On the huge screen and the booming sound system, someone scored. It was either Cameroon or Brazil, but I wasn't watching. I was listening to four dude's dudes talk on their day off about asparagus panna cotta.
A day later, the weekend dinner menu at Burns St. Bistro hit my Facebook feed. The third course (veggie option) seemed only a bit more polished than it did over IPAs and soccer din: Asparagus panna cotta, local shallot purée, pickled asparagus, charred asparagus, purple shiso, grapefruit.
It all got figured out, more or less, during "Power Lunch," what the Burns St. Bistro cooks call the Monday meeting where they bring all their weird, amazing, chef-y ideas for the week's menu of sandwich specials, brunch and weekend dinner.
Most of you probably know Burns St. does both a mean sammy and an ambitious brunch (check out Best Of in this very issue). But dinner's been a slower burn.
So, here's the deal. Dinner on Friday and Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m. Call ahead (although the fellas say it's not a deal-breaker to just show up). Bring your own booze. Zero corkage fee. Eat adventurous food you can get nowhere else in Montana. Or maybe anywhere.
It's prix fixe: four courses for $35. For three courses, you get two options. For the main, you get three (typically a fish, a meat, a veg). From there, you're in good hands with the guys letting me sit in on their brainy conjuring.
The cast, in order of appearance:
Walker Hunter: owner/head chef/risk-taker. Hunter taught WRIT 101 as an adjunct at the University of Montana while getting his MFA. But he was always cooking and cut some teeth as No. 2 on the line at Missoula's Pearl Café, where he worked for seven years. He and three partners opened BSB on the Westside (it's in the same building as the Missoula Co-op) in 2012.
Ryan Smith: Grew up in Eugene, Ore. He's the clean-cut one and was Hunter's sort-of boss when he was chef de cuisine at Pearl. He's also the first person Hunter told after getting news that baby No. 2 was twins.
Jacob Osborne: This guy's cooked everywhere since coming to Missoula at 14. He's BSB's latest hire after a lot of credentialed chefs from out of town figured out what was going on and applied. Osborne had a creative spark—it's probably one he molecular gastronomied (sure, it's a word)and now seems to have found a kitchen that'll stick.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
Brian Brock: A Butte guy who was serious about it at Red Bird for nine-ish years. You wanna talk breaking down animals with a saw? He's your guy.
Power Lunch has all the terms you'd expect of chefs sitting around and talking about food. Fluid gels, smoked grapes, remoulade, lamentations on the price of beef tongue...
Hunter: "Used to be one place I could find it in town, the Albertson's on Reserve, but then the buyer there told me the price skyrocketed and they stopped carrying it."
Smith: "Yeah, tongue is the new thing."
Brock: "We tried it at Red Bird. We couldn't give that shit away."
This all came out of questions about how many of the menus explore, well, parts—off-cuts that aren't typical food in steaks-chops country. For example, a choice for the first dinner course that week: Beef heart pastrami, pickled mustard seed, rye crumb, sauerkraut fluid gel, fried Brussels sprouts.
I ate it. Delicious. Especially that gel. As Hunter says, the chefs aren't inventing wheels. Some ingredients and preparation might be atypical, but the mashing of flavors is mostly traditional because those flavors work.
Still, surprise is key. Dinner menus, for example, are intentionally vague so customers, including foodie-types, will get the joy of the unexpected. As soon as people figure it out, says Hunter, "we change it up. We change everything. ... I'm all for cooking the perfect pot of rice, but that's not what we're about here."
He's also not about wearing a white coat, a silly hat and taking the lead all the time. He's got too much respect for the people around him.
The way Power Lunch works is Hunter comes with the list—the inventory of what they've got, what's good now, what's coming. Then they get to business for, sometimes, hours if the beer keeps flowing (which it does). Every sandwich and dish gets input from each chef and it's expected they can and will cook all of it.
They dig each other and it's a boys' club, for sure, but the egos of these accomplished chefs in their 30s seem to have gone the way of beef heart at Albertson's. Every whim is welcome, even if it involves an Elvis sandwich with peanut butter and bacon powder. Everybody's got a voice.
Watching that work and later eating the results was sort of amazing. These are cooks who've arrived. They've learned from others and followed orders. They've sat on their own creativity and now they've got a seat at this exclusive food-nerd table, where they can be who they are and their ideas aren't just ideas anymore. They're dinner. So go, already.