“Many Oysters – Only one Pearl”

Reprinted from the magazine Distinctly Montana. Spring issue 2015

Article by Jim Gray.

Top of Her Game: Pearl Cash (Links to original article)

In 2015, Pearl Cash will mark her 40th year in the restaurant business.

She grew up on a farm in the Bitterroot where the family had to grow or raise just about everything they ate. Pickled and preserved vegetables and fruits were a mainstay of the family’s wintertime diet.

Professional cooking didn’t figure into her career plans until shortly after graduation from high school when she worked at a restaurant in Hamilton and the owner invited her to cook with him. She says she identifies that moment as the time when she got hooked on the restaurant business.

Her eponymous restaurant, Pearl Café and Bakery in Missoula, is one of the city’s premier dining establishments. Her fondness for French cuisine, along with nods to classic American foods and an approachable wine list make for an extraordinary evening out.

What inspires you?

I can’t think of anything more inspiring or satisfying than going to a farmers market and seeing beautiful ingredients because that always challenges me to be creative. You have to work with whatever you have on hand—what’s freshest or in season or even working with what I call a limited palate.

Now I’d like to know WHO Inspires you?
I love the honesty and straightforward approach to food and fine dining from Patrick O’Connell (The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA). He and I are about the same vintage and we share an approach that doesn’t pay much attention to what’s “hot” or trendy. He doesn’t chase fame—like being a “celebrity chef” on television.

I also admire the work of Francis Mallmann (author of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentina Way). I really appreciate the way it appealed to my Montana roots and since I enjoy outdoor activities, cooking over a fire—in a number of different ways really resonated. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking in my fireplace at home.

And let me give a shout-out to my staff in the kitchen—a bunch of young guys I really enjoy cooking with—they keep me on my toes and thinking currently. They do some cutting-edge stuff without going for all of the methods-of-the-moment like molecular gastronomy. On the other hand, they’ve opened my eyes to how good techniques like pickling and fermenting can be. That takes me back to my childhood. We used to do that because it’s mostly what our food supply was in the winter, and it never would have crossed my mind to apply that in the context of a restaurant.

There seem to be a lot of influences from your previous restaurant, The Alley Cat.

Yes, in fact I’ve incorporated many of the same sauces, and a number of entrees will make an appearance on our menus at Pearl Café.

Tell me more about The Alley Cat.

The essential thing you have to know is that it was tiny. It was a very narrow space and I don’t think we could accommodate more than a dozen people at a time. The kitchen was so small, only two of us could fit there—plus the person who washed dishes.

Where do you see your restaurant going over the foreseeable future?

First of all, I read many of the (culinary) trade magazines and blogs and I don’t think what the “ingredient of the moment” or what’s happening in the dining scene in larger cities will have much effect (in our restaurant). I see the dining world going toward a more casual approach with more options for customizing one’s dinner.

And even though I’ve edited my menu, I still think we may need to make it smaller—perhaps go prix fixe or maybe just some limited choices.

I know for certain that this will be my last restaurant. After 40 years of cooking commercially, I’ve done what I can. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about A Table in the Tarn that chronicled a British writer’s labor of love, turning an old French Inn into a world-class dining destination. But that’s just me daydreaming.

Do you have an overriding philosophy on food?

From day one, I’ve stood by and behind the food I love. I want eggs from chickens, milk from cows, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats. I’ve stayed the course and I intend to keep it that way.

About the Author: Chef Jim Gray is a Missoula-based culinary instructor and restaurant consultant. He was the 2005 American Culinary Federation Montana Chef of the Year.  He now operates the Kitchen Guy Cooking School in Missoula. As a restaurant consultant he creates, remakes, and reimagines menus for food and beverage establishments.

Pearl Cafe and Bakery Featured in New West Cuisine

Dig in to a tantalizing taste of the Rocky Mountain West through the recipes and photographs of New West Cuisine (Gibbs Smith, Hardcover, $29.95, May) by Chase Reynolds Ewald and Amy Jo Sheppard with photographs by Audrey Hall. Enlightened chefs of the new West are marrying this region?s tradition of hearty, homemade meals with the concepts of organic, local and sustainable food. The result is fresh, creative cuisine with a respect for the land and traditions it comes from. 

Featuring 15 great kitchens in the northern Rockies ? from upscale mountain resort destinations to scenery-rich ranches to mom-and-pop roadside attractionsNew West Cuisine offers a variety of seasonal menus and mouthwatering dishes from the region?s most sought-after eateries, along with stunning photography of each scenic setting. The locations and styles differ, but all share a passion for delicious handmade food, seasonal and local ingredients, and the rich Rocky Mountain tradition of warmth and hospitality. 

