to settle into her new Mountain State digs she came up with the idea to begin serving breakfast to their guests.
“I had a pretty food conscious family growing up,” says Mary, originally from Virginia via New York. “At first we were just serving breakfast in the house but we eventually starting doing a little dinner service—nothing big, just 6-12 people.”
After a couple years, the couple was at a point of having to turn people down for reservations because they couldn’t accommodate all of the reservation requests. That’s when Mary thought, “well maybe this thing will actually work.”
They decided it was time to expand, and in 1988 built a much larger inn and restaurant on the site of the farm’s old sheep barn. The new restaurant would now seat 55 people and enjoy the luxury of a commercial kitchen. The restaurant now features locally-milled hardwood floors and exposed beams, with handmade quilts adorning the walls and a wood-burning fireplace of locally-cut stone.
The restaurant provides a warm and inviting environment that offers diners an intimate country inn atmosphere tingling with energy. The south-facing windows allow plenty of natural light and an idyllic view of the southern meadow. In the warmer months, outdoor dining on the deck is a popular option.
You can start your dinner experience at Elk River Restaurant at their “micro-bar,” featuring Mountain state brews such as the Seneca IPA or the Miner’s Daughter Oatmeal Stout. The fully stocked bar also serves a number of handcrafted cocktails and a preview of the wine list, which includes wines both Californian and international wines, as well as Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.
If you’re looking to pair a wine with one of Elk River’s staple appetizers, look no further than a crisp sauvignon blanc that truly compliments the restaurant’s iconic smoked trout spread. Lightly smoked trout is blended with cream cheese and spices, then topped with capers and served over a bed of fresh greens and crostini. The item has been on the menu for decades and hearkens back to the original farmhouse dining-space.
“When we first started serving dinner at the old farmhouse, our first offering was a smoked trout. At that time we purchased our trout from Elk Springs Hatchery from our good friends Jim and Betty Wilson. It’s such a clean and delicious fish.” Today, they purchase from Wendy and Matt Putz of Mountain State Trout Hatchery in Pendleton County.
Other popular starters include an apple and walnut salad, courtesy of the old apple trees that dot the property. The salad is topped with an apple cider and vinegar dressing that uses housemade cider.
Chef David Carte joined The Elk River Restaurant a few years ago, after stops at Wintergreen Resort and Charlotte. A graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales culinary program Carte knew of Elk River from his years working at Snowshoe Mountain in his youth. He brought with him a love of soups and chowders.
“I probably have about 30 soups that I like to make,” he says. “Right now my favorite would have to be a celery root soup that I source from a farm just down the road. It’s a puree with homemade chicken stock, cream, salt and sage—and that’s really about it. I top it with toasted pumpkin seed oil and parsnip chips.”
Another house favorite for Chef Carte is his homemade sausages. Stomping Creek, a farm in nearby Hillsboro, supplies the chef with fresh lamb, which he mixes with smoked paprika, cinnamon and cayenne to create a Merguez sausage. While the lamb sausage will still be offered this season as a special, the chef will now be featuring a pork sausage to compliment one of his new entrees.
“I’m really excited for this new item we are calling simply ‘The Pork Dish,’” he says. “It will be pork medallions with a sweet and sour plum chutney with the house-made fennel and garlic pork sausage served with Pig Cave black mustard.” The dish is served with ham hock and West Virginia Cheddar mac and cheese, creating a twist on a timeless comfort food staple.
Of course, one of the most popular entrees at Elk River is the West Virginia rainbow trout, generally stuffed with either crayfish and cornbread, blue crab, or shrimp and couscous.
“It’s something we filet tableside that always excites diners,” says Mary. “It’s one of the first things we teach new servers and something they need to pick up quickly.”
The Shepherd’s Pie features a hearty stew of local lamb, beef and pork, laced with red wine veal demi-glace and scented with fresh rosemary. It’s topped with roasted leek, garlic mashed potatoes and a blend of gruyere and cheddar cheeses, then roasted until golden brown.
One of the experiences that sets Elk River apart from the resort restaurants atop Snowshoe Mountain is the flexibility that comes with being a family-run establishment. On Thursday evenings the restaurant features a three-course international meal. You may find Argentine, Thai or Italian fare a little closer to home than you thought.
“International night is always a little tricky,” the chef says with a smile. “You want people to come and try something new, but you also want to present them familiar flavors. The trick is in finding the balance between the two.”
For example, this past year the chef presented a French dinner, always a daunting task in any kitchen. The first course offered Prince Isle Oysters three ways—Crispy fried with cucumber and corn remoulade, baked with bacon, spinach and Parmesan, and raw with a French mignonette. The entrée course featured a duck confit with a port wine black cherry demi glace, braised fingerling potatoes, and truffled baby portobello mushrooms. The final dessert course enthralled diners in true French style with espresso and chocolate pot de creme with an almond tuile.
Carte notes that some of his favorite “International” evenings, and indeed some of the most popular with patrons, are those that actually feature different geographical and regional foods of The United States. “Some of the best food in the world comes from right here in America. I love doing Deep South or Pacific Northwest.
One of the restaurant patrons’ favorite dessert offerings is the crème brulee of the week, which can vary from white chocolate banana to pumpkin spice. Chef Carte also makes a delicious Mexican chocolate, or chocolate para mesa. The sticky date pudding, not to be confused with the more common sticky toffee pudding, is made sans eggs and is covered in a house caramel sauce.
“Our Apple Cranberry Crumb Pie has always been a big hit here,” says Mary of the 20-year signature dessert. The dessert has been featured in Bon Appetit, and several cookbooks around the country. The apples, once again, are sourced from the trees outlining the property.
Whatever your culinary pleasure, Elk River has you covered. From the most comfortable of comfort food to the highest of haute international cuisine there’s something on the menu that will give you that warm feeling of food cooked with care, even in the midst of a West Virginia winter.