Riding the range for a great steak
MONTANA LIVING — There's something about a cattle drive that stirs the imagination about the Old West. Here in Montana we still have cattle drives, some for show and some for practicality. In a state that's becoming known for its eclectic, new-world fine dining, we sometimes forget about the venerable steak, the cowboys and the ranchers who bring us this Montana staple.
Our food editors have traveled Montana looking for the best steaks, and we've found a few that we think you'll like. And with all the press given to past problems in the beef industry, we felt it was time to let you know that Montana's beef still ranks as some of the best in the world.
'THE REX' IS KING
By Matt Villano
With all of the cows east of Helena, good steaks are as plentiful as tumbleweed - they're everywhere. Perhaps this is what makes The Rex steakhouse in Billings so fantastic.
The certified Angus beef at this Montana Avenue restaurant is widely regarded as some of the best in Eastern Montana, and Executive Chef Roger Vanlandingham serves up everything from prime rib to rib eye, sirloin to porterhouse. "In this restaurant, meat is an art form," says Vanlandingham, who knows most of his customers on a first-name basis. "We're not into sauces or frills - just steak," he adds. "We offer steak as a straight-up piece of meat."
The aromas of sizzling meat seize you when you walk into The Rex. Nestled on the ground floor of the historic Rex hotel (now it's an office building), the restaurant has the feel of the turn-of-the-century hangout it is. The walls are exposed brick. The ceilings are tin. And after two remodeling efforts in 1983 and 2000, the kitchen is wide open, giving customers a chance to watch Vanlandingham and his sous chefs cook dinner right in front of them. But the peaceful main dining area isn't the only spot for customers to enjoy their meat. On one side of this dining room, The Rex boasts a spacious bar with tables; on the other, the restaurant sports an enclosed patio, where diners can choose their food from a slightly more casual menu.
The patio has televisions stationed in each of its corners, and during football season, owner Gene Burgad brings in big-screen televisions to accommodate a larger crowd. "There are nights when that patio is standing-room only," notes Vanlandingham, 46. "[Those nights] are so busy that you feel like everyone in town is here in the restaurant. It's awesome." Steak is by far the most popular entrée at The Rex, but the menu offers elk, buffalo and duck for true for real meat aficionados as well. There's also seafood and shellfish, including white oak planked walleye, Alaskan king crab and Australian rock lobster, all big sellers among those who eat beef regularly and come by for a change of pace. Even the dessert menu is scrumptious, offering delights such as homemade peach cobbler. Vanlandingham is a Montana State University alumnus who started visiting the restaurant's bar for backgammon tournaments nearly 20 years ago. He says the varied menu is one of the attributes that sets The Rex apart from other steakhouses across the state. Some of the restaurant's regular customers will come in two or three times a week and never order the same dish. Billings resident Brenda Burkhartsmeier, who also happens to be the founder of the Mountain Mudd coffee company, is one of those regulars. "I love this place," she said between bites of a New York strip steak. "There are a lot of places to get steak out this way, but time after time, we keep coming here. That says everything." THE DISH The Rex is located at 2401 Montana Ave., in Billings, across the street from the Depot. For information call 406-245-7477. At the Savory Olive restaurant in Bozeman, you don't have to look very far to find out where your steak comes from. The Savory Olive uses beef raised locally, some of it raised just down the road in Belgrade. Savory Olive has found a locally raised breed of cattle that fits its menu - and the goals of sustainable ranching - perfectly. Big Sky Natural Beef is a producer of Scottish Highland beef, grown at family ranches in Montana. Their beef is featured at Savory Olive in Bozeman, Lone Mountain Guest Ranch in Big Sky, Horse Prairie Hilton in Grant, Montana, and the Stock Yard Inn in Dell, Montana. The beef are a hardy animal that can be raised in Montana from birth all the way to processing because they're long-haired and able to withstand the cold Montana winters. The farmers at Big Sky Natural Beef are committed to raising cattle using sustainable practices, resulting in meat that tastes more like it used to in the days before large supplies of commercial beef was available to the masses. Heather Hand and Eric Stenberg of Savory Olive agree with the philosophies of sustainable ranching and local production. They will only take beef from certain growers in Montana or Wyoming. They have taken a hands-on approach to learning about where their beef comes form. In order to learn more about the meat they were working with, Hand and Stenberg followed cattle from branding to slaughter, including a state inspection. The Savory Olive only runs steak specials when it can offer the locally or regionally raised beef. On one recent trip there, Savory Olive ran a filet mignon special that was simple enough to keep the focus on the meat, but elegant enough to keep the meal engaging to the palate and the eye. The medium-rare filet was stuffed with a duxelles of wild mushrooms and finished with an exquisite cabernet demi glace, an intense reduction of red wine and beef stock. Roasted fingerling potatoes and beets accompanied the meat. The sweet, earthy nature of the beets played beautifully off the combination of the tenderloin and rich demi glace, emphasizing the sweeter notes of the meat's flavor. This ample and pleasing repast was flanked by a lovely pear-chevre appetizer and a most daring chocolate