You only have to go 20 miles inland for the blustery cliffs and coast that give Rhode Island its Ocean State nickname to dissolve into wooded hills and New England savanna. Here in the town of Richmond, the Preserve Sporting Club & Residences claims a few national superlatives: the longest automated shooting range (150 yards); the most amenities at any sporting club on the East Coast; and the only place to enjoy family-style fine dining with bourbon pairings in a Hobbit House.
There are two Hobbit Houses carved out of a hill at the edge of the Preserve’s 3,500 acres, originally intended as overnight accommodations, but when Daniel Hostettler, president of the Ocean House Management Collection, saw them when Ocean House Management took over the Preserve, “I immediately said these are a perfect experiential dining situation.”
Experiential is the right word. A golf cart collects you from your accommodations—the Preserve rents luxury cabins, homes, and starting March, suites in a brand-new lodge—or from the clubhouse (non-guests can book the Hobbit Houses as well) and whisks you into the woods. A stone path unfurls from a round teal door that opens like a secret portal, revealing a cozy (and ventilated) stone cave furnished with faded Oriental rugs, flurry blankets, vintage bourbon barrels, and a wood dining table covered in candles and charcuterie. It’s like if Bilbo Baggins had a side-gig as an Airbnb host.
One Hobbit House seats up to four, the other up to eight, and the (pandemic-friendly) lunch or dinner experience is private to your group. A dedicated server orchestrates the meal, plating and serving chef Frank Dyer’s menu of glazed quail over apples and greens, roasted salmon, braised short ribs, bacon-and-cranberry-studded Brussels sprouts, cheesy potato galette, honey-buttered skillet cornbread, and individual berry crisps, all served in handsome red cookware from Le Creuset, a partner in the experience. Hostettler also recruited Maker’s Mark for the Hobbit Houses, and each course is both prepared with and paired with a different whiskey, from classic Maker’s to the Preserve’s private single-barrel bottling.
After dinner, the experience moves outside to a glowing firepit. The server hands out s’mores kits, coffee and cocoa capped with whipped cream, more Maker’s. Someone flicks on a portable speaker, and the music and campfire smoke stretch toward the electric stars—a good time to consider the takeaways from the Preserve’s Hobbit House experience. Here’s what I gathered.
Bourbon deserves a place in your kitchen, not just your bar
Most of the bourbon in my house gets detailed to Manhattans and Boulevardiers, but after the Hobbit House, I’m thinking about recipes it would work in—and not just obvious pairings like peach and apple pies: gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, beer-can chicken, chili, roasted sweet potatoes. “Once the alcohol is cooked out, bourbon leaves a subtle, unique flavor behind,” says Dyer. (A favorite trick from back when he was cooking at Michael Jordan’s Chicago steakhouse was to replace red wine in bordelaise sauce with bourbon.) “Restraint is important—we don’t want a punch in the face, just the underlying flavor.”
When cooking for guests, make-ahead is the move
When I eventually have people over for dinner again, I’m going to follow the Hobbit House approach. Since the stone cave doesn’t have a professional kitchen (just a gas oven), the entire meal has been smartly designed to withstand transport from the Preserve’s main kitchen and reheating over the course of the dinner. Pasta, for example, would never work. But short ribs braised in Maker’s and Coke (recipe below), the centerpiece of the Hobbit House dinner, are an ideal make-ahead entrée. They remained snuggled up in the oven during the other courses, and when my server plated and set them in the center of the table, they glistened and wobbled in their shiny brown sauce as if they had just finished braising.
Dining at a distance isn’t going anywhere
Despite the train wreck of the vaccine rollout, the country does appear to be on course to return to some semblance of normalcy by 2022, but in the restaurant industry, socially distanced tables, masked servers, souped-up takeout, and creative outdoor spaces are likely here for the foreseeable future—which is important to protect both guests and the essential workers whose labor allows us to take a break from cooking at home. There is a real demand for private experiences like the Hobbit House, which debuted right before Christmas, and sold out its dinner reservations within 48 hours of them being released online. “It’s been insanely popular,” says Hostettler. “It was going to be a winter pop-up and now it’s going year-round.”
Maker’s Mark Hobbit House at the Preserve, $150 per person, reservations bookable here.
Bourbon-and-Coke-Braised Short Ribs
2 boneless short ribs, 12-14 ounces each, at room temperature
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Grapeseed oil, for searing
8 ounces bourbon, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes
2 cups Coca-Cola (or other cola)
2 quarts veal stock (substitute beef or chicken)
Sherry vinegar, to taste
4 thyme sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
4 bay leaves
Maldon sea salt, for garnish
Generously season the short ribs with salt and pepper. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and add just enough oil to coat. Allow the oil to warm up for 1-2 minutes, then carefully add the short ribs. Sear the ribs on all sides until browned then remove them from the pan. Wipe the grease out of the skillet, set it back on the stove, and return the short ribs to the skillet. Carefully add half the bourbon; it may flame. Scrape the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon to release any bits stuck to the bottom. Transfer the short ribs and any liquid from the skillet into a medium roasting pan and reserve. Heat the oven to 325°F.
In a medium pot, cook the onions in grapeseed oil, occasionally stirring, until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook for 1 minute. Add the remaining bourbon and reduce by half. Add the cola and reduce by half. Add the stock and bring to a boil, skimming off any fat or residue with spoon. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and vinegar. Pour the hot liquid over reserved ribs and add the herbs to the roasting pan. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and foil.
Braise the ribs in the oven for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300°F and continue to cook for 2 hours, or until they can be easily shred with a fork. (If they’re not tender after this time, cook an additional 30 minutes.) Remove the ribs and strain the braising liquid into a pot. Bring the liquid to a simmer, skimming off all the fat with a spoon. (If you have the time, you can also refrigerate the liquid overnight, during which time the fat will harden into a thick easy-to-remove surface layer.) Adjust the seasoning of the with salt, pepper, and vinegar to create a finished sauce. Plate the ribs and sauce, finish with sea salt, and serve.