2010 USA Roadtrip Our First Six Days in Helena, MT

We had a good time getting to know Helena. For dinner on Sunday night, the first night we were in town, we happened on one of the best restaurants in Helena. We had a very nice meal at Lucca's (56 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-457-8311, web: www.luccasitalian.com). It's a casually elegant room, with a high ceiling. There were plenty of people there when we arrived but we were seated immediately. We liked the restaurant right away because they brought an amuse bouche of crostini with pepper and goat cheese. It was very good; we love amuse bouche. Next we were brought ciabatta with sun dried tomato butter and romano, balsamic and olive oil dip. As usual, we shared everything. We started with a steamed pesto mussels for $12.95 (described on the menu as a pound of succulent mussels poached in white wine, garlic, shallots and basil pesto). They were succulent and the pesto an innovative addition. The meal came with a delicious salad highlighted with cranberries, pecans and romano (and it was big enough for two). Next we shared a linguine with clam sauce that had plenty of tiny clams in a yummy sauce. We had two glasses of La Flor Malbec ($7 x2) and had a very good meal. The man working the front of the house (a part owner we think) was personable and informative. He recommended a couple of places for us to try and try them we did later in the week. Dinner at Lucca's was $54.90 (no tax; it's Montana) which is more than we had been spending but totally enjoyable.

After dinner, we walked next door and had two ice cream cones at the Big Dipper (on Last Chance Gulch). They tasted like their names: an El Salvador coffee and a cardamon ($4.50) which is not always the case. It was (only just) warm enough to enjoy the ice cream. All in all a fine way to start our stay in Montana as residents.

On Monday, after we visited Placer Motors and signed the contract to buy our 2010 Subaru Outback (click here to read about that), we went for lunch at a restaurant recommended by the man working the front of the house at Lucca's. It is open for lunch during the week and only on certain evenings. It is called Benny's Bistro (108 E. Sixth Ave., Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-443-0105, web: www.bennysbistro.com). It's a charming space and our server was quite chatty and helpful. We spent $8 plus tip for a soup and salad, both of which were excellent. We decided to go back for dinner on Wednesday night when they would be open.

After lunch we went to Base Camp (5 W. Broadway, Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-443-5360) where a helpful woman gave us ideas for hikes on Mt. Helena. We drove to a trail head that was close to the Subaru dealer. We hiked for two hours on the Swany and Pairie Trails, up 1000 feet, to the cliffs and a view point over Helena, following the woman's advice.
Looking down the 1000 feet we climbed toward Helena and the mountains in the distance

It was a very nice hike on a nice day in Helena (the last nice day for a while, as it turned out). The day was made nicer by the cell phone call from Becky at Placer Motors that the registration of our car in our names was complete, the plates were on the car and we could pick it up any time. We were thrilled. About an hour after we finished our hike, the sky opened and it poured for hours. We were so glad that we finished our hike and were dry in our Super 8 room (and that we decided to pick up our Subaru the next day).

On Monday night we had dinner at On Broadway (106 Broadway, Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-443-1929, web: www.onbroadwayinhelena.com). We went there because the other restaurants which had been recommended to us (like Benny's Bistro) were closed on Monday night. We didn't like the decor of On Broadway but the food was quite good. The room had a double high ceiling, lots of old-fashioned oak wood and walls of brick. The lighting was too dim and the room was dominated by a large bar on one side and booths on the other side of the room. Between the sides of the room were stand-alone tables with uncomfortable wooden chairs. We had a booth with padded seats on the side of the room. We shared a really delicious pan-blackened yellowfin ahi tuna coated with cajun seasoning ($22.75). It was served with roasted green chili aioli, seasonal vegetables and basmati rice. That dish also came with a salad which we had with a parmesan cream dressing before the fish. We also ordered a side of vegetables ($4.75) and 2 glasses of house Chablis ($8). Our server, Sarah, was okay. The hostess was very good and we liked her. Although it wasn't our best meal in Helena, we certainly enjoyed the food and the price was right at $35.50 plus tip.

Tuesday was stormy, with winds reported up to 95 mph. We were shocked to read in the Helena Independent Record that a big rig (otherwise known as a semi) was toppled by the wind on the Interstate 15 outside of Helena. Even so, we went to pick up our new Subaru. We had a light lunch of yogurt and fruit at our Super 8 room and then returned our rented Nissan Sentra at the Hertz office at the Helena airport. (We had to pay $150 extra (in addition to the $200 drop off charge) to do that because it wasn't a Hertz-owned office. We decided it was worth it. The only Hertz-owned office in the tri-state vicinity was in Seattle, which wasn't on our trajectory for this trip.