Missoula?s own Pearl Caf? and Bakery is featured in New West Cuisine with a Valentine?s dinner for two featuring: Smoked Salmon Salad with Heart Beets, Lemon Vinaigrette, and Horseradish Cream; Curried Asparagus Soup; Beef Tenderloin Steaks with Mustard and Tarragon Sauce; Thyme-Roasted New Potatoes and Sauteed Spinach; Warm Chocolate Chip Tarts with Orange Supremes Marinated in Orange Liqueur. Copies of New West Cuisine can be purchased at Amazon.com or at gibbs-smith.com

Pearl Cafe named Best Restaurant by Missoula Independent best of Missoula 2010

Pearl Cafe received for 2010 the Best Restaurant, Best Romantic Dining and Best Restaurant Service in the recent polling of Missoulians by the Missoula Independent.  

The Pearl has atmosphere and décor perfectly matched for a night away from the kitchen. Nearly any menu pick is a guaranteed winner, try the crispy pair of quail stuffed with spinach mousse, wrapped in pancetta and roasted. Owner Pearl Cash says customers love her two filet mignon choices so much they haven't let her take them off the menu for years. 

Pearl Café and Bakery: 231 E. Front Street; 541-0231; pearlcafe.us 


Lifelong Affair - Pearl's Cafe and Bakery Born from Obsession

Once upon a time, a certain couple had their first date at Pearl Cash’s first restaurant, d’Auria’s in Hamilton. During their courtship the couple dined there a few more times. They married and had a son, and the son grew up and had a sweetheart, and when the young couple decided to get married, the son announced his engagement to his parents at Cash’s newest restaurant, Pearl Cafe and Bakery in Missoula.

Article in SizzlnCuisine.com: Taste Worth a Trip

The Pearl Café ~ Missoula, Montana
Tables at The Pearl Cafe featured in SizzlnCuisine.com
It seems that French food has gotten my attention lately. Maybe it was back when Bittersweet Bistro’s Gina Garcia offered those deliciously creative and savory crepes on Spokane’s South Hill. Maybe it was when Madeleine’s Café and Pâtisserie opened in Downtown Spokane with those beautiful melt-in-your-mouth French pastries, and then Jeremy Hansen of Sante introduced Spokane to the taste sensations of charcuterie. Or, maybe it was when Fleur de Sel came to Post Falls all the way from Billings, Mont., bringing all points of France they know so well and take their inspiration from? French country or city sidewalk food, the French have got my attention.

I grew up watching Julia Child’s passion for French food on public television. The extensive processes intrigue me, the flavorful results fascinate me, and the visual delights satisfy before the taste sensations even brush my lips. I feel so at home with the flavors, the textures and the presentations that French food brings to the table that I crave more and seek them where ever I go these days; especially when you can find them here in the Northwest.

This is why I chose The Pearl Café on a recent trip to Missoula, Mont., for one of Mitch Silver’s collector car auctions. Here we were, hungry and on the hunt for something fabulous after the auction setup, and four great recommendations came our way: The Pearl Café, RedBird, The Silk Road and Scotty’s Table. Since they were all downtown and we could do a quick drive by/walk by to check for curb appeal, I could easily convince Mitch of the curb appeal I found most interesting. Little did he know, I had already decided, sight unseen that The Pearl was the one. Regardless of what the actual curb appeal would be I would say it’s the one because … the French have got my attention of late.

Good decision. Even with other notable restaurants that Missoula is known for, I am glad we—or rather I—chose The Pearl. The entrance hall was lined with local awards of excellence, the greeting was warm and inviting at the curb and once inside, and the service was as friendly as the greeting, and the whole staff worked together for the experience.

With the extent of the menu it was difficult to choose. There was a little something for everyone including the traditional Bacon- Wrapped Scallops for the less adventurous. We started with a tasty array of cheeses, sipped up the Mushroom Bisque with browned butter and dill, shared an avocado, pear, pecan and blue cheese salad, and got a little more adventurous with each taste. My entrée was the Seafood Mixed Grill that had a surprising taste-popping chili aioli and smoky tomato butter with fresh jalapeño sauce that really zinged up the usually buttery seafood dish. Mitch had the Veal Chops with Morels and smashed red potatoes with a creamy morel and Madeira sauce.

And I thought I couldn’t stand one more bite but then … it is a French restaurant. So, we got the Blackout Cake with sweet and salty pecan and coconut caramel, served with brown-sugar ice cream.

Thanks Mitch, for being my favorite person in the world and for tolerating my passion for the French these days. Missoula isn’t really known as a culinary destination, but yes, we did find The Pearl there ... in Missoula.


