Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, beneath an expansive blue sky, diners can taste not just Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself. Expressed through food, the Montana identity 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.
Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley beneath breathtaking sandstone cliffs, Billings is the largest city in the state, where I grew up, and home to Lilac, a restaurant that has earned local adoration and national accolades. Just a year after it opened in 2012, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Award for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.
It’s not hard to see how Lilac, and its proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson, embody the best of what could be called “Montana cuisine.”
In an intimate space on historic Montana Avenue, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance, or exclusivity here. Rather, Engebretson describes Lilac’s food on the restaurant website with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”
Engebretson is a local himself, who grew 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 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.
Crafting Food and a Staff, from Scratch and with Soul
Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index ranks Montana among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food. From late spring to mid fall, 90% of Lilac’s produce comes from within the state.
Engebretson describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.” It’s a point of view that brings together ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, cheese, and honey with wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.
Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. This year’s winter menu ranges from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip, and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli, and micro salad.
From-scratch cooking and “not cutting corners” are foundational for Engebretson. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” he says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”
And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams, and bake bread—all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.
These close quarters foster a team as comfortable in the back of the house as the front. Along with the kitchen crew, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry, and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house. Ask any server, chef, or cook at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared, or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it.
United by a craft-oriented perspective and cross-training experience, staff members at Lilac 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.” In such ways, Engebretson’s definition of responsible food 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.”
Developing a Montana-Centric, Modern American Menu
Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson declares, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand…I believe it should not be a privilege to eat something someone made for you from real ingredients. I very much wanted to serve people fantastic, interesting, ‘almost fancy’ food, and serve it at a price point that everyone could eat it.”
Concurrently, Engebretson says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies, and ideas that speak to us today.” The style can be expressed through hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking, and inventive flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques, and a heritage focus. Engebretson values heirloom ingredients and asserts a gastronomic inquisitiveness that extends deep into the past.
The sundry qualities of the restaurant’s culinary style manifest as rich variation on the menu, which is purposefully small, eclectic, and nimble.
The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. A complement to such an iconic and accessible mainstay, 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.”
Development starts from untold points of inspiration, including staff travel and exploration, as well as ruminations 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?”
Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac constantly and consistently aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness, and a strong sense of purpose.
In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. Engebretson cares deeply about quality ingredients, ethical and responsible sourcing, and from-scratch, craft cooking. He is also concerned for health and dedicated to art, soul, joy, and balance.
“At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”
2515 Montana Avenue, Billings MT
All photos are courtesy of Louis Habeck, a Montana artist and the official photographer for Lilac.