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Tavern 287: neighborhood bistro in southwest Montana
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LAST BEST PLATES

Tavern 287: neighborhood bistro in southwest Montana

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Growing up, elk was the meat of choice in my family, provided my dad had a successful hunting season. My parents cut up the game with some of the meat going to hamburger, and the rest cut into thin steaks. My mom fixed those steaks in two ways — either Swiss steak or fried with onions on the stovetop. We were a meat-well-done family, so to say those fried steaks were a bit like chewing on shoe leather isn’t an exaggeration. In honor of my foodie heritage, I opted for the Elk Osso Buco at Tavern 287 in Ennis. This entrée, generous in size, gives new meaning to the word tender. The succulent meat fell off the bone with a fork, a result of being braised for 14 hours. The shanks were served over mushroom risotto and accompanied with carrots and onions.

Bruce Eiting and Kelly Starr are the owners of Tavern 287. Bruce hails from Appleton, Wisconsin. He moved to Bozeman to attend Montana State University, where he graduated with a history and teaching degrees. Bruce grinned as he said, “I needed to work and I needed to eat so I took a job at the Riverside Country Club. One of the best perks of restaurant work is eating, for the most part, for free.” Knowing nothing about the culinary world, Bruce was schooled in classical French cooking by Gerard van Murrick, head chef at the Club. Kelly grew up in Snowshoe, West Virginia. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in California as a Level 2 Sommelier, she landed in Montana.

They met at Big Sky, where Bruce was the general manager at Headwaters, and Kelly was office manager for ticket sales and basecamp. Their journey as a couple would find them with a baby on the way, and the desire to buy a home, so they looked to Ennis, where real estate was more affordable. As they settled into new digs, they pondered how to become ‘Ennis people.’ The idea of a family-owned restaurant was a romantic notion in Bruce’s mind, but when Bear Trap Grille came up for sale, the eatery became their livelihood. They purchased the Grille in February 2018 and opened in mid-May with a new name, new menu and some remodeling.

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The couple felt to be successful in Ennis with a bistro, libations needed to be available. Next door to the Tavern 287 is the Silver Dollar Saloon, so they created an opening between the two businesses. Patrons in the bar can order from Tavern 287’s menu, and patrons in the restaurant are free to purchase a drink and bring it over to the bistro.

Beyond the typical cheeseburger and fries, what sets this bistro apart are some unusual and well-executed choices. Appetizers include Smoked Deviled Eggs, Baked Brie, Pheasant Rangoon, and Truffle Tots, a combo of potato barrels, truffle oil, crushed red pepper, Parmesan and roasted red pepper aioli. In addition to the Elk Osso Bucco, Smoked Steak Au Poivre (featuring locally raised Waygu Beef), Bison and Goat Cheese Ravioli, Potato-Crusted Trout Oscar and Bison Meatloaf are tantalizing options for dinner.

Every Friday is a fish fry, featuring Atlantic cod, pollock, and haddock, beer-battered Wisconsin style, and served with fries. It’s all you can eat for $17.00 (coleslaw offered on request).

Bruce defines Montana as a meat-and-potatoes state, but is learning that his customers are willing to experiment with unique food combos and flavors. Additions to the menu result from what can be sourced locally at a reasonable price, and what can be done creatively with the products. Bruce takes his inspiration and ideas for new dishes from his associations with various chefs and his worldwide travel. “I throw ideas at head chef Patrick Caron, and he does the creating,” says Bruce. Caron previously worked at the Summit at Big Sky.

One of Kelly’s hobbies is baking, with a specialty being her delicate and colorful macarons. Each customer is given one of her homemade macarons at the end of the meal and told, “This is a sweet little something to remember us by.” The response to the macarons has created an uptick from locals asking for more of Kelly’s desserts. A bakery case has been added and is filled with a variety of sweet delights from cream puffs to pies to cupcakes. Custom-made cakes or desserts for special occasions are available on request.

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Ennis is abuzz in summer, with traffic coming from and going to Yellowstone Park, fly fishermen plying legendary Montana waters, and folks exploring nearby ghost towns. All of this adds up to a steady stream of customers for Tavern 287, appropriately named for the highway that runs smack dab through the heart of town and a few feet from the bistro’s front door.

Bruce gushed as he talked about Ennis’ community and how everyone looks out for each other. “I joke that our son Rigley has 843 aunts, uncles and cousins looking out for him.” In turn, Bruce and Kelly have given the locals a very affordable neighborhood bistro with some outstanding and creative cuisine, served up with genuine hospitality. This family has become ‘Ennis People’ in every sense of the word.

If my Mom and Dad were still with me, I’d treat them to dinner at Tavern 287 and insist they order Elk Osso Busco.

Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.

TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.

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