 Reprinted from Idaho Cuisine Northern Edition 2011-2012 IdahoCuisine.com

Kitchen Magicians: Our fourth annual roundup of the best chefs in the Northwest

Cooking in the Northwest is like an ever-changing, albeit very delicious stew. Some chefs stirring the mix stay around for a while; others move on. All add their own unique touch. This year?s roster of best chefs comes from different backgrounds, uses different resources, and cooks in different styles. But once you eat at their restaurants, you'll agree that the food is all you had hoped it could be. Bon appetit!

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I first tasted the spicy shrimp. The prawns tasted perfectly fresh and the sauce was light and buttery without being too rich, flecked with fresh herbs. The dinner salad was a perfectly balanced mix of garden greens, with a few judicious splashes of carrot and red cabbage, accented by yellow flowers. The meal got better with the mahi mahi, garnished with local chanterelle mushrooms in a creamy sherry sauce.

Did I enjoy this French repast in San Francisco or Seattle? No, it was on a busy night in Missoula, Montana, at the Alley Cat Grill. As I dined, I could hear a steady bustle from the kitchen. Laughter drifted into the dining room on wisps of steam, accompanied by delightful aromas, all a testament to the hard work and natural talent of self-trained chef and owner Pearl Cash.

Cash remembers being fascinated by food early on. My mom is a great basic cook; we grew or raised everything we needed when I was young. My mother's sister, Dora, gave me my first glimpses of new and exotic foods. I loved to stare into her well-stocked refrigerator and sit on the floor reading her cookbooks from cover to cover.?

Cash's interest n food grew as she grew older. In 1974, she took a job as a waitress in an unlikely little French restaurant called The Stein Steer in the Bitterroot Valley, 47 miles south of Missoula. Its owners, Bob and Elizabeth Holt, were transplanted Easterners familiar with restaurants very unlike those in Montana at the time, Cash says. They were accustomed to good wines and gracious service. The experience proved to be a turning point in her life. I wormed my way into the kitchen as fast as I could. Cooking with Bob was always an adventure.

Her career took off in 1975, the year she married the Holts' son. A year later, the newlyweds bought the restaurant and Cash began to travel to widen her horizons. In subsequent trips to France and San Francisco, I absorbed ideas like a sponge and continued to study cookbooks avidly,? she says. I suspect that France gave Cash her classic approach to cookery while San Francisco added the touch of eclecticism. This shines in the dining room, decorated in a cat motif. Despite the frivolity, the dining room could be quite formal, if it were not periodically enlivened by the exuberant noises and aromas drifting from the kitchen.

Cash moved solo to Missoula in 1985, and opened a restaurant in a remodeled railway depot. She moved to the present location in 1987. The brick building with painted gingerbread and alley-front location charmed me from the start,? she admits. The place has certainly brought out her culinary creativity. Over the past six years, the menu has evolved from a more casual steak-and-burger start to a dinner-only restaurant specializing in fresh seafood, hand-cut meats, fine wines by the glass, and unique hors d'oeuvres. Pearl Cash has most certainly succeeded. The Alley Cat Grill is one of only two restaurants east of the Cascades where I would unhesitatingly order seafood, trusting that it would be fresh.  

Pacific Northwest Magazine: Alley Cat Grill

When I traveled recently to Missoula to attend a writers? conference, like and good life-style journalist, I saw my chance to play the prodigal daughter and take my parents out to dinner?on an expense account. For most of the weekend I queried writers about the best French restaurant in town. In my informal and very unscientific straw poll, the Alley Cat took top honors, hands down.  With its unlikely name, the Alley Cat is located in a very inconspicuous spot off the main drag that runs through downtown, north to south. By off, I mean that it lies midblock, halfway down an alley. When I was in junior high school, this very space was occupied by a little sandwich shop where my mom and I occasionally went after shopping downtown. Walking down an alley for a sandwich didn?t seem too strange at the time. Walking down an alley for escargot or fresh salmon seems less likely. But it?s worth the trip. 

Even when the Hellgate is blowing. Which it was on the blustery Sunday evening that my parents and I braved the winds and hustled down the alley. Inside, weather be damned, was a small, bustling restaurant full of diners and good smells. Settling into a booth, we turned our attention to the fresh board on the wall. Pearl Cash, the restaurant?s owner and chef, takes great pride in her fresh fish specials. Something about being in Montana took hold of me, though, and I ordered a filet prepared with a port wine brown sauce kissed with roquefort cheeses. My parents, on their first assignment as co-reviewers, followed my lead and ordered a filet with green peppercorn sauce and a simple filet mignon. In retrospect, I should have tried the mahi mahi with rosemary and olives or the fresh salmon with white wine and mushroom sauce, but I was unwilling to change my preference, remembering a similar preparation I had savored a few years ago at Gasperetti?s in Yakima, Washington. 

