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Brasserie Porte Rouge

A chef's kiss to a French twist

When they started Burns Street Bistro about a decade ago, co-owners Walker Hunter, Jason McMackin, and Cameron Williams had some cooking limitations. The neighborhood eatery on the Westside of Missoula didn’t have a kitchen hood and they had to make do with just a soup cooker, convection oven, and panini press. Walker, the original BSB chef, says those limitations actually made it easier to figure out their brunch and lunch menu, which has sustained their popularity and allowed them to add equipment and expand their fare over time.

“I work well in those conditions,” Walker says. “I get creative.”

In early February 2022, the BSB co-owners opened another restaurant. Brasserie Porte Rouge is a French-inspired restaurant focused on the dinner hour, located at 231 E. Front Street in the former Pearl Cafe, where Walker got his start. The full-circle story of mentor Pearl Cash handing off the business—or at least the space—to her mentee, Walker, seems like perfect kismet. But the owners faced bumps in the road. They had to remodel in a pandemic, with a limited budget when material prices were on the rise. And Jason says it’s still unfinished. If they bit off more than they could chew, they moved forward anyway. And as it often goes, many of their obstacles turned to opportunities.

“Porte rouge” means “red door” and, indeed, you enter the restaurant through a striking red double door. The space inside is a combination of Art Deco (which originated in France) and industrial styles, with high-raftered ceilings and black ductwork, reclaimed wood columns, brick walls and bold geometric shapes—in black, red, and white—that appear in the tiled floor and across the front of the long, elegant wood bar. Some of the materials were pulled from the original Pearl interior. Patrons sit family-style along the long wooden table centered in the room, or in smaller groups in teal booths. Upstairs is an interior balcony with individual tables, some of which look out over the lower restaurant. It was remodeled with the help of architectural designer Matt Duguid and local artist/carpenter Jack Metcalf. It’s not finished as planned, Jason says, but he’s glad it’s still a work in progress.

“I’m kind of excited about adding bits and pieces here and there,” Jason says. It’s an opportunity for thoughtfulness, he notes, for picking out just the right painting or object of interest—evolving the space in a more natural way."

The cuisine and vibe is evolving, too. People often reserve tables at BPR for dates and special occasions—it’s that kind of place. But it’s also a place where you can pop in, slide onto a bar stool, and order a drink and food to eat alone or with friends.

When it first opened, BPR’s menu included more recognizably French dishes, like cassoulet and duck confit, but also midrange offerings such as Croque Madam and a French-inspired burger. But Walker says people didn’t respond as much to midrange offerings. They wanted small plates and boards to snack on with glasses of wine, or full-on entrees they might not get elsewhere. And, Walker says he and his co-owners wanted to shake things up anyway—turn some of the presumptions about French cuisine on their heads.

Whereas BSB provided welcomed limitations in its early years, the Pearl Cafe space provided freedom—a little too much for Walker at first. From the beginning, the kitchen staff had access to an eight-burner stove and a myriad of cooking equipment. The pressure was maybe a little higher, too, in a downtown space with heavy traffic and attention.

“Pearl built the kitchen of her dreams,” Walker says. “The possibilities were fairly limitless.”

Walker’s vision for BPR was to be a place where customers could have a good time and eat good food at a range of price points. Not too stuffy. As someone who appreciates the process of learning to cook, he wants to provide young (and old) cooks and chefs the opportunity to experiment with menu items, and to make mistakes.

“This is a place where we encourage mistakes,” he says. “You have to screw up a lot of cheeseburgers to make a really good cheeseburger. And that’s just a cheeseburger.”

Walker learned to cook while going to school at the University of New Hampshire, pre-internet, when seeking out good recipes meant pursuing hardcopy magazines and print cookbooks. In the university library he read French cookbooks with antiquated instructions he couldn’t understand, but loved anyway.

“They would say stuff like, ‘Lard a pheasant of the freshest variety with pork fat pulled from the bottom of the belly, stuff with truffles and insert into a very hot oven,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘What’s a very hot oven, you know?’ When I fell in love with cooking, I fell in love with those kind of conventions. That language. That tradition.”

