By Dillon Tabish, 9-20-12
WHITEFISH – The Stillwater Fish House and Oyster Bar, a new seafood restaurant, has settled into a fully renovated space three miles northwest of town on U.S. Highway 93.
The vibe inside is casual but upscale. Bamboo lines the ceiling and natural light fills the wide dining room, which can seat more than 90. Ten beers are on tap and the glassed-in wine room is filled with a large selection that complements the diverse menu. As for the food itself, anyone who has visited Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle will recognize the loads of fresh seafood, like salmon, trout, clams and scallops.
This seafaring cuisine seems like a delicacy here in Montana, and in many ways it is. Everything at the Fish House needs to be trucked in from Spokane four to fives times a week. Nothing is frozen, except the cod used for fish and chips. The lobster is flown in from Maine. The oyster bar is restocked from the Puget Sound with a variety of lively choices, including komodos, “the champagne of oysters.” Two signature dishes have already emerged – the whole fish, a one-pound trout scored and rubbed with curry then lightly battered and fried, and the miso butterfish, which is marinated in a miso and sake reduction then sautéed.
The restaurant has already attracted a loyal following only two months after opening its doors. The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce recently delivered the silver platter “People’s Choice Award” from the 25th Annual Taste of Whitefish. The distinguished honor – a rarity for such a new restaurant – reinforced the owners’ confidence that this gamble was worth making.
“I think there’s been a yearning here for quite awhile, for a place where people can come get great quality fish everyday,” said Jesse Felder, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Adrienne. “We still hear this all the time – ‘Finally! Thank you!’”
Felder, a native of Austin, Texas, worked in real estate before being lured to Whitefish where his father-in-law Dan Vogel lived. The Felders moved here last winter with the goal of opening a restaurant and Vogel, who has a background in hospitality and management and is now the Fish House’s general manager, helped develop a business plan and find a site.
“We kept looking at this area and there was a gap in the fresh fish market,” Felder said. “And we just said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this all the way; be as fresh as possible and make everything in house.”
After being purchased in February the building underwent a complete makeover. Felder searched for the right chef, someone who knows seafood but also knows what it takes to open a new restaurant. Brad Pryor was the perfect catch. Pryor’s 20 years of kitchen experience began in a beach fish house in North Carolina and included a lengthy time in Alaska. He received formal training at the Western Culinary Institute, currently the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, in Portland, Ore.
Felder found Pryor “rather fortuitously” and the head chef began the day before the restaurant opened July 5.
Marco Aguiar shucks a dozen oysters for a dining patron while “holding down the raw bar” at Stillwater Fish House north of Whitefish on U.S. Highway 93. top right: Whole fish - steelhead trout scored and rubbed with curry then lightly battered and fried. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
“The biggest challenge was I didn’t know what kind of staff I had in place,” Pryor said. “But we have a really good crew around us. We’ve continually tried to improve and now we’ve gotten to where we have one of the best staffs I’ve ever worked with in 20 years of working in the restaurant industry. I’m really pleased.”
The reward has been over 11,000 guests since opening, most of whom are returning locals, according to Vogel. Guests have found favorite menu items out of stock on occasion, but that’s the trade-off for fresh seafood. When you’re not freezing anything, a limited amount of food is purchased so everything stays fresh in coolers. Like the popular oysters. During the peak of summer the restaurant was serving over 100 dozen a week.
“That was a challenge. We couldn’t find anywhere to put them,” Pryor said.
“We found we needed bigger coolers.”
After all, there’s a valley full of seafood fans to feed.
The Stillwater Fish House and Oyster Bar is open 5 p.m. until 10, seven days a week, and is located at 2635 Highway 93 West. For more information, visit www.stillwaterfishhouse.com
, or call 406-730-1230.
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