Taste of Montana: entree soups at Cafe Max
August 11, 2006
By Amelie Trufant Dawson
The taste of a Rocky Mountain Bistro
The history of soup goes back as far as the history of cooking itself. From the first pots of soup came bones, seeds and grains, leaving little food wasted for our primitive brethren. Through the years, of course, soup evolved according to available ingredients and flavors. Different cultures perfected their own variations on the theme of food in water, and eventually, regions became known for their specific soups.
The French have their cassoulet, the Spanish have their gazpacho, and the Russians their borscht. In the Flathead Valley, we have Chef Doug Day putting his modern spin on these classics.
When Doug Day and his wife, Vonnie Mahugh Day, both fourth generation Montanans, opened Cafe Max in Kalispell in 1996, it was a lunch restaurant with a reputation for soups. At one time, they might have had 12 or 15 soups on the menu, and people lined up out the door. Two years later, Cafe Max received its cabaret license and began serving Pacific Northwest bistro style dinners with an extensive wine menu. Soups still have an important place on their menu, though. "We really have a passion for soups," Day says. "They're all made out of the best ingredients we could find."
Day, who has a culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, makes a point of using organic meat and local organic produce, eggs, herbs and mushrooms whenever possible.
He has incredibly high standards, and the fresh food is very noticeable. With the advent of overnight, temperature-controlled shipping, the available fresh ingredients have expanded substantially. "There's nothing I couldn't have from around the world literally in 24 hours. It's changed the way we cook. The variety is endless."
The menu at Cafe Max changes daily, and with a repertoire of over 40 different soups, Day always has two or three appetizer soups and two or three "bistro soups" on the menu to choose from. The bistro soups are a recent addition to the menu, and they have caught on well. "People often think of soup as a leftover, and that's great, but what we do is create soups that would have a six- ounce piece of ham and a whole breast of chicken in the middle. It's an entree," says Day.
Indeed, the bistro soups are dinners in themselves. Served in immense tureens, the bistro fare can include the Pinot-braised New Zealand lamb shank and white bean cassoulet with duck sausage and Berkshire ham, which is perhaps the epitome of gastronomic indulgence. With the freshest lamb this side of New Zealand and a generous portion of tender Kurobuta Berkshire ham presented with a center of mashed potatoes, this bistro soup is as hearty as it is flavorful.
A Spanish proverb says, "Of soup and love, the first is best." This certainly applies to the Barcelona chicken soup with roasted garlic, chorizo, fennel, saffron and rice, a superb melange of bold flavors. This is not your typical cup of soup, it is a full meal, complete with a beautiful bundle of green beans placed atop the chicken.
Not to be outdone by the more robust bistro soups, the appetizer soups include the tomato soup with roasted garlic, basil and asiago. This is a soup with such fresh tomatoes that one can almost smell the garden where they came from. Another lovely appetizer soup is the wild mushroom soup with shiitake mushrooms, baby portobellos, local chanterelles, rosemary and sherry. With a wonderfully thick texture, this soup is creamy with a rich rosemary flavor. The appetizer soups are presented with a delicate crostini tapenade of olives and beets.
Whether it is below zero and snowing or sunny and balmy, it is true that there is a soup for all seasons. While heavier soups like split pea and Berkshire ham may be preferred in the winter, summer is a great time for soups like gazpacho or vichyssoise. Other popular soups in Day's collection include the roasted red pepper and shrimp bisque, the Thai curry with chicken and red lentils, the cioppino, and the roasted chipotle chicken with mango salsa, rice, and fry bread. Chef Day makes each soup himself and to ensure freshness, makes only enough soup for each day.
The menu at Cafe Max is not, of course, limited to soup. On the ever-evolving bill of fare may also be a grilled filet of buffalo with huckleberry sauce and fried sage, perhaps a crispy breast of duck with currants, port and pears, or the grilled wild Sitka salmon with mandarin and ginger.
With an extensive library of cookbooks, Doug Day likes to study the history of cuisine as much as he likes to experiment with new foods. "Like any good cook, you learn so much from other people and you put your own spin on it. We have purple jasmine rice. The colors and varieties of rice are really broad and we're doing a new dish with the purple rice and braised tofu."
The chef- owned Cafe Max, with its warm, dark, mirrored walls and festive lighting, is described as "A Rocky Mountain Bistro" and has been recognized as "The Flathead Valley's Best Fine Dining Restaurant" for four years running by the Daily Interlake. Doug Day was also voted "Best Chef in the Flathead Valley."
While Doug is in the kitchen, Vonnie Day serves as the manager of the restaurant and takes charge of the administrative duties as well as hostessing and choosing the wine lists and specials. Wine Spectator has given Cafe Max its Award of Excellence.
The evolution of soup has moved well beyond the cauldron over the hot fire. Perhaps the region of northwest Montana will become known for the fantastic soups of Chef Doug Day.
Chef Doug Day's Recipe for Split Pea and Berkshire Ham Soup
1 piece (about 3 lbs.) of smoked Berkshire ham cut into one inch cubes
1 1/2 lb. (3 1/2 cups) split peas, rinsed and sorted
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 medium carrots, chopped
3 medium celery stalks, chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 Tbsp. butter
3-4 bay leaves
2 tsp. dried basil
2 tsp. dried thyme
1 cup cream
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Heat a large stock pot (that holds at least one gallon) over medium-high heat. Add oil and diced onions. Stir and reduce heat to medium. Saute for 1 - 2 minutes. Add minced garlic. Stir and saute for one more minute.
Add chopped carrots, celery, potatoes and butter. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add ham, bay leaves, basil, and thyme. Saute for 2 minutes more.
Add 2 1/2 quarts water and split peas. Simmer about 45 minutes until soup is thickened to the consistency of light cream. Add the cream. Adjust the flavor with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Serve with a sprinkle of Balsamic vinegar.