Flash in the Pan 

Behind the Blue Veil: Backstage at the Steelhead Grill

“Enter through the door that says ‘Enter,’” I say to myself. Then I find myself in the inferno of earthly delights that is the kitchen of the new Steelhead Grill. The first thing I have to do is strip off layers, but first I have to find a place to stand where I won’t get hit by swinging pans, flying saucers, and whirling waitresses.

Chef/owner Adam Young is reading a ticket out loud to the kitchen the way a quarterback calls plays, a litany of salads, pizzas, appetizers, and entrees. Line cook John Bohman joins the kitchen chant: “Firing a halibut and a lamb.” Young adds, “Check on those empanadas, please.” Bohman reflects, “Checking empanadas.” Soon, I notice, those empanadas are drizzled in chipotle cream and sprinkled with chopped green onions.

On this night, Charles Davidson, the other chef/owner of the Steelhead Grill, is in the dining room. I decide to check on him, exiting the kitchen through the door marked “Exit.” Between the kitchen and the dining room is the performance space of the Blue Heron, jammed with Lucy Kaplansky fans. Waitstaff sneak behind the bar rather than push through the crowd.

In the front room, Davidson is hustling like Pete Rose running for home plate. While bussing tables, he is also running the show in the dining room—talking to customers and waitstaff while his quick eyes keep a reading on the dining room pulse.

Earlier, during a quieter part of the day, Young and Davidson took a moment to tell the story of their new restaurant. Young, trained in the classical culinary tradition of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and Davidson, a self-taught chef, worked together for years at Marianne’s at the Wilma. But the time came when the two cooks decided to strike out on their own, without having to answer to anyone.

That is, except each other—and this keeps things lively. Says Davidson, “We built the menu around what Adam and I would want to eat if we went out.” Indeed, the menu has something for everyone. I bet even my finicky nephew Miles could find something he would eat: Asian noodles, cornmeal fries with bleu cheese sauce, pizza, grilled fish sandwiches, gumbo.

“It’s a place where a group of five people who can’t agree on what they want to eat can all come and find something they like, from falafel to tenderloin,” says Young. Davidson adds, “Two people can come in and get a salad and a flatbread for $13 and both people are full. Or, they can drop $100.”

The dining room scene is a stimulating cross-section of Missoula, including students, surgeons, ranchers—some dressed casual, some fancy. It’s a different crowd every night, depending upon the show at the Blue Heron.

Back in the “engine room,” the clank–splatter–sizzle sounds of the kitchen are white noise in the dizzying heat. Just then a saucepan on the stove bursts into flames—a real flash in the pan! Zane Strand shakes the pan, and the Flash disappears into a fragrant sizzle. A ticket falls to the cutting board, and Bohman snags the ticket with his tongs like a samurai snagging a fly with chopsticks. Both have been cooking with Young and Davidson for years, since Marianne’s. On top of a tray of dirty dishes is the remains of a rack of lamb with sun-dried tomato polenta. I couldn’t take my eyes off a bright green sprig of asparagus sitting in red pepper pistachio cream sauce on the plate. I wondered if anybody would mind if I just reached over and...But no, Chef Boy Ari would never do such a barbaric thing, unless he knew he could get away with it.

Eventually, the frenetic kitchen meltdown winds down, and the airspace clears enough for the kitchen crew to launch into a round of the conversation game, “Which would you rather?” But they wisely wait for me to leave before they begin. When I push the door marked “exit,” it pushes back. I hop aside just in time, as a waitress bursts into the kitchen and shouts “Fire table nine.” The kitchen chorus echoes “Fire table nine.”

The Steelhead Grill recipe for fried green tomatoes

This illustrates a great way to do an important cooking procedure: fry batter. Note the separate hand functions.

Slice green tomatoes into 1/4-inch rounds. With one hand, coat the tomatoes thoroughly, one by one, in a “dredging mixture:” 3 cups flour, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon white pepper. With that same hand, drop the slice in an “egg wash” of 1 cup milk and 4 eggs. With your other hand, remove the slice, and drop it in a “cornmeal batter” of 1 cup flour, 2 cups cornmeal, 1 teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon granulated garlic, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon coriander, and 1/2 onion powder. Remove the slice with the other hand. Deep fry at 350 degrees. 

E-mail Chef Boy Ari at flash@missoulanews.com

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