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.