Bistro Enzo celebrated a birthday a few months ago. The restaurant has served up food in the Mediterranean-style building in the West End of Billings for 20 years. According to James Honaker, owner and executive chef, the unofficial date of the restaurant’s opening was Nov. 11, 1998. I went to the restaurant with my husband, and good friends Bill and Suzanne Smoot on the anniversary night. It was business as usual and I was not surprised, as Chef Honaker has always deflected attention.
On that Sunday, we slipped in for a late dinner after catching a movie at the Art House Cinema and Pub downtown. Twenty years ago, we did not have this option. It was great to have an intimate movie theater screening of an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and part-time Billings resident, Richard Ford’s book “Wildlife” with the honor of his presence.
The restaurant was characteristically full when we arrived. Host Jason Shuck immediately seated us to a table in the corner that had perfect viewing into the lobby and throughout the restaurant. At 7 o’clock on a Sunday night, the place was abuzz, mostly with families dining together. For me it was fun to see the service action with staff whisking glasses of wine to tables and putting plates of food in front of customers in synchrony.
Our table was located below a painting by local artist Ben Pease’s print "It Was All A Dream," featuring two Native American women on horses. The art is available for purchase, and at our request, Shuck brought over a price list from the Stapleton Gallery of the various pieces arranged throughout the room.
Minutes later, Honaker appeared with a basket of Country Loaf from Le Fournil, an artisan bread bakery downtown. He wanted to personally greet us, but moreover wanted to point out that he was supporting a local producer. Then, like an apparition, he was gone.
Honaker has been recognized three times as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation award as “Best Chef of the Northwest.” He admitted to being anxious about the nomination and the expectation it engendered, but said the recognition pushed him to continue to perform at his highest level.
Honaker recently changed his menu back to an entirely a la carte bill of fare, allowing diners to choose small plates, and mix and match as they please. Many of the entrees remain the same, focusing on food inspired by Italy, France, Morocco, Greece and Spain. Major changes in menu items are problematic since so many customers are regulars, with favorite dishes. To keep things vibrant and fresh, Honaker runs seafood specials every night as well as a soup and steak option.
Working at Le Bernardin with Chef Eric Ripert in New York, Honaker learned to select and cook fish, something landlocked Montanans have always appreciated about his craft.
Daily air delivery of fish has been his standard of always sourcing what he termed “pristine” fish. From halibut to salmon, he counts on the freshest product to create his nightly specials.
Vinaigrette-based sauces are his go-to favorites, the combination of oil and acid supplying balance to food. An in-season dish that appeared often at the restaurant was a piece of halibut seared to perfection, served with a white wine shallot, lemon and caper sauce, combining two of chef’s preferred foods to prepare.
Over the years, my husband and I have eaten at the restaurant hundreds of times. Bill and Suzanne recalled coming to the restaurant on the opening night in 1998, and have been frequenting ever since. They both agreed, “We always find Enzo warm and socially inviting with wonderful food.”
That night, as with past visits, I had a hard time choosing what I wanted for dinner. I should have the menu memorized. Our server Nate Raschkow patiently gave us time to make up our minds. Suzanne started with a mixed green salad with olive, tomato, ciabatta croutons, celery and Gorgonzola. Bill chose the small Caesar salad and the bay scallop and white shrimp made with vermouth cream, shallots, asparagus and linguini fini.
My husband opted for the vegetarian option of Moroccan-spiced couscous and fried cauliflower with chickpeas, grilled zucchini, local tomatoes and aioli, while I finally settled on the truffled airline chicken grilled, with linguini fini and braised leek cream, mushroom, asparagus and Parmesan, reminiscent of a dish from the past.
While Honaker seemed nonchalant about rounding the 20-year corner in a business where you are only as good as your last meal, he expressed gratitude to his staff for their hard work. As for his customers, he said, “That’s the only reason why we are in business. I have great appreciation for them.” He promised to continue doing what he does best.