The continental breakfast at the Super 8 in Helena was more extensive than others we have seen. There were 6 different types of dry cereal and fresh fruit (apples). In addition there were waffles (frozen) that needed to be put in a waffle iron to heat. There was also a “Precooked Western Style Flavored with ham Omelet” on offer that was in a warming tray. Never having seen anything like it (except, maybe, on a plane) we asked to see the ingredients. It was made by Papetti’s “Table Ready” and distributed by Michael Foods, Inc. Minnetonka, MN, (1877-367-3447). The list of ingredients was 14 lines long and probably included everything that one is not supposed to ingest. At a minimum it violates some of  the rules of Michael Pollan in Food Rules: "If the ingredient list is long, do not eat it" and another rule as well: "eat food made of plants, not made in plants." We sat in front of the gas fireplace for a few breakfasts but later in our stay we decided it was nicer to eat at the table in our room. We would get plastic spoons, a bowl for Audre's cereal (we carry Dimitri's favorite cereal bowl) and milk. Audre would cut the fruit for our breakfast and make coffee in our room. We ate our own cereal anyway so this system  worked and was more pleasant than the breakfast area at the Super 8.

For dinner on Tuesday night we went to Mediterranean Grill (42 S. Park Ave., Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-495-1212 http://mediterraneangrillhelena.com/). Again, we didn't like the room (nothing objectionable but just not to our taste) or our server for that matter (again, nothing objectionable) but we had a very good meal. We ordered one meal and shared it. We had a Medaglioni de Manzo al Funghetto ($25.95) described as 8 oz. of tenderloin beef medallions, sautéed with Portobello mushrooms, garlic and Marsala wine, and served with roasted baby red potatoes and seasonal fresh vegetables. That meal came with a soup or salad and we chose the soup which was a Turkish lentil and spinach soup. The both the soup and the main were very tasty and more than enough food for the two of us. We had 2 glasses of Lindemans Caberet Sauvignon 2 x $5. We spent $35.95 (no tax) plus tip.

Early Wednesday morning we went to the Helena Exam Station to take our drivers license tests (which Audre had booked online the day before). We were each able to complete the eye test and the written test that morning but had to schedule our driving tests for the next day. We both passed (Audre had read the rule book the night before, Dimitri didn't read the book at all.) After the test, we went to buy insurance for our car. For lunch that day, we went to Real Food Market and Deli (1096 Helena Ave., Helena, MT 59601, tel 406-443-5150, web: www.realfoodstore.com) which was close to the insurance broker's office. There we had "lunch by weight" similar to what we had experienced (and loved) in Brazil. We ate for $8.63 and it was good, not great. We were actually under-welmed by Real Foods Market and Deli (a better name than food).

On Wednesday night Benny's Bistro was open for dinner and we went and had a lovely meal. (Benny's Bistro, 108 E. Sixth Ave., Helena, MT 59601, tel. 406-443-0105, web. www.bennysbistor.com (owner Margaret Corcoran).) We spent $41. Benny's Bistro is one big room on two levels, with an open kitchen, brick walls, and big windows facing the street. No tablecloths but linen napkins. Margaret Corcoran is charming and the food is wonderful. As usual we shared everything. First came foccacio with balsamic and olive oil. Then a small side salad with balsamic dressing. For our entrée we ordered pesto stuffed scallops—pan seared and served on a bed of fresh spinach with basmati rice and lentil pilaf, with asparagus ($23). We had 2 glasses of Malbec – Altos Las Holmigas ($7 x 2 = $14) and side order of winter vegetables ($4). Margaret Corcoran told us about another restaurant called the Caretaker's Cabin which we reserved for Thursday night.

On Thursday morning we went back to the Helena Exam Station to take our driving tests. Even though it had snowed the night before, the streets were merely wet by the time we took our tests. And we both passed. After that we did errands (for instance Dimitri got a $9 hair cut at Just Cuts) and Audre tried on jeans at Penneys nearby. The jeans Audre liked were $44 at Penneys but they didn't have her size. Back at the Super 8, Audre went online and found the exact same jeans at Dillards. Audre called and the woman at Dillards said they had Audre's size and they were on sale for $8. Not believing her ears, Audre jumped in our new Subaru and went over to Dillards at Capitol Mall, 1600 11th Ave., Helena 59601 tel. 406-443-3000 (a couple of blocks down the street from the Super 8). It turned out that after many years, Dillards was closing its store in Helena and everything was being heavily discounted. So Audre found Levis Perfectly Slimming Boot Cut 512 Jeans size 4 Short in black for $9.59 (regular price $44). Of course, since they weren't petite, Audre needed them shortened. Next to the Helena Exam Station Audre had noticed a seamstress. Because we kept a Helena telephone directory in the car (for just this purpose) Audre was able to call her; she was still open. For $15 (because it was a rush) Audre had her jeans shortened at Open Circle Montana/Star Montana/Star-Sew-lutions (2710 Billings Ave., Helena, MT 59601, cell 406-410-1075 (preferred) alternate: 406-442-7827) while she waited. Boy, Audre felt she was cookin' with gas! Audre was able to buy jeans and have them shortened for under her "strike price". Oh by the way, both Audre and Dimitri thought that the jeans looked great!

