Don’t be fooled by TripAdvisor’s list of Billings, Montana’s top ten restaurants, which includes Texas Roadhouse like a gastronomic vestigial structure that has long lost its function in this burgeoning local food scene.
There is fantastic food to be found here.
Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley beneath breathtaking sandstone cliffs, Billings is the largest city in the state — and where I grew up. After my last trip home, I had the chance to discuss Montana food with Jeremy Engebretson, the proprietor and chef of Lilac, which has earned local adoration and national accolades for its fare.
My most recent piece in Zester Daily captures part of our conversation, and this post, the rest. All of the gorgeous photos are courtesy of Louis Habeck, a Montana artist and the official photographer for Lilac.
Discovering Montana Cuisine
For some, “Montana cuisine” conjures the meats the west is known for, like bison, venison, elk, and beef. Before finding their way to the dinner table, such creatures roamed beneath the state’s expansive blue sky, but they are not the only local components in the area’s culinary scene. Nor are they what define the gastronomic perspective of the state.
It turns out food here is a fascinating expression of Montana identity itself. It values the land and landscape, direct communication and unpretentiousness, affordability and responsibility, and an ironclad sense of character—in ingredients, dishes, cooking technique, and people too.
Lilac has embodied this perspective since 2012, operating in an intimate space that seats about sixty downtown, on historic Montana Avenue.
Engebretson is a local himself, having grown up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, and knew since childhood he wanted to be a chef. He also knew that many restaurants fail not because of bad chefs, cooking, or food, but bad business skills. To fortify his future, Engebretson earned a degree in business with a focus on information systems and a minor in economics, while also honing his culinary chops in restaurant kitchens.
Now in his early thirties, boyish looks veil a refreshing directness, a sardonic sense of humor, and an unflinching vision for good food.
Envisioning Good Food
Engebretson believes good food should be affordable and approachable. “It should not be a privilege to eat something someone made for you from real ingredients” he says. “I very much wanted to serve people fantastic, interesting, ‘almost fancy’ food, and serve it at a price point that everyone could eat it.”
Reflecting this democratic sensibility, Lilac’s menu is purposefully small, eclectic, and nimble. It reflects the best ingredients to be found locally, regionally, and from abroad. During Montana’s shorter growing season, from late spring to mid fall, 90% of Lilac’s produce comes from within the state.
Lilac’s menu is also made in house and from scratch, which is foundational for Engebretson, as he says, “It’s possibly the most important part to me, in all cooking not just at Lilac.” From butchering whole animals to whipping up salad dressings to baking bread, Engebretson declares, “We don’t cut corners.”
While Montana- raised grains can be procured year-round, baking bread in house was a challenge, at first, as Engebretson shares its story:
For the first couple years we bought par baked baguettes. This year, we finally had enough of a grasp on the daily life of the restaurant that I was able to take a few weeks and really try to figure out how to make an artisan style loaf that was able to be replicated in our tiny kitchen with our lack of good equipment. It had to be delicious, pretty, teachable, cost effective, and better than the product we were serving. And after a while, we got it down. And I trained people to make it. And now they make better bread than I do. But none of that would have happened if we didn’t have the mindset already of “Hey, let’s make this.”
Building the Menu
Starting with these ingredients and fueled by a collective can-do attitude, menu development is always buzzing at Lilac and growing increasingly collaborative, birthed from meetings of the entire staff. Engebretson describes these events with a ripe enthusiasm: “We have a bunch of us sitting around, tasting wine with the Internet open and a copy of The Flavor Bible and just talking about what we taste and it just goes from there.”
Above, smoked brisket from a special beer pairing menu, which Engebretson describes:
This was a straight up smoked then braised Montana brisket. We made the jus out of ALMOST burning carrots, then deglazing that with beef stock and the braising liquid from the brisket. The dumplings are a kind of pate au choux infused with cheddar, and the horseradish was just fresh grated horseradish right over the top. I remember making that jus really dark and caramel flavored, again ALMOST burned, and infused with garlic/bay traditional stuff. And then we clarified it.
The menu development process starts from untold points of inspiration, including staff travel and exploration, as well as declarations like, “Green garlic is in season. We can get that for four weeks. Let’s make a dish out of that.” Or, “I read about how the yolk of a 63 degree egg is supposed to be sublime. Let’s make a dish focused on that.” Or, “This wine is really briny, reminds me of an olive or a tapenade. What’s a dish that would work well with this olive note?”
Such rumination results in dishes like that pictured above — foi gras ice cream with toasted marshmallow and graham cracker crumble, an item from a special wine dinner event, with a caveat from Engebretson:
We have to feel good about our decisions, so we cook food that we can feel good about. I LOVE foie gras, but I will run a foie on very, very rare occasion. I treat it like it’s my birthday.
Finding Joy in the Restaurant Industry
Engebretson’s definition of responsible food also prioritizes issues of food labor. “I find it hypocritical,” he says, “when you are in an industry where the whole goal is to make someone happy, and you’re living a miserable life.”
Work-life balance is part of Lilac’s recipe for success. United by a craft-oriented perspective and cross-training experience, staff members are deeply committed to good food, alongside other creative pursuits. Proud of the restaurant’s very low employee turnover, Engebretson boasts, “Our employees are dancers, painters, musicians, parents…and they work at a really great place.”
Lilac is proving to be “a really great place” all round, with an approach that combines quality ingredients, responsible sourcing, craft cooking, beautifully-executed food, and a dedication to art, soul, joy, and balance. It’s a place that realizes Engebretson’s original vision:
I wanted to create a restaurant that my family would have maybe gone to when I was a kid. Open to all types, incomes, hair color, political preference, tattoos, god choice, anything. Because we all need to eat. And it should be attainable, healthy, and hopefully make you feel a little special in the process.
2515 Montana Avenue, Billings MT