Cafe Kandahar: a mountain restaurant
Posted on 08 March 2003
BY ADRIENNE NEWLON, MONTANA LIVING
Café Kandahar on Big Mountain deftly blends cuisine, service, and atmosphere to culminate in one of the more well-rounded dining experiences the Flathead Valley.
The café menu emphasizes Montana game, with seafood prepared in an artful collaboration of traditional French and contemporary Creole techniques. An award-winning wine list (Wine Spectator, 1999 - 2003) belies an obvious love of the grape at Café Kandahar. Popular Whitefish wine consultant, Renee Nadon, wine expert, helped originate this impressive collection of European, Australian and domestic wines, and continues to keep the list current and vivacious. Intimacy and quietude are the best features of the dining room at Kandahar Lodge, with its simple Swiss lodge décor.
Instead of the usual antlers and trophy heads you might find on the walls of any Montana lodge, the walls at Café Kandahar display playful black and white retro photos of locals skiing and cavorting on Big Mountain. Recessed lighting and soft music complete the subdued ambiance. The wait staff is friendly, attentive, and competent - clearly comfortable with the regulars while making newcomers feel equally at home.
In the heart of Big Mountain village, Kandahar Lodge and café opened in 1982 and have evolved over the last two decades. In spring of 2000, long-time Flathead Valley restaurateur Bob Riso was coaxed out of retirement to take over ownership of Café Kandahar. "I wanted to build on the strengths that we had," he said, and promoted breakfast cook Andy Blanton to executive chef. Blanton, a native Louisiana, is a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. From there, he worked under Frank Brigtsen at Brigstens Restaurant - a favored eatery in the Garden District of New Orleans. There Blanton honed his technical skills in an atmosphere where each plate was attended to with great care, even when it was one of 500 going out of the kitchen that day. Like most people who land here, Blanton came to the Flathead Valley to enjoy the outdoors - and to focus on writing. To pay the bills, he cooked breakfast at Café Kandahar, and got noticed not only by Bob Riso, but by his colleagues at Kandahar. He said he soon "fell in love with the freedom to be creative. Bob is the ideal person to work for." Riso's management style is largely responsible for the experience at Kandahar. His top concern, next to providing an excellent dining experience, is keeping his employees happy. He has great confidence in the whole staff of Café Kandahar, and believes in letting everyone do what they do best without a lot of micro-managing. "Occasionally," he says, "I get to make recommendations and raise the bar pretty high - and they just keep jumping over it." Blanton and Riso acknowledge the talents of sous chef Will Rogan as another key reason for the success of the restaurant. Of his right-hand man, Blanton said, "We operate on the same level and goals we want the restaurant to move toward. Together, we put out a beautiful product."
After attending dinner and the first in a series of six-course wine and food tastings at Kandahar, I tend to agree. I began my first dinner at Café Kandahar with a glass of 2001 Chateau la Roque, Coteaux de Languedoc Blanc ($6) with the sautéed scallops appetizer ($14). The wine gave me a nose full of pear and spice, and filled my mouth with slightly dry fruit and honey, and airy wood notes. The scallops - adorned with lobster ragout, crisp-fried lotus root, julienne of fennel, haricots verte, and bathed in a delicate truffle oil beurre blanc - at first appeared busy with ingredients, but the combinations in this dish were pleasing. The nutty flavor of the lotus root, mingled nicely with the sweetness of the fennel, and the smoky finish of the beurre blanc left plenty of room for the scallops to take center stage.
The duck breast salad ($12) was impeccable. Thin slices of perfectly rare duck breast were fanned over field greens and toasted cashews and anointed with a tangy/smoky champagne and truffle oil vinaigrette. This salad is somewhat standard fare in fine dining, but when done this well, it never becomes trite. I stayed with the Chateau la Roque for the halibut entrée ($25). The pan-seared fillet was dense and moist, accompanied by strands of red bell pepper and leek and served over a crisp potato pancake scattered with toasted pecans and sauced with a slightly piquant shrimp beurre manie. Again, this dish had many components with the right combination of sweet, nutty, and spicy.
They supported the flavors of the halibut without drowning it out. Other eye-catching menu items include the escargots with garlic-thyme confit, crimini mushrooms and wilted arugula in a lemon-parsley butter ($12).
There's beef tournedos ($26), served in shallot-oyster mushroom bordelaise with bleu grit cakes, haricot vertes and chives. Try the summer socca Crepe with seasonal vegetables, goat cheese, and tomato concasse. It's sauced with tarragon beurre blanc and balsamic reduction. A seafood and game special are featured daily, as well as an assortment of homestyle desserts. The seven-course tasting showcased petite fish and game dishes, paired with inspiring northwest wines. This was no stem-twirling and gargling affair; this was a smart collaboration between Blanton and the Nadon not only to serve great food and wine, but to educate patrons about such things as to what glace viande is, how it's made, and why the 1999 Panther Creek Pinot Noir Reserve goes so well with the grilled rare elk tenderloin that's with the pink peppercorn and port wine glace viande. Another great pairing for the tasting was the 2000 Eyrie Pino Gris - a whisper of burnt sugar, a slight twang, buttery, clean and full - with the Halibut in spring pea ragout, morel mushrooms, sweet potato crisps, tomato concasse, and shaved black truffle.
The sweet, woodsy notes of the wine and the earthiness of the mushrooms were positively symphonic - a chorus of "mmmmm's" could be heard all around. To conclude the festivities, a dessert of warm huckleberry cobbler with burnt sugar ice cream came along with the 2002 Biscuit Ridge Late Harvest Gewertztraminer. The cobbler was tart and comforting, and the nectar-like wine tasted of pepper, peaches, and summer. As a lovely gesture to close the evening, Riso bade warm goodbyes to each table, presenting patrons with bottles of the Gewertzraminer to take home. Riso, Blanton and the crew are dedicated to elevating the reputation of the café. They strive to keep up with trends without becoming trendy, and keep adjusting their recipe for success to make it a popular dining destination.
In keeping with Riso's philosophy of providing the best, the dining room entry will be enhanced during the early-fall closure , and valet parking will be available at the opening of the winter 2003 season. Café Kandahar is open for breakfast and dinner, mid-June through mid-September, and reopens Thanksgiving and closes in mid-April. Reservations are recommended. For information, call Café Kandahar at 406-862-6098 or log on to www.cafekandahar.com.