Flavors: Celebrating 20 Years at Bistro Enzo

Nov 19, 2018

Executive Chef and Owner James Honaker with a plate of satay special.
Credit Stella Fong

In November Bistro Enzo in Billings celebrates twenty years in business. Executive Chef and owner James Honaker claimed the actual date was November 11, 2018 or sometime thereabouts. He seemed almost nonchalant about the birthday. For long time staff - servers Daisy Castro and Dave Caserio, day Chef Paul Reitz and volunteer Lezlie Solari, the time marked event held significance.

Bistro Enzo began as Enzo Mediterranean Bistro when Honaker partnered with Laurent and Patricia Zirotti. The restaurant took on the name of the Zirotti’s first-born son. This mustard colored Mediterranean style building with a sand colored tiled roof and an arched entrance served food inspired byItaly, France, Morocco, Greece and Spain.

Enzo was not their first attempt at running a restaurant. In 1987 they opened La Toque, a 36-seat bistro downtown when steaks were the mainstay on most plates. This restaurant, located on N 26th Street sported white walls adorned with three life-sized nude paintings by Freeman Butts, and focusing on fresh fish. Food writer Christine Meyers said of the food, “Be prepared to treat your taste buds and your aesthetic sense because everything the three prepare is beautiful as well as delicious.”

Bistro Enzo is located in a strip mall on the West End in a mustard colored terra cotta tiled roof building.
Credit Stella Fong

Even with laudatory endorsements, they were breaking new ground in the Billings culinary scene. Honaker recalled, “People were just making the transition from steakhouse food. There was no Food Network.” Though many people still talk about La Toque, the restaurant shuttered after two years as the few diners with adventurous tastes could not sustain its livelihood. The general consensus from fans of the restaurant was that it was ahead of its time.

Honaker’s first love was jazz music and he received a scholarship to pursue his jazz drumming in New York. He needed a source on income, so after taking cooking classes at Peter Kumps and chef training from the The New School, he took on a job at the Windows of the World receiving wine training from Raymond Wellington followed by a stint at Le Bernardin under Chef Eric Ripert.

While a guest chef at Beringer Winery in Napa, California he met up with Laurent Zirotti and Patricia Rolland, who were working at Gerard’s Brasserie in San Francisco. It was during this period of time the three formulated the idea to open La Toque. After closing the bistro downtown, the three decided to split up. Zirotti and Rolland went back to France to work at the Hotel Majestic on the French Riviera and Honaker worked at Le Boule in New York and then apprenticed at Lenotre in Paris. A joint vacation at Flathead Lake, and the desire to be back in Billings brought the three together to start Enzo Mediterranean Bistro.

With years of immigration issues and other challenges, the Zirottis and Honaker went their separate ways about 10 years ago. The Zirottis relocated to Post Falls, Idaho and opened Fleur de Sel while Honaker modified the restaurant’s name to Bistro Enzo, and continues as the sole proprietor.

(From left to right) Long time team members of Bistro Enzo: servers Daisy Castro and Dave Caserio, day chef Paul Reitz and volunteer Lezlie Solari.
Credit Stella Fong

The long-time team consists of servers Dave Caserio and Daisy Castro, day chef Paul Reitz, and volunteer Lezlie Solari. Daisy Castro started with the restaurant the day it first opened while Caserio joined the team on a date he clearly remembers exactly as July 9, 2003. Chef Reitz stepped into the kitchen in 2002 while Solari has known Honaker since 1987. Solari volunteers at the restaurant stepping in where ever she is needed from answering phones to setting tables to her favorite task – making fruit desserts. As the former owner of a bakery named Great Beginnings Perfect Endings she mostly bakes on Sundays when the kitchen can accommodate her.

Chef Paul Reitz works during the day taking care of all the behind the scenes work in bringing in product and prepping the staples needed for dinner service. Daisy Castro and Dave Caserio begin their work by going over the food and wine specials for the night and seeing if there are special requests from customers. Mostly they make sure customers have a good experience when dining at the restaurant.

