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.