BACK IN BIG SKY COUNTRY: A SENTIMENTAL DINING EXPERIENCE TO HONOR ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Anthony Bourdain left a piece of his heart in Montana.
As a fan of his shows, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” and saddened by his recent death, I wanted to experience first-hand what left him smitten.
Even though I grew up in Montana and spent the first 30 years of my life there, I had only passed through Livingston, where Bourdain shot episodes in 2009 and 2016.
So, after attending a relative’s wedding in Bozeman on Saturday, my wife, Cara; brother, longtime Las Vegas photographer Jeff Scheid and his wife Jenny headed out on Sunday for Livingston, 20-some miles away, to check out the Murray Hotel, which Bourdain ranked among his top 10 favorite hotels in the world.
We planned the trip around dining at the 2nd Street Bistro, a legendary eatery adjacent to the hotel, and touring the Livingston Depot Center, a restored 1902 Northern Pacific Railway Station that houses a museum paying homage to the city’s rich railroad history.
At the end of our hour-long museum visit, we scurried across the street in a torrential downpour to the hotel to kill a few minutes before the restaurant opened.
A nice young lady at the reception desk agreed to give us a tour of one of the rooms. The Murray’s most famous guests included Robert Redford, Margot Kidder, Will Rogers, the Queen of Denmark and Hollywood director Sam Peckinpah. He loved Livington so much he rented the three-room suite from 1979 to 1984. One night gunshots were heard from his room during a rainstorm. He later complained that his room was soaked, but didn’t mention the holes in the roof came from his gunshots. His cinematic achievements included “Ride the High Country,” “The Cincinnati Kid” and “The Wild Bunch,” a gory, epic western that earned the violence-loving Peckinpah the nickname “Bloody Sam.”
Bourdain had reserved “Peck’s Suite" during his stays. “It’s not really a suite. It’s like a big apartment,” said the reservation desk lady. “You could put 10 people in there.” Could we see it? No, she said, someone had moved in about week ago.
After our tour of a modest suite we headed down to the bar, which had a good crowd for a Sunday.
In a previous life, the bar no doubt featured spittoons for the tobacco-chewing cowboys and ranchers. Surely there were old West calendars showing the Custer Massacre, a staple at most Montana water holes during my younger years.
Now the main features are cattle brands on one wall and a Wall of Fame dedicated to the many fly fisherman lured to this area. According the bar’s website, the wall “started out as a payback for an old bar tab…If you had an interesting story and the camera could be focused, you were on the wall.” The criterion for a hallowed spot on the wall: “you drink like a fish at the Murray or you live a life of fishing and have a few at the Murray.”
One photo stood out because it didn’t have a framed fly under glass. Instead there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon label where the faux fly would be encased under the the image of valued clients. It was no small honor to be displayed among “the Murray Bar Flies.”
After a quick glass of wine, we headed next door to the restaurant, which at 5:15 p.m. on a rainy Sunday already had a crowd of loyal diners waiting to be seated. The first thing you see upon entering is a photo of Bourdain with a group that included distinguished author Jim Harrison (“Legends of the Fall”), artist Russ Chatham and two chefs.
Below the photo was a menu the guest trio signed before sitting down for the special five-course dinner. The courses reflected many of Montana’s best-known locally grown products: pork rillettes, Flathead Lake whitefish stuffed with smoked trout mousseline and finished with Flathead Lake whitefish caviar buerre blanc, pan-seared duck breast finished with Chinese five spice and local honey jus, braised short ribs finished with morel mushrooms and braising jus and lavender-roasted rack of lamb. And for dessert: local honey Panna Cotta with fresh spring rhubarb coulis.
Every course came with a wine pairing, of course.
Bourdain summed it up with a salty hyphenated compliment. He scribbled: “In (bleeping) credible.”
Our appetites whetted by the spectacular courses, we were served notice that without reservations we couldn’t get in. We were crushed. Then an eagle-eyed member of our party noticed no one was at the tiny bar.
Could we eat at the bar? After some whispered back and forth, a staffer agreed we could.
While waiting for our entrees—seafood stew (in an addictive broth featuring saffron), truffle fries, short ribs, Hunter’s chicken and mussels – Jeff told me to check out the wall on a nearby cove.
Covering the wall were special menus of executive chef Brian Menges’ Sunday special “Around the World in 28 Weeks,” billed as a European culinary adventure with wine pairings. (For reservations: 406-222-9463).
For dessert we shared a chocolate mousse, with generous double scoops drizzled with olive oil and laced with sea salt. Highly recommended.
We would have driven the length of Montana – all 750 miles—for the overall experience. By the way, the dinner tab was $173 and it included a $50 bottle of Cote du Rhone red.
We will long remember Bourdain’s word after his 2009 visit:
“When I look back on my life and career…I’ll look back on the Montana (“No Reservations” ) show with no small amount of pride. I will smile and be proud that I had the honor, the privilege, the sheer joy of having Jim Harrison on No Reservations…I’ll be grateful that a painting by the awesome Russell Chatham now hangs on my wall. That the fishing guide, wilderness cook, jack-of-all trades Dan Lahren showed me around. And that I got to spend many happy hours drinking at one of the world’s finest saloons, The Murray Bar.”
R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain.