Jade Garden - Dinner - June 26, 2007

Although tragically located in the rat’s nest that is North Montana and Custer, Jade Garden serves the highest quality Chinese food you can get in Helena. I don’t know Asian food very well, so I don’t know if Chinese food in Helena is really “Chinese” food, much the same way as we smother beans and hamburger with cheese and call it “Mexican” food. All I know is, when you order chicken something or other at Jade Garden, you’re pretty sure it’s chicken instead of whatever wandered in the back door. That said, I find many of the dishes bland, and only in the last couple of years have settled upon a few tasty regulars.

To wit: General Tso’s chicken, a good representation of this tasty dish, not too spicy, but you can ask for it hotter; walnut shrimp, served in an almost addictive, slightly sweet cream sauce; garlic tofu, spicy with assorted veggies. All very good entrees, served with white or fried rice.

We ordered to go and someone other than me (thankfully) made the trip north to pickup. The restaurant itself is nice and all, but sterile and a little weird. Loads of people pack the place every night, but I’ve only been one of them on a handful of occasions. All in all, not innovative or anything, but consistently good food. And unless you’re really hungry, you can get by with one entree split between two people, especially if you add a couple egg rolls.

Gourmet To Go - Lunch - June 25, 2007

In an effort to explore the Gourmet to Go repertoire a bit more, I took them up on their daily special: a roast beef, blue cheese, and bacon wrap with cabbage and onion — essentially a wrapped version of one of their standard sandwiches.

It was made with an herb — maybe basil and something or other — wrap instead of just white or wholewheat, the flavor of which didn’t really go with the filling. The blue cheese was in the form of a dressing/sauce, and was pretty good. The bacon was barely detectable — just not much of it in there. Both the cabbage and onion really stood out, giving the wrap distinction, unfortunately without appreciation from my pallete.

It was a tasty sandwich, but it came and went without much note. It’s as if the ingredients worked against one another instead of complimenting each other to form a whole. I can’t help but wonder what these ladies could do if they put the same love into their sandwiches as they do their baked goods.

Pita Pit - Dinner - June 22, 2007

I’d never eaten in a Pita Pit until recently, although in Missoula several years ago I was pulled over in front of one at about 2 a.m. after leaving the speakeasy, when two youths came busting out the door, looked at me in the headlights, and proceeded to commiserate with me (loudly, and to whomever else was listening) for my impending smack down by the man. They left, I rode, no harm done. But anyway, this big chain just recently opened a little location downtown, which just happened to be on my way home from the office to a house without a family, much less dinner. I thought I’d try it out, yo.

First of all, it’s not as cheap as you’d think — I paid $6 for a Philly cheesesteak pita (no combo), but then again, fast food isn’t really that cheap anymore, is it? After ordering, they grilled the meat and veggies as I watched, and then let me pick a wholewheat pita along with tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, honey mustard, salt and pepper. They wrapped it up and into a pretty good sized helping. I have to say, it was pretty fresh and pretty good. It kind of felt funny in the tummy, but I think that’s because I ate it fast while walking home.

Quality-wise, it’s obviously better than the big burger chains, better than Subway, about on par with Quizno’s, all restaurants you probably won’t read about here. But for whatever reason, Pita Pit chose to locate downtown in a cool renovated building in a nicely outfitted space. They cook your stuff to order. It’s not fantastic, but it’s at least as good as many of the sandwiches from it’s local competitors, and no doubt very consistent. I won’t frequent the place, but I’d probably go back.

MacKenzie River Pizza - Dinner - June 21, 2007

Until recently, MacKenzie River Pizza was the closest we had to gourmet pizza, but now that Bullman’s Pizza opened, their bratty, pompous staff can pretty much stay north of Custer, thank you very much. No, to give them their due, if you want something other than pepperoni or meat-lovers, and you need it delivered, MacKenzie River is still your best bet. I just know I’m not the only one excited about the possibility that we might get a couple more places baking innovative pies, mixing it up a little, and generally giving us just a tiny taste of what real cities have to offer in pizza.

We ordered a sourdough Italian sausage, green pepper, and purple onion pizza and…<blush>…a pepperoni for the tikes. Pizza right out of the oven, with scalding hot tomato sauce is, like, my favorite thing ever, so the disappointment of lukewarm delivered pizzas aside, the sausage, pepper, and onion was pretty darn good, the pepperoni so so. Added two house salads, which were excellent. No breadsticks, but we ordered ranch anyway — since they always forget it, I figured another chance to redeem themselves was the right thing to do. Oh, and two chocolate chip cookies which immediately blew into tiny pieces of dust on first bite.