On Thursday night we went to The Caretaker's Cabin for dinner (212 S. Park St., Reeders Alley, Helena, MT, tel. 406-449-6848). This restaurant was recommended to us by the owner of Benny's Bistro, Margaret Corcoran. We had a lovely meal for $26 plus tip. It’s a charming historic house with few tables. Noni and Catherine do everything, as well as own the restaurant. It is open for lunch Wednesdays through Fridays and, with an a la carte menu, from Wednesday through Friday for dinner as well. On Saturday there is a prix fixe 5-course dinner for $45. It is BYOB and we brought an Argentinean Malbec that we like, produced by Los Alamos (there was no corkage). There are two small rooms for diners with small round tables. The décor is the appropriate period as are the table cloths.

(As usual) we shared everything. The fresh wild salmon that we had was served with a picante glaze and accompanied by balsamic rice and asparagus.
The wild salmon at the Caretaker's Cabin in Helena

The entrée was served with a salad and Noni split it for us and gave each of us a different salad dressing from the list (all of them sounded good). Noni's service was delightful and the room warm and cozy, with only one other table being used.
Audre with Noni at the Caretaker's Cabin in Helena

For dessert there was a crème brûlée with a soupçon of chocolate at the bottom. The texture was like silk and the taste divine. We had a lovely meal and evening at the Caretaker's Cabin.

On Friday morning we had breakfast at a place recommended to us called No Sweat Cafe (427 N. Last Chance Gulch, tel. (406) 442-6954) for $15. We shared everything as usual and enjoyed ourselves. We had one large blueberry pancake which we later learned had cornmeal in a base of whole wheat flour. The cornmeal added a texture that we both really liked. We also shared an omelet with tomatoes and cheddar cheese that came with hash browns and sour dough bread. We had 1 orange juice and too coffees. We were happy campers.

At the appointed hour on Friday, we returned to Placer Motors to have the remote starter and the bike rack installed. Placer Motors gave us a loaner car and off we went for some hikes (the weather had improved dramatically). First we went to Meadow Lake Park. That circuit was too short so we went to Oro Fino Gulch Road in the Helena National Forest and hiked toward Park Lake. As we climbed, the amount of snow on the ground increased. We spied an unusual lawn decoration along the way.
A train car , as lawn decoration, on tracks at 2511/2520 Oro Fino Gulch Rd.

After our hike we stopped by Big Sky Cycling to check on the delivery of the Giant Bikes we had ordered. They had been assembled but not all of the accessories were installed on the bikes. We were close to having everything done but not complete. We needed to return to Big Sky Cycling before 6 p.m. because the shop would be closing and we wanted everything completed on Friday night so we could continue our road trip on Saturday morning.

So, off we went to Placer Motors to get our car outfitted as we had ordered and back to Big Sky Cycling to get our Giant bikes, also outfitted as we had ordered. Yipee!

For our final meal of our first six days in Helena, we went to A Taste of the City with a Touch of Grace (234 1/2 E. Lyndale Ave. at Ewing St., Helena, MT, tel. 406-227-5552, web: www.capellasrestaurant.com). The outside looks like a derelict building in a less than wonderful neighborhood. But inside the decor was a delightful surprise; it is charming and decorated in a tasteful modern way.


Dimitri and Audre enjoying A Taste of the City with a Touch of Grace in Helena

We spent $35 for a great meal. It was a BYOB restaurant (which we love). The way Audre found the restaurant was unusual in our experience. She found an ad, liked the name and then found the menu in the Yellow Pages! We both liked the sound of the menu items too. We asked people about the restaurant but no one had tried it. So we tried it!

We shared the Pork Rilletes (a preparation of meat similar to pate) on French Crustini with mango relish and avocado mousse ($9) to start and liked them. For our main we shared the Muscovy Duck Breast with Bing Cherry Gastrique and Jalapeno grits ($26). The duck was perfectly cooked and delicious. The cherries were delicious too as was the grits.

We talked to the owner/chef Jeremy Mather, who doesn’t look the part of chef, and learning about his career and mentors. We enjoyed talking to him (and hearing that he was personal chef to Paul Newman). We hope lots of people try his restaurant and that he does well.



On Saturday morning before shoving off, we went to the Helena Farmer's Market. It really wasn't in full swing at that time of year but we bought from Mrs. Kittlel, some Kittel’s Chokeberry Jam (1303 Green St., Helena, MT 59602, 406-442-0605). 
Audre at the Helena Farmer's Market

We were very impressed by the amount of stuff we got done in our six days in Helena. We had a great time and were very proud of ourselves! Off we went to Polson and Flathead Lake to do some biking on our new Giant bikes.