Flavors: A New Beginning for Bistro Enzo
Enzo translates from Italian as owner of an estate, and was originally named after the eldest son of then co-owners Laurent and Patricia Zirotti. The restaurant later owned the restaurant scene in Billings for over 20 years.
Former owner James Honaker, who founded the restaurant with the Zirottis, became the sole proprietor of Bistro Enzo after the couple left in 2008 to open their own restaurant, Fleur de Sel in Post Falls, Idaho. Ten months ago, Tyler Samson purchased the restaurant from Honaker, who wanted to retire.
While most of the country was struggling in the restaurant business, Samson decided to embark on an already challenging enterprise amplified by the onset of the COVID pandemic.
“There was not a play book designed for anything like this in our lifetime, so I knew that it obviously was not the ideal time,” he shared. “We had no clue that this was going to happen so I had to make a lot of adjustments, and I thought to myself about a month before closing on it, knowing that if we could get through this, we literally could get through anything,” he added.
With eighteen years of experience in the restaurant business, and eight years in the commercial real estate arena at NAI Business Properties, specializing in restaurant acquisitions and sales, Samson brought passion along with business acumen. “I started my serious restaurant experience at Walkers Grill. I was there for almost eight years through and after college, and it just developed another level of love I had for food, and just made me a lot more passionate about the restaurant industry as a whole.”
Samson dined for the first time at the Enzo Mediterranean Bistro sixteen years ago, when it was known to locals simply as “Enzo”. In 2008, it transformed to Bistro Enzo. It became his favorite restaurant and he dreamed he would someday “own something like this.”
“I wanted to respect the history of the restaurant. I told James Honaker this, before I purchased it. I knew that it was a pretty big concern of his,” he shared.
With the addition of a new bar in the main dining room and a chef’s counter, Samson partnered with local modern impressionistic artist Kira Fercho to provide paintings for the walls for a renewed vibe. He calls the new offerings at the restaurant “Mediterranean New American,” and with help from Executive Chef Alex Bean, and input from Honaker, the menu was “refreshed”, but with respect to the many long-time regulars that wanted to retain staple and popular items.
“The veal piccata is hands down the most popular dish on our menu,” he said. The “Carbonara Pasta” and “Rustica Pasta” have remained on the menu along with the “Red Beet and Gorgonzola Salad” and “Greek Salad.” The “White Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura,” being Samson’s favorite, will most likely remain on the menu for a long time.
Tanya Brawley has taken on the role as pastry and day chef and according to Samson, “We create fresh dessert specials daily.” She is specializing in cheesecakes and mousse cakes and will offer a chocolate dessert daily. She edges in to eventually take over Chef Paul Reitz’ position as day chef. Reitz who has worked in the kitchen for nearly eighteen years, continues to be the stronghold for the behind-the-scenes food preparation.
Executive Chef Alex Bean now heads up the kitchen. He started washing dishes for James Honaker while a high school student over ten years ago. “Aside from being intelligent, he was talented,” Honaker said and admitted, “I was not a very good delegator of duties or authority, but it seems he’s doing an excellent job of controlling the staff, the menu, and the food costing. I should have given him more responsibility. Maybe I could have enjoyed the last few years just a little bit more than I did.”
Bean will focus on fresh items for the summer, introducing: “Grilled Fresh Diver Scallops – basmati pilaf, fennel ensalata fresca, sherry tomato vinaigrette, and Grilled Rack of Lamb – roasted sweet pepper risotto, grilled asparagus, rosemary mustard jus.” Halibut will be served when it is in season from spring to fall.
Jeremy Cooke will join the kitchen this month as the Sous Chef. He brings experience from working as Chef de Cuisine at Siroc Restaurant in Washington, D.C. and cooking locally at Steve’s Hot Dogs and Lucky’s Ramen Noodles.
Having built a strong kitchen team, the next effort is directed at building an outside dining patio. Allowing for sky-high construction costs and a shortage of laborers, Samson hopes to start construction this year, with the completion date yet to be determined. An additional line will be added to the kitchen to accommodate the additional tables.
The restaurant is still operating at 75% capacity. “Most restaurants are at full capacity but we’re still wearing masks and want to be as safe as possible, not only for my guests, but also for staff here as well,” Samson said.
“We have been doing unbelievably well,” he said. The reduced in house dining has been supplemented with takeout. “We are on par to break the all-time sales record of 22 years of the restaurant. I cannot be more proud of the entire staff that we have, and how they’ve handled service through this pandemic. It’s like they didn’t even miss a beat. If anything, I think the level of service has gotten so much better over the last ten months.”
With the work at Bistro Enzo behind him, James Honaker is spending his days putting mileage on his bicycle. As a former Cat 2 – National Level Racer, he competed in road races ranging from 80 to 100 miles, excelling in hill climbing. These days, he said, “I always go out by myself. I don’t want to annoy other people.” Revisiting his musical passion, “I sit at my drums, which I have for almost 40 years, and I play a little bit, but it’s not very amusing to play drums by yourself when you’re 64. I have a nice piano so I am plinking on that”
Would he re-enter the kitchen on a professional level? “Only in a consulting way, not to actually work the line or own a restaurant. I think that time has passed.”
Instead, the multi-nominated James Beard Foundation Best Chef will plant a garden this year and savor not needing to put in long hours at his restaurant. He is content at being the owner of his own home estate.