The Montana border, and Cooke City just beyond it, is about a twenty minute drive from the ranch where we stay in northern Wyoming. Driving in this part of the country is an exercise in vigilance. You have to work hard not to let your eyes become dulled to the never-ending beauty, the tall emerald pines against steep mountainsides, grasslands spread out far and wide, streams full of glassy water that gurgles softly over rocks. At dusk wild animals come out to feed, and a car pulled over on the roadside means someone has spotted an elk or a moose, or even a bear. When this happens I beg Mr. Food Musings to stay inside the safety of the rental car. “Moose are known to charge!” I plead. Too many bee stings as a child taught me early on that Mother Nature and her creatures can and will kick a little human tush when given half a chance. He just shrugs off my death grip and grabs his camera.
After a dozen winding turns over sheer canyons, Cooke City emerges, the last outpost of civilization before Yellowstone. City seems to me a generous term for a place so small it boasts neither a stoplight nor a stop sign. There are a few grizzled motels that have seen better days, two gas stations, a tourist shop that masquerades as an authentic Trading Post (but whose Cooke City-emblazoned tea cozies and sweatshirts give it away). The general store sells lures and flies and dusty cans of Chef Boyardee from warped shelves in front, and trail guides and picture books of bears and Wallace Stegner novels in back. The floorboards creak and the air is hazy with centuries-old dust from the dirt floors beneath the wood. It feels like a place that holds secrets and I love to go in and breathe in its oldness, walk around and look at the odd assortment of wares, crocheted wallets, plastic canteens, old maps. Come wintertime, it shuts down, as do most of the establishments in Cooke City. This country is so rugged and inhospitable six months of the year that parts of the road even close, forcing locals to get around on snowmobiles. The mix of bow-legged, leather-clad cowboys and unshaven, leather-clad bikers who do battle for supplies and supper make Cooke City a modern day Wild West. The cowboys sport ten-pound belt buckles and ten-gallon hats, while the bikers arm themselves with tequila shots and bikes painted crimson and electric blue and shiny with polished chrome.
This year we had driven to town for dinner at The Bistro, a place we’ve been several times before. As on all our other visits, they were out of a fair portion of the menu, but I’ve learned not to get disappointed. This time it was the pasta. All of it. Two things about The Bistro surprise me each year: how good it is, and how magnificent its short wine list. What would you guess would be at the top of the wine list in this tiny podunk town? Mais oui, it’s a $240 Cheval Blanc, 1er Cru. There is also a $75 Pommard and a Chambolle-Musigny, both French reds of notable distinction, and the champagne choices include Dom Perignon. Beneath these white zinfandel is advertised by the glass, betraying, I suspect, the tastes of the dining majority.
This is a restaurant where entrées come with soup or salad, potatoes or rice, eliminating the need for a starter. Thankfully Mr. FM’s gluttony got in the way of common decency and he ordered the smoked trout anyway. The waitress sighed and said that they were out, but the chef had already started smoking more and she would check to see if it was ready yet. What she brought to the table was an entire smoked trout split down the middle and laid out on a simple white plate with a few lemon wedges, thick cuts of raw onion and a crock of heavy cream, not quite whipped and spiked with horseradish. We piled it all on buttered toast and as we popped it in our mouths, a chorus of sighs rose from the table. It didn’t look fancy but it was some of the best smoked trout I’ve had.
We dug into tender medium-rare rib-eyes that the chef goes to Billings for twice a week, and baked potatoes so soft and sweet I was embarrassed for my own. We ended up drinking a silky Mondavi Cabernet. (“Why don’t we drink this more often?” Mr. Food Musings asked. Ha. As though I’m the one making the beverage decisions in our household.)
Crème brulée was the only housemade dessert and we shared two among the four of us. The flavor was perfect and the top admirably blistered, but it was stone cold. By that point the chef had come out to the dining room to drink some wine with a group of bikers that had come in for a late meal. He stopped by our table and poured us a taste of the Chambolle-Musigny, explaining that he didn’t put vintages on the wine list anymore because his deliveries are so unreliable. “Some days zey do not bring what I or-dure, and uzzer days zee truck does not even stop.” Richard is French and has cooked for years, first in France (“My training is so informal zee French would not even consider me a real chef.”) and later at posh resorts in the Caribbean. He is, quite obviously, a wine enthusiast, and he’s missing his top front teeth. I wonder if any of the locals bother to notice, or to care. His wife, Theresa, is from Virginia and she told me that some of their regulars make the three hour drive from Billings every month just to eat. “People said there wasn’t any point to opening a place like this in Cooke City, but I think everybody appreciates good food.” Word.
The Bistro, Cooke City, Montana, 214 Main Street, 406-838-2160