Blackbird Kitchen, Bozeman, Montana
by Ron Bernthal
During the past decade Bozeman, Montana, has been quietly revitalizing its 19th-century downtown buildings and along with its stunning location in the Gallatin River Valley, surrounded by six mountain ranges, has been attracting thousands of new residents to its historic residential districts near Montana State University, and to the picturesque foothills outside of town.
Opened in 2009 Blackbird Kitchen occupies the restored, former Bozeman National Bank building (c.1891) on Main Street. It is easy to walk past the restaurant’s unassuming stone front with the arch-style window without realizing that the contemporary interior, with its white brick walls, hanging artwork, large, wood-fired oven and open kitchen is more Tribeca-style than American West, but the friendliness of the staff and affordable prices are unmistakably Montana.
Owners Josh Gibson and wife Shannon Douglass use local farms and ranches to supply their organic produce, including seasonal vegetables and most of the beef, pork and lamb listed on the menu. Fresh trout comes from a Montana company that raises GMO-free trout in nearby low density fisheries. In addition to the dinner items I tried, including the Willow Spring Ranch lamb bratwurst, C-5 Organics tenderloin, and some tasty pasta dishes, I could have created a meal just from the appetizer menu; the roasted beet salad, crispy polenta with wood fired beech mushrooms, oven roasted asparagus, and kale Caesar salad my table ordered were all excellent.
Mr. Gibson is extremely proud of the venue’s massive firebrick, hi-temp refractory concrete and steel bread oven, which he built himself during the restaurant’s initial construction, using plans by the late Alan Scott, a prominent Australian designer of brick ovens. The wood-fired oven is the restaurant’s centerpiece, and many of the menu items, including the warm country bread served with olive oil and balsamic, are baked in the hand-crafted, brick oven. Gibson also bakes ten varieties of delicious thin-crust pizza in the oven, using fresh toppings like Sicilian Castelvetrano olives, fennel sausage, sweet onions, and the imported Italian cheeses Grana Padano and mozzarella.
Opening a restaurant with an organic, Italian-style menu and a sophisticated interior design may have felt like a risky business venture in 2009-era Bozeman, right after the national recession, but not anymore. Median house and condo values in the area have skyrocketed since then, along with a surging Gallatin County economy and population, the fastest growing county in the state with a 40% population increase since the 2000 census to almost 100,000 residents.
Yellowstone National Park (two hours) and Big Sky Ski Resort (55 minutes) are easily accessible, and within 20 minutes of downtown are numerous mountain hiking and biking trails, fishing streams, and the family-friendly (and local favorite) Bridger Bowl Ski Area. With several new boutique hotels opening soon downtown, and numerous start-up firms occupying office space throughout the city, it is no wonder that Delta Airlines has finally started non-stop summer service between Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and New York City’s LaGuardia, with residents and local attractions pushing the carrier to extend the service year-round.
Job growth and incomes in Bozeman have risen sharply, especially in the high-tech and light manufacturing sectors, and Oracle’s $1.8 billion purchase of hometown software company RightNow Technologies is helping to keep Bozeman’s economy growing at about 5 percent each year, the fastest of any city in the state. For Gibson and Douglass, co-owners of Blackbird Kitchen, they may soon find that their cozy ten table restaurant is a bit too small for what is coming down the pipe.
Open daily, dinner only; wine and beer available; reservations required.
140 East Main Street