We were told 45 minutes for delivery to our door, which is what you’re always told, but an hour later we were getting a little anxious so I called the restaurant. Immediately transferred to a manager who put me on hold for 30 seconds, probably made a “funny” to a server (female), then said that it’d left the restaurant. I asked if I should call back in 10 if still no pizza, to which he said sounds good, bro! A few minutes later, the pizza man cometh, immediately fauxpologized for being late, but then was all “your street is on the wrong side of Broadway.” What? The numbered streets are all north of Broadway, not south — “yours is the only one up here.” Dude, except for 2nd and 1st immediately south. It was weird, as if his strategy was to play aggressive instead of apologetic. Oh, and then he told us we’d only been charged for one cookie…then crumpled up and pocketed our receipt so I couldn’t check. Of course, I tipped anyway…but MacKenzie: I think we’re broken up.

Silver Star - Lunch - June 21, 2007

The Silver Star is, like, our trendiest restaurant, and I say that in the genuine tone of all the people who go there all the time, despite the fact that it’s most certainly not the best restaurant in town, lunch or dinner. I’ve had some good meals there, no doubt, but everytime, without fail, a ball is most certainly dropped. Most often it’s the service: you’re treated to an almost inexplicable number of young, good looking, female service staff just kind of giggling together or wandering around, all without reprimand and perhaps encouraged by their middle-aged-plus male managers.

Anyway, I needed a burger and a beer. Being mid-afternoon, I didn’t have normal options, so I went to Silver Star. Ordered a blues burger, cooked accurately to medium rare, smothered in a very messy but pretty good blue cheese and bacon sauce, served piping hot. Accompanied with thick-cut fries and ranch with Steamboat from Blackfoot River. Silver Star does a good, reliable burger, but I can’t say it was as tasty as it should have been. I mean, if you’re agreeing to a cheese sauce on your burger, and thereby sacrificing any sort of class, it’s got to be damn tasty. Again, it was good, but not as good as their western burger with homemade BBQ sauce.

Anyway, I’m at the bar, all by myself, watching one group of waitresses on break chatting it up and another waiting for an interview, when the up to this point very good bartender (oh yeah: female, young, beautiful) starts to make conversation. This never happens to me, but we proceeded to talk it up about ailing old dogs and big cities. Meanwhile, a single woman seats herself in the bar, unnoticed by both of us, and proceeds to get a little frustrated that my new pal isn’t waiting on her. Another server intervenes, we stop talking, and I realize: I’m part of the problem. But what can I say, sometimes when you have a chance to be that guy the rest of the restaurant hates, you just have to take it!

Alive @ Five - Andrew Jr. Boy Jones at Pioneer Park - June 20, 2007

Alive @ Five, Helena’s own town social with music, beer, and food vendors galore, has in the last couple of years become the weekly event that no one goes to anymore because everyone else goes to it — it’s just unbearably crowded. And with kids — because that’s one of its things, it’s “kid friendly” — the long lines, smashed people, and difficult, bureaucratic access to the liquid patience we parents call beer mean it’s just no longer any fun.

That said, the family was already at the library, so it seemed time to see what’s up. Right off the bat, we experienced a pleasing moment of nostalgia: my wife walked up to the beer stand, asked if she could get one of the little bracelets required to buy and drink beer. The guy said no, but that he could just card her and sell her some beer. Just a lonely volunteer bucking the system? Probably, but it was nevertheless a much needed breath of fresh air. At some point, someone apparently thought someone else became concerned with underage drinking at Alive @ Five, even though said underagers are surrounded by nearly everyone in the entire city, including no less than probably 25 adults said underagers know, including the parents of said underagers, plus the cops. I.e., Alive @ Five isn’t a kegger in the woods or a basement closet. But you know how we are nowadays.

This was all followed by a quickly served, hot and tasty chicken stir-fry from local caterers Chili O’Brien’s and getting to watch my daughter navigate the house or terror blow-up bouncy air castle thing they had setup for kids. Then the weather that had been threatening all afternoon let loose a severe wind storm and we left. But, hey, it was kind of like old times. Oh, and the band was pretty good, what seemed like real musicians playing blues classics, not just a strung out 80’s cover band.