polenta pudding with orange-scented whipped cream. The wine-by-the-glass selection at Savory Olive is concise and well-rounded, as is the bottled wine list. The Dish Savory Olive is housed in the Historic Baxter Hotel at 105 W. Main Street. The rich décor has Mediterranean panache and the service is excellent. Chefs calmly move through the open kitchen with efficiency and poise. The menu at Savory Olive runs from French to Pan-Asian, game to seafood, home-style to haute cuisine. They are open Monday - Saturday for lunch and dinner. Visit them at www.savoryolive.com FINN AND PORTER From your table at Finn and Porter, overlooking the Clark Fork River in Missoula, you can enjoy a fine cut of meat while watching eagles, heron and osprey. "It's a little Discovery Channel right out the window in wintertime," says general manager Missy Kelleher. Finn and Porter is a concept of the Hilton Hotel Corporation, but owned locally as part of the Doubletree Hotel in Missoula. The semi-circular dining room is contemporary and wide-open. Along with the esthetically pleasing surroundings, Finn and Porter has a decidedly Montana approach to the menu, highlighting steaks, seafood and chops. They get their steaks from stockyards in Chicago that specialize in prime cuts of beef. These purveyors have been the source of prime grade beef for Hilton Hotels for many years, and Finn and Porter serves their steak with pride and confidence. However, with all other products, they strive to keep things as local as possible. The two beef steaks on the menu are filet mignon and a hefty, 14-ounce ribeye. The steaks are accurately cooked to order and served straightforward with roasted red pepper and bleu cheese mashed potato, a rich, full-bodied red wine sauce, and sautéed seasonal vegetables. The steaks pair nicely with the 2000 Lynmar Quail Hill Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir, and the 2000 Gary Farrell Merlot. While the steak entrees are quite filling, you don't want to miss starting out with some Kumomoto oysters. They are creamy and delicate, and have a fresh, ocean snap, which is accentuated by the Honig sauvignon blanc. The service at Finn and Porter is highly professional. On our trip our waiter was an educated wine enthusiast and a great assistant to pairing wine with the meal. The wine list at Finn and Porter is exceptional, and having a server who can speak articulately about winemakers and vintages was valuable. The dish Finn and Porter is open for dinner 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They have also launched a wine tasting series featuring California and Northwest winemakers and their wines. Call 406-542-4660 for more information. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE FLAMES By Matt Villano Everything revolves around the open-pit wood fire at Guy's Lolo Creek Steakhouse in Lolo. Steaks sizzle. Logs crackle. Embers dance in midair as they flutter skyward. And the smell; oh, the smell! The inimitable musk of burning wood fills your nostrils when you enter. With attractions like these, it's no wonder that Guy's is one of the most popular steakhouses in the Bitterroot Valley. Tucked away across U.S. 12 from the famous Travelers Rest spot on the Lewis and Clark trail, Guy's Steakhouse serves up all sorts of meat Western Style - with nothing but a secret special seasoning. According to manager Mark Jones, this simplicity is exactly what keeps customers satisfied. "Beyond our seasoning we don't have many secrets about the way we do things around here," he says. "We basically just slap our meat on the grill and cook it."" Guy Leibenguth opened the restaurant in 1988 in a custom-built log cabin designed to invoke the feeling of the old West. Leibenguth hired Jones a few weeks later and the duo has run the restaurant ever since. When it opened, Guy's served nothing but beef - just about every cut of USDA Choice you could imagine. Today, as dietary tastes have expanded, the menu boasts a few more options, including chicken, pork and seafood for the less adventuresome. Still, the best meals at Guy's revolve around steak. Some customers have been known to drive from as far as Butte to chow down on freshly grilled rib eye or New York strip. Guy's steak kabobs have quite a following, too. Then, of course, there are the T-bones - luscious 20-ounce cuts that take up a full charger-sized plate. All of the steak orders come with a relish dish, tossed salad, baked potato, and garlic bread; the seafood dishes (steamed Maine lobster, Alaskan king crab legs) come with a heaping side of vegetables. "It's fabulous," says Ramona Holt, who runs a historic museum just south of the restaurant on Highway 12. "It's hard to find a better food anywhere in Montana." The atmosphere at Guy's is as much a part of the meal as the food. Sitting at any one of the restaurant's three dozen tables, you get a bird's eye view of the taxidermy Leibenguth has collected over the years. Some of the more memorable specimens in this collection consist of a mountain lion, moose, small bear, mountain goat, Dall sheep and a wolverine. On the restaurant's north wall, opposite the front door, there's also a terrifying taxidermic tableaux - a caribou surrounded by three hungry wolves. The taxidermy is the work of artist Shawn Andres, one of the first regulars at Guy's. The desserts, on the other hand, are the genius of chef Anson Haugjaa, whose been with the restaurant since the mid 1990s. Haugaa's specialties include chocolate mud pie, and New York-style cheesecake. Occasionally, he or one of the other chefs also will bake fresh brownies to satisfy the sweet tooth. Sometimes, when the spirit moves him, even Jones does the baking. "When almost everything you serve is cooked on an open fire, everybody pretty much does everything," Jones said. "Whatever people come here to eat, whoever cooks it for them, one thing is for sure: No-one leaves hungry."