All entr?es come with a house salad and fresh vegetables, plus a choice of baked potato, french fries, or saffron rice, altogether a more than ample dinner. So when I asked my parents what looked good to them on the appetizer sheet?prosciutto with figs, saut?ed mushrooms, or French onion soup to name a few?they protested that they had plenty coming already. ?Get to work,? I hissed. ?We?re not here to have fun! We?re on assignment!? They didn?t complain when the roquefort and pecan won tons I suggested came to the table. Served with sliced Granny Smith apple, the little turnovers were soon gone. 

Our salads arrived at a comfortable pace, just after we sampled the bottle of Duckhorn merlot I ordered as much to impress my parents as to indulge myself. ?I have very little French wine anymore because it?s gotten very hard to afford,? Cash explained to me later. ?That?s a sadness, but I try to keep things affordable and ready to drink right now.? 

French or not, this is a philosophy that my family can relate to, as evidenced that night. After our empty bread basket (later refilled) and salad plates were whisked away, all three of us agreed that the salads were the freshest we remembered having anywhere in a long time. And then came our steaks. 

My father pronounced his peppercorn steak excellent. My mother oohed and aahed over her filet mignon. And my filet completely surpassed the steak I had once enjoyed in Yakima. Sorry, Gasperetti?s. Not only was the cut done exactly to order?one of my major beefs, excuse the pun?but the sauce was as alight as a port wine sauce swirled with roquefort cheese can be. 

Like many other French restaurants around the Northwest, Cash admits to lightening some of the more traditional French recipes, in addition to incorporating other ethnic influences such as Indian chutney or Mexican salsas into her repertoire. If all this seems still a bit too much for you on any given day, Cash offers items such as steamed mussels, French onion soup, or spicy saut?ed shrimp with a salad for a lighter supper. 

Perhaps these smaller helpings could be used as an excuse by some diners to save room for dessert. We were lucky. We were on assignment, so we didn?t need and excuse. Together we shared a portion of white chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce that was as visually stunning and it was delicious. Other popular offering include chocolate mousse and Cash?s favorite, a very traditional French chocolate chestnut cake.

The Alley Cat is open daily for dinner only. Reservations are recommended. Leave a good two hours for dinner in you schedule?while the service is professional and well paced, this is a place where dining is revered as a worthy pastime and nothing is rushed. Your time will be well spent.

Cooking Across America: Pearl Cash

Cooking with more than 100 of North America's best cooks and 250 of their favorite recipes; Missoula, Montana
Cash and Alley Cat - Pearl Cash.

Pearl Cash is a vivacious redheaded woman who arguably is one of the best young chefs in the country. She is little known except around Missoula and that's because national food writers/critics seldom, if ever, focus attention on what's happening in faraway Montana.

I had not heard of Pearl and the Alley Cat Grill before I got to Missoula, but I'll not forget her now that we've been there. The food was exceptionally good. The Grill, which had been Daddy's, a gay bar, before Pearl took it over two years ago, is in an old building in a no-name alley. The address is 125 West Main, but don't look for it on Main Street, because it is not there. It is half a block way. Ask for directions. 

The Grill, with its high ceilings and exposed red-brick walls, is warm and comfortable and smells of good things. There's a big whiskered neon cat in the front window and a collection of feline art on the walls. (I usually don't care for cats, but these seemed right for the place.) there are a half-dozen seats at the bar, ten comfortably wide booths, and one small table for four in the back. Not large, and you may have to wait.

Lunch is chiefly sandwiches and salads. For my first lunch there I had grilled large gulf shrimp on mixed greens with mushrooms, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, and green onions tossed with a ginger nut dressing and sprinkled with toasted coconut. Dessert (and I went overboard): Viennese triple chocolate hazelnut rum torte! That held me until evening when I had grilled fresh Oregon salmon brushed with lemon pepper and butter.

Dessert: Oh, no, I couldn't.

Pearl started her career as a waitress?a young girl serving tables in a restaurant owned by a family whose son she married shortly thereafter. The two of them opened their own cafe, but after a while the marriage failed and so to did the business. "No reflection in the food," Pearl said, "but the restaurant was too big a project. That's why the Alley Cat is small. I grew up a lot in a short time. I had read and studied and cooked enough to know that I knew good cuisine when I saw and tasted it. But I was scared. I stood in awe of big city chefs and big name cooks with their big French credentials and connections.

"So I thought I had better go to France and see what it is all about. I signed up for cooking classes and off I flew. I hadn't been there more that a month when I knew I knew food. I never felt so confident.

"Yet I realized that everything I had heard about French cooking was true - the food was really good, the seasoning superb, the wines outstanding - but the doing of it was not an insurmountable task! Start with good ingredients, do interesting things with them, you can prepare a dish that is as good as you can find in the best French restaurants. This I believe!

"That to me was a revelation," she continued. "Wow! I hurried home, married Bob, and started the Alley Cat. Never a regret."