On Broadway - Dinner - June 16, 2007

The good news: the bartender at On Broadway made a near perfect Maker’s Manhattan and Old Fashioned. Add good cocktails to OB’s always solid and fun wine list (headlined this time with the 2004 Tamarack Cab) and the dynamics of the OB evening really change for me. Sure, only time will test consistency, and I wonder if they could use larger ice cubes that don’t sneak down your throat, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a pre-dinner cocktail at the Windbag before dinner at OB….

Anyway, we started with their poached and smoked salmon dip with crackers, a special, which tasted no better than, well, smoked salmon dip with crackers. Fine, our bad. But what if you served the same dip in something other than a cereal bowl, gave it a consistency less like whipped cream, and brought it with dark toasted baguette slices a la the prosciutto skewers (which we had afterwards, which were, and always are, excellent).

Then we split the pesto w/ prosciutto and pine nuts — it’s a heavy dish — and I again had the gorg blue cheese on my salad, which was perfect. And let me also say thanks to On Broadway for still carrying the classic Cuban roll from the Sweetgrass Bakery just a few blocks away. I love Park Avenue Bakery, by far the most ambitious and successful in town, but when the Windbag switched from the Cuban to little baguette-like rolls from PAB, I and many others were not amused. Anyway, still a good meal, and company considered, a great evening, but I just don’t think I chose the right path this time — thinking I should have gone after the tenderloin of something tomato-based like the lasagna or linguine.

Gourmet To Go - Snack - June 15, 2007

A muffin. Just one rather small muffin. Moist, but with a slightly course texture (cornmeal, perhaps?). Fresh strawberry, but not too sweet. Freshly baked just a few hours earlier. One dollar.

If I had a dime for every coffee shop that carried crappy, oversized fat muffins sealed in plastic wrap, I’d almost have enough to buy one. But then I’d still choke and throw the rest in the can.

The young lady popped my muffin right out of the tin. Small is indeed beautiful.

Gourmet To Go - Breakfast - June 14, 2007

Gourmet To Go is a charming little spot on the walking mall, serving espresso with limited breakfast and lunch including daily soup and sandwich specials. The full windows bordering the mall and the young, friendly staff are refreshing.

I woke up with an empty fridge, so after checking in at work, ordered a loaded breakfast burrito with sausage, no jalapenos. Took a little long to prepare, but what came was a pretty solid burrito. Lots of well scrambled egg, moist and fluffy. Green peppers and onions, but not quite enough. Flour tortilla was a little dry. But enjoyable, and definitely large enough to fill you up. And at $3.75, notably cheap, too.

Something about Gourmet To Go gives me a better appreciation for them then my experiences probably justify. Perhaps it’s what they do with so little space. Or maybe the young, pretty owner and the fun staff. Or just that I think they aren’t quite as busy as their competitors, and I want to support them. Selfishly, it’s nice to know you can go to a place during the lunch hour and typically not have to wait too long.

Windbag - Dinner - June 01, 2007

Over the years, when I have left Helena for any period of time and finally come back, I shortcut to the Windbag — as if I’m not yet home until I check-in. Like nearly every institution essential to a place’s character, the Windbag has tried to mess up things they shouldn’t touch (ripping out the wood and tiling the bar, dropping cuban rolls, ricotta cheese pie, and baked potatoes from the menu), but it’s still overwhelmingly wonderful, both comfortable and good, if not successfully innovative.

There are really only three paths through the dinner menu one should take, and tonight we’ll talk about burgers. If you’re in a group, start with the fried veggies, which come with a killer curry sauce along with ranch and cocktail. On to the teriyaki mushroom burger with jack cheese, cooked medium rare, with fries (if you split the fried veggies among less than 4 people, switch to house salad). It’s a synthesis of two burgers on the menu, but you can pretty much order whatever burger you want and they’ll make it. Almost always cooked how you ordered it, always very juicy and tasty. Windbag fries are big and thick, going great with ranch.

For a restaurant, the Windbag has the best bar in town, but it’s really probably just the best bar in town. Really outstanding, opinionated bartenders, all of the time. And by opinionated, I mean they make drinks their way, which is the right way — don’t question that. If you’re into bourbon, Johnny the bartender makes the preeminent Manhattan in town, and many say the same of his Old Fashioned. If you don’t know any better, order it with Maker’s Mark. Follow that into dinner with their signature beer, Windbag Bitter, which is the locally renown Blue Collar Bitter from Blackfoot Brewery across the street.