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Chef's Choice: the dishes that Missoula’s top cooks crave year-round

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This Thanksgiving, we’re taking a break from doling out recipes. At this point, most home cooks are armed with their standbys and not looking to throw a new, untested dish into the mix. What diners need, then, are ideas for those nights out in the coming months. We’ve asked a gang of Missoula chefs—including cover models Bob Marshall of Biga Pizza and Kim West of Tia’s Big Sky—to pick out their favorite area dishes, those plates that make for a grateful palate, and the ones they’re most thankful for year-round. Let’s observe a moment of gratitude for the variety of favorites available to us from the down-home (a plate of fried appetizers at Double Front) to the upscale (grilled octopus at Red Bird). When you’re cleaned out of leftovers, here’s what to look forward to out on the town.

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i46 cover Chef's Choice

Appetizer

Steamed clams with andouille sausage and fennel at Mission Bistro (Stevensville). Favorite of Noel Mills, James Bar

Chef Mills doesn’t hem and haw long regarding his go-to appetizer. Heck, he gets it every time he’s down in Stevensville, if not for the clams then for the Redneck-brand sausage. “It’s all mixed together in a broth,” Mills says. “And it comes with bread for dipping.”

The Sampler at Double Front (which includes mac and cheese wedges and fried creamed corn bites). Favorite of Jim Anderson, Scotty’s Table

Anderson is particularly nuts about the fried creamed corn, which he recommends you dip in maple syrup. “Usually if I go there, someone’s always like, ‘creamed corn? That’s awful,’” he says. “But fried creamed corn, how can you go wrong?”

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 The Sampler at Double Front

Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes at Red Bird. Favorite of Theo Smith, Masala

“I just really love crab cakes,” Smith says without hesitation, “and they do it amazingly simply, the way crab cakes should be.” He’s quick to add that the pickled vegetables Red Bird uses are a nice flavor complement.

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 Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes at Red Bird

Beef Tartare at Plonk. Favorite of Burke Holmes, the Notorious P.I.G.

Montana-raised tenderloin adorned with a one-hour egg, mustard cream, wasabi arugula, pickled onion, fried capers and potato crisps. Holmes calls it a cool riff on a well-known dish, just edging out his other favorite, the foie gras torchon. Plus, Plonk scores bonus points in Holmes’ book for consistently solid service.

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 Beef Tartare at Plonk


Soup

Beef pho at Vietnam Grill. Favorite of Burke Holmes, the Notorious P.I.G.

Holmes goofs around the category at first, saying he’s torn between brews from Draught Works and KettleHouse. Then he gets serious. “The beef pho is one of my favorite things to eat in town,” he says. “We’re lucky to have an authentic version of that dish in Missoula.”


Bread

Rye Loaf at Kiln Breads. Favorite of Kim West, Tia’s Big Sky

At Tia’s, home of roasted chicken and tacos, the rotisserie oven is always turning. Coincidentally, West shares a non-culinary-oven ceramics background with another food business in town. “Kiln Breads, I think they’re doing amazing breads. They’re cooking the bread in the kiln. I think their rye, they just hit all the different flavors at the right levels,” West says. “They put such great energy into it, and the bread has such amazing texture.”

Cocodrillo at Le Petit Outre. Favorite of Andrew Martin, Finn & Porter

Le Petit may be an obvious choice, but Martin thinks the bakery deserves all the praise it can get. “I feel like Le Petit is one of those things that we take for granted in Missoula,” he says. “We are so lucky.” The Cocodrillo comes to mind first, what with its golden, crusty, sesame-studded exterior and a soft interior made from a blend of Montana semolina and bread flours. “It goes great with everything,” Martin says.


Salad

The Special at Biga Pizza. Favorite of Kim West, Tia’s Big Sky

When West was asked for her favorite salad, she didn’t hesitate. “I love Biga’s salads. The combinations are always amazing,” she says. “I usually get the special, and the combinations on the special of the day are usually pretty dang good, and switch up all the time.” What’s a particular aspect that stands out to her? “They do a champagne dressing with the candied pecans and the goat cheese.”

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 The Special at Biga Pizza

Mediterranean Grilled Octopus Salad at Red Bird. Favorite of Walker Hunter, Burns St. Bistro

“When it comes to salads, I’m one of those people that will leave the house with every good intention of going out, getting a nice salad for a meal and feeling good about my choices, only to find myself staring down the barrel of a reuben with a side of onion rings 20 minutes later,” Hunter says. “There is one place, however, where the road to hell is paved with greens and delicious grilled octopus, and that place is Red Bird.” Prepared by chefs Matt Cornette and Dominick Martin, the Mediterranean Grilled Octopus Salad features potato, cucumber, fennel, arugula, fresh herbs, marinated Vegetable Giardiniera Red Wine Vinaigrette and, of course, the grilled octopus. “It is a delight,” Hunter says. “Tangy and fresh.”


