It's Friday, 5 p.m. at Q Cuisine, Billings' swanky downtown restaurant.
As executive chef Mike Harmon and general manager Suzy Schaer brief the servers in preparation for the evening's dinner crowd, customers - a family of four, a single woman, a recently engaged couple, an elderly pair - trickle in the door.
The single woman, Karen Smith, from New Mexico, enters and looks around. For this first-time customer, walking into Q is something like stepping off a plane into a foreign country - immediately one feels removed from everyday experiences, transported to a glamorous new world, right here in Montana.
"So many people say, 'We don't feel like we're in Montana,'" says Schaer, a born-and-raised Montanan.
It's easy to see why. From the outside, the tall brick building, formerly the Carlin Hotel, is reminiscent of 1910 when The Carlin was an upscale hotel. On the inside, with its high, tin ceilings, Victorian-era chandeliers and glowing blue plexiglas wall, Q's atmosphere mixes traditional and contemporary elements rendering an elegantly eclectic ambiance.
During the planning stages of Q, owner Mike Schaer, Suzy Schaer's father, envisioned an establishment that embraced both traditional elements (so that it would fit in with historic downtown Billings) and modern elements (because he loves to travel and wanted to bring a bit of the big city to Billings). Mike, who owns nine other buildings in the historic area, recognized the renovation of 2503 Montana Ave. and the creation of Q as an opportunity to contribute to the revitalization of Billings' downtown.
"I call it a dichotomy of style," says Mitch Thompson of Thompson Interiors Associates. The Billings-based interior design company specializes in re staurants and is known for its work on Billings' Walker's Grill, Helena's Silver Star and Bozeman's Looie's Down Under. In 2002, Thompson Interiors Associates was selected out of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah as the recipient of the Design Awareness Award for its work on Q.
Smith is seated. After choosing between a variety of beers and wines, she orders The Carlin Cosmopolitan, one of many hand-crafted martinis. She peruses the menu . With entrees like Thai Curry Chicken, New York Steak and Mango Shrimp, the menu, like the atmosphere, features an alluring mix of traditional and progressive components.
"The menu and the atmosphere were designed to compliment each other," says Harmon, who first introduced Q's signature fusion approach to cooking.
Harmon's demeanor relaxes and he gestures enthusiastically as he steals a moment away from the kitchen to talk about food and fusion. It's clear to him that cooking is an artistic process and creating a menu is like starting with a blank canvas.
Harmon sits down and begins to recount the story of Q: Originally, Harmon says, he was hired by Mike (over four years ago) to write a menu for The Carlin, at the time a swing club with dining. A few months later, Mike called Schaer, manager at the Starwood Corporation in Los Angeles, and said: "Hey, do you want to redo this place [The Carlin] and make it into a restaurant?"
Suzy accepted her father's invitation, moved back to Billings, and the three of them set out to, as Harmon puts it, "make the nightclub, a nightclub (The Carlin), and the restaurant, a restaurant (Q)."
Fusion is a cooking style that combines elements of different culinary traditions. Within the last two years, Q has mainly served specialties that incorporate American-Asian and French-Asian styles. The Hudson Valley Foie Gras, for example, beautifully balances French (foie gras and toasted baguette) with Asian (daikon radish and ginger) ingredients and is a recurring favorite on the menu.
Harmon first tasted fusion-style cuisine at San Diego's Chive restaurant and started dabbling with the concept at Walker's Grill, another of Billing's upscale eateries, where he worked for 5 1/2 years before coming to Q.
On Saturday mornings in the summer, you can usually find Harmon browsing for fresh ingredients at the Billings' Farmers' market. "After I get the ideas for entrees, the next consideration is whether I can get quality ingredients," he says. Whenever possible, Harmon relies on local vendors. Maria's Herbs provides fantastic fresh herbs, Laurel's Yellowstone Valley Farms brings their tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces. And, during fall harvest, "local farmers pull up to our back door and sell us produce straight off the back of their pickup trucks," he says.
Harmon is adding items like the sautéed New Zealand lamb loin with banana-infused curry and orzo. This entrée, with its Mediterranean/Tunisian flair, reflects his new approach to fusion, which includes Mediterranean, French, Italian, American, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Mexican traditions. This broad palette allows for more flexibility with the menu, but no more than two traditions are ever mixed.
Maintaining a pulse on the taste of the dining public is important to the success of a restaurant. Even on busy nights, Harmon or Schaer check in with diners at the conclusion of meals. Positive customer input, and return visits, indicate that Q is a local hotspot and well-known downtown entity.
"When we were The Carlin, people weren't sure what we were. People weren't sure if we were a nightclub, a place to see live music, or a restaurant," says Harmon. "Now we're an established identity and presence. People know who we are and what we do."
"Q is doing just fine," says Mike Schaer. "And downtown Billings is back. It's all newly renovated and just beautiful."
It's 7 p.m. Smith stands up to leave. "One last question," she says before leaving. "What does Q stand for?"
Schaer and her father were first exposed to the idea of a single-letter name while touring restaurants in Europe. "There were a few unique restaurants that we liked that had single-letter names."
Ok, so what does Q stand for?
"Q," says Suzy Schaer, "was what my girlfriends called me in college. It's short for Suzy Q."
2503 Montana Ave.
hours: 4:30 p.m. -11 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
The Carlin Cosmopolitan
1.5 oz Absolut mandarin
1.5 oz Absolut Citron
.5 oz Cointreau
.5 oz cranberry juice
and a half of a lime, juiced.
Shake and strain in a chilled Martini glass and garnish with a lime and orange slice.