French cuisine has been with him ever since. The transition back to the Pearl Cafe kitchen and transforming it into Porte Rouge felt natural.

“I knew Pearl’s departure was going to leave a hole in this town,” he says. “I was not looking to fill in its exact shape because she is a lion and a legend and that’s not something I’m looking to imitate. But the spirit of that, I wanted to carry on.”

Both Jason and Walker got MFAs in creative writing and there’s something about the way they approach restaurant work that embodies the personality of a writer: They have a sense of character and narrative when it comes to food and atmosphere. They’re accustomed to the painful but ultimately satisfying art of crafting and revising. And they understand the concept of learning the rules, then breaking them.

The refined dining elements of BPR often belie its irreverence and humor. But it doesn’t take long, once you’re inside the brasserie, to see that the owners aren’t going for predictability. They have always experimented with food, even at BSB, where breakfast is just about anything as long as you “put an egg on it.” At BPR, they take classic French dishes and give them a Missoula twist or serve them up with an inside joke (Toot Sweet Tuesdays, for instance).

“I like cooking that appreciates tradition but doesn't worship at its altar,” Walker says. “We are French-focused but with our own take. We are not looking to imitate Pearl or the French Laundry or anything in Paris.”

Jason feels strongly about this, too. But he also notes that experimenting with French cuisine is, well…very French.

This past Spring, he traveled with his wife, Ali, to Léon in southwestern France to eat and find inspiration. And the variety of options—twists on classic French dishes or dishes from elsewhere that have been reimagined with a French technique or even totally out-there creations—were abundant.

“I can tell you right now: There’s really no such thing as French food,” he says. “Yes, you can find the traditional French favorites you know from Julia Child, but there are just as many of these other places.”

BPR is no different. Classic French dishes are blown apart and put together, like the dessert from BPR’s first menu made by pâtissière Jenny Fawcett. It resembles a peach, but it’s really a round cake made with peach compote and covered in a smooth, peach-colored fondant.

Using different textures, combining crunchy with softer components, sweet with sour, and redefining the eating experience is why the owners of BPR are in the game. They changed the menu for summer and plan to do so twice a year, though they kept the steak frites and French dip for those customers desiring something classic. Walker and head chef Ryan Smith redesigned the spring menu to be more playful and irreverent. They apply French cuisine techniques, but the dishes are pulled from anywhere and everywhere, and often reimagined in some striking and delicious manner.

For instance, the rabbit, chorizo, and octopus skewer on snail and bean saffron risotto has echoes of paella, Spain’s famous Valencian dish (but found just as often in Provence). The bone marrow French onion dip is reminiscent of the classic snack dip, but broken down and recreated with gruyere, beef stock, caramelized onions, roasted bone marrow, pickled onion, and beef fat crackers.

Recently, BPR featured Calimocho—a refreshing combination of red wine and Coke. Jason says he was reminded by a few customers that the Calimocho is not French, it’s from Spain. Jason smiles broadly—he kind of relishes these moments in a playfully combative way. “Well, it’s from the Pyrenees,” he says, laughing. “And I have a hunch you can find it in France. And it’s Basque, if you want to start getting into that.”

Walker describes the act of listening to customers while challenging customers’ expectations as an interesting exercise with somewhat mysterious rules.

“It’s a conversation and it’s often awkward,” he says. “We have people fawn over and loathe the exact same dish. And when people say, ‘We don’t want this,’ we listen. But then we go, ‘Okay, but what if we do this instead?’"

For the owners of Brasserie Porte Rouge, the push and pull of conversation around food, along with the theatrical elements of atmosphere, are key to their success—and the main reasons they do what they do.

“If no one is talking about what we’re doing here, that’s just safe cuisine,” Walker says. “And we’re not interested in that. ‘Safe’ is probably a smart business model. I don’t know, I didn’t go to business school. I just know there are way easier ways to make money than this. In this business you have to have a feel for it and a drive to want to do it.”