When the four were asked of memorable experiences about Chef Honaker, Chef Reitz immediately shared Chef Honaker going on vacation as a noted event. Honaker takes off one week a year, but otherwise works year-round, six nights teach week. Honaker stays close to the kitchen so for Castro, visits to the dining room to greet guests are special.  For Caserio, it is the afterhours conversations about jazz music he most enjoys.  For both Caserio and Castro, a perfect night means there is little interaction with the kitchen with what Caserio termed as a “well-oiled wheel” because they serve the food and the kitchen cooks it for them to deliver to customers.

Solari recounted a time she assisted Chef Honaker with a cooking class at the Billings Depot. In the class, many dirty dishes for generated before they were told the facility did not have dishwasher. That night Solari and Honaker took the dishes back to Bistro Enzo, turned on music, opened a bottle of wine, and washed the dishes.

Roy and Kim Brown have been loyal customers since Bistro Enzo opened 20 years ago.
Credit Stella Fong

Loyal customers recalled celebrations and times of mourning that gathered people at Bistro Enzo. Roy and Kim Brown have been eating at the restaurant since its opening and were frequent diners at La Toque. Kim confessed of how often they eat at Bistro Enzo, “It can sometimes be two or three times a week depending on what’s going on.” The Browns have celebrated family birthdays and anniversaries at the restaurant and Roy shares, “Kim has her girlfriend groups that are famous around town and they all get together here too.” 

Caserio believed his role as server brought him closer to the community. Castro shared opening night with the Langlas construction crew brought the staff much anxiety and excitement. With the new menu, the restaurant was uncertain as to how popular their food would be.

Caserio shared a moment when a back staffer had just turned 21. Doug Nagel was in the restaurant dining with a group of singers and was asked to sing Happy Birthday. They got up and sang to a very embarrassed young woman. Caserio said the singing “brought the entire house down” as “You could feel the walls reverberate.”

The four spoke fondly of Honaker. For the man who was happiest in the kitchen and not in the front of the house, they spoke of someone who was empathetic and compassionate. Castro shared how Honaker cared about the food he produced. Caserio spoke of Honaker’s ability to know what members of the community were going through to honor and respect celebrations or challenges. He shared how Honaker took young people into his kitchen and journeyed them through the workings from dishwashing to cooking on the line. With some of the young kitchen staff Caserio said, “I’ve seen him pull some of those kids around and that’s really remarkable.”

Reitz spoke of how in a business where he would take on new jobs frequently, he has stayed with Bistro Enzo for 16 years which was a testimonial of the work environment. For Solari, Honaker embraced her talents while she learned from his knowledge of wine and food. She said of Honaker, “James has one of the most remarkable palates I have ever run across.”

Seared halibut with wine shallot lemon caper sauce are one of the special staples when the fish is in season.
Credit Stella Fong

That palate brought recognition from the James Beard Foundation to Honaker three times as a semifinalist as the Best Chef of the Northwest. The first time he received the recognition, Honaker said of his anxiety, “I knew the level I was cooking at and I knew I could probably cook better than that but it was not the lack of effort, but the lack of hours.” His demand for keeping his cooking level up brought him recognition two more times.

In the last month, Honaker changed up his menu. He brought back the a la carte format and wants to emphasize the original theme of Mediterranean from when the restaurant opened. To this day, he still wants to focus on serving fish. These days, “We have some good purveyors for fish, definitely better than what it was 35 years ago when you had to absolutely get everything flown in, but it is much better now.”

What is much better now are the lives of the young staff he trains in his kitchen. Honaker admits to having two reasons why he likes to train new kitchen help. “I like working with young people,” he said, “But there is also the practicality of what’s available.” Trained workers are difficult to find in Billings and Honaker finds he has to provide the skills for work in his kitchen.

After 20 years, what is in the future for Honaker and Bistro Enzo?  Honaker said, “Just keep plugging away. That’s the plan.” Then he said of his customers, “That’s the only reason why we are in business. Great appreciation for that,” and promises, “I’ll try our best as always.”