Side Dish

Loaded baked potato at Lolo Creek Steakhouse. Favorite of Walker Hunter, Burns St. Bistro

When it comes to picking a side dish, Hunter is all about keeping it simple. His choice: The loaded baked potato at Lolo Creek Steakhouse. “It’s a classic,” he says. The potatoes are large with oil-crisp skins, topped with butter, sour cream, sliced green onions and crispy bits of bacon. Grill cook Luke Smith says the potato has been a staple side at Lolo Creek since it opened, and it reflects the restaurant’s meat-and-potatoes style. In other words, at the steakhouse, no one’s looking for some kind of fusion baked potato twist. “We keep it in perspective,” Smith says. “What we do, we do well, and we do it right.”

Kimchi from House of Ferments. Favorite of Bob and Cindy Laundrie Marshall, Biga Pizza

“Chefs don’t have time to eat!” Bob says. But he admits he’ll wolf down full jars of kimchi in his car whenever he finds a minute. The kimchi comes from House of Ferments, a Hamilton-based company run by fermentologist Erin Belmont and production assistant Matt Galiher that makes fermented food and drinks. Belmont follows a kimchi recipe she learned from a Korean fermenter at a workshop. The ingredients come from farmers in Missoula and across the Bitterroot.

“I think that’s one of the most important things is starting with really quality ingredients,” Belmont says. She also says Bob Marshall has been one of her best advocates, helping her get her jars onto the shelves at the Good Food Store. “And one of my best customers,” she adds.


Entree

The Chrondo Burger at Flipper’s. Favorite of Theo Smith, Masala

Normally, hot and creamy would be words we’d associate with Masala’s ever-popular butter chicken. But Smith flips them around on us in describing this Hip Strip casino classic—and he throws “crunchy” in for good measure. “It’s the unique decadence of onion rings, jalapenos and pepperjack,” Smith says. “It’s an amazing combination with spice to it.”

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 The Chrondo Burger at Flipper’s

Greens and Beans at Scotty’s Table. Favorite of Jenny Lynn Fawcett, Poppy bakery

Poppy bakery owner Jenny Lynn Fawcett creates shimmering mirror cakes, elegant coffee cakes, tiny colorful cheesecakes and other rich desserts that look like art and taste like heaven. What is it like to be surrounded by so much sugar? Well, you eat your vegetables. Fawcett craves the Greens and Beans at Scotty’s Table, a tried and true vegetarian, non-dairy favorite made with pan-seared kale, hummus, quinoa, dried cherries, cashews, avocado and cashew vinaigrette.

“It’s an entree and a salad,” Fawcett says. “And it’s amazing.”

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 Greens and Beans at Scotty’s Table

Indian Gyro at Thomas Meagher Bar. Favorite of Bob and Cindy Laundrie Marshall, Biga Pizza

The Thomas Meagher Bar has all the classic fare you’d expect from an Irish-style pub—Irish poutine, pasties, meat pie—plus, dishes from around the world and American items like burgers, nachos and wings. But they also have vegetarian and gluten-free menus, and that’s where the Marshalls sate their hunger. Cindy’s favorite dish is the Indian gyro. It’s made of flatbread filled with malai kofta (house-made paneer cheese, potato, green pea and chickpea balls), golden curry sauce, feta, mixed greens, tomato, red onion and cucumber. “It doesn’t feel vegetarian,” she says. “I’ve been craving meat since I’ve been eating vegetarian and it’s absolutely delicious.”

Ribs at the Notorious P.I.G. Favorite of Andrew Martin, Finn & Porter

Ribs are hard to mass produce—at least the competition-grade racks that make your mouth water. Barbecue joints often have a bad habit of overcooking their meat. But a good rack, Martin says, won’t be falling off the bone, and will have some texture to it. The Notorious P.I.G. does it just right. “It tastes like he just made one rack of ribs, not 100 that day,” Martin says.


Dessert

Molten Lava Cake at the Depot. Favorite of Noel Mills, James Bar

This is a longtime personal favorite of Mills’, and he wastes no time explaining why. “It’s been consistent for years,” Mills says. “It’s a rich, almost flourless chocolate cake that’s liquidy in the middle. It’s like fudge when you cut it open.” Oh, Mills continues, and it comes with raspberry sauce.

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 Molten Lava Cake at the Depot

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