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."