STELLA FONG The Latest Best Plates
Sea-fresh bites and lively concoctions were hidden behind a wall of frosted glass at the back of the Bozeman Hotel on East Main Street. No marquee out front or fancy lettering marks the presence of this restaurant, with the name Izakaya Three Fish, in reference to chefs Paul Naugle and Travis Lang, and mixologist Maddi Honnold as a trio. From Wednesday to Friday evening, two seats at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. allow 10 people by reservation to savor up to 20 culinary creations.
The Japanese kanji characters in the restaurant’s logo are the words for izakaya – “stay, liquor and place”. The style of the meal served is omakase with dishes selected by the chef.
Upon entering Izakaya Three Fish, the restaurant is transformed. Immediately, the frantic pace of the surrounding bars fades away, and the “Orient meets cowboy” feel takes over. Panels of black and white cowhide line the wall crowned by a black cow skull with gold horns. Metal panels cover the round elbow of the ceiling. A floor-to-ceiling black wood shelf secured with dowels inspired by Japanese wood carpentry stands prominently behind the wooden bar that seats ten. Sous chef Travis Lang describes his restaurant as: “A secret gem”.
People also read…
That evening, six of the guests are from Michigan as fly fishing guides Chloe Nostrant celebrated their 28th birthday with Blake Majors. Nostrant has eaten countless meals prepared by Naugle. Over the years, she’s had her pop-up events and eaten her food when he offered sashimi meals at the back of the Montana Fish Company.
“Everything you eat is the best thing you’ve ever eaten,” she shared of Izakaya Three Fish.
The creator of this intimate restaurant is Executive Chef Paul Naugle. With strands of curly brown hair hanging from his stockinged head, he looks more like an X Games snowboarding competitor than a sushi chef, although in real life he seeks the joy of shredding the snowy slopes. mountains. He projects a laid-back demeanor, but a deep intensity resides within him as he constantly readjusts his focus, attentive to everything during the service.
The restaurant’s website features a light pink background with purple lettering, with images of Naugle holding a sushi knife, Lang and Maddi Honnold, an MSU graduate in sustainable crop production and plant science. The website challenges stylish hedonistic restaurant sites popular with fancy culinary school graduates. The shade of purple in the lettering is the color of warriors, symbolizing nobility and strength. As he introduces himself, he shares the message: “When you sit down with Paul for the Omakase meal, everything that is important to Paul becomes yours.
Naugle learned his trade from Tamotsu Suzsuki at Naked Fish in South Lake Tahoe. He originally moved from Pennsylvania to the Tahoe area to snowboard.
“We were such dustbags,” he admitted when he started a housekeeping job at Kirkwood Mountain Resort. “We wanted night work hours to roll into the day.”
From California, Naugle moved to Arizona in Rancho Saguaro, returning home to Pennsylvania for several years to leave, eventually returning to the West.
“I got stuck in Bozeman” passing through in 2007, he said. He started making sushi in the back of the Montana Fish Company, starting with four seats, eventually growing to 12 people. When his lease ended in 2015, he began offering pop-ups across the city until the health department scaled back his efforts. In 2018, the Bozeman Hotel space became available.
“I just learned,” admitted Chef Naugle, but said, “I’ve always cared about food.”
Tonight we sit at the southern end of the counter, right next to a shrine dedicated to Anthony Bourdain – a black and white photo of him above a samurai helmet figurine. We had a front row seat to watch Chef Travis perform his culinary magic while catching a glimpse of Executive Chef Paul as he moved around.
I ordered a cocktail named “Matsutake to Me” from Honnold, made with Hatozaki whiskey with Matsutake Tepache bitters, vanilla and yuzu. This citrusy, slightly earthy caramel drink started our culinary journey that began with plaice sushi with lemon jam and Dungeness crab buckthorn on thinly sliced cucumbers and radishes. Hokkaido scallops crowned with rainbow trout roe bathed in buttermilk presented an unexpected combination as well as shiso-wrapped uni or sea urchin tempura. After biting into A5 waygu beef and uni with smoked ikura or salmon roe, in a Chinese tbsp, Chef Travis shared, “It’s like an umami bomb right there.”
The delights continued with king mackerel sashimi, Hawaiian amberjack with freshly grated wasabi, Japanese horseradish, Mediterranean mussels, braised Spanish octopus and geoduck tempura, with our 20-course meal ending with a generous bowl of miso soup and finally, pistachio ice cream with black lava salt.
This meal takes me back to Tokyo, to the sushi I ate at a little restaurant just around the corner from the Tsukiji fish market. I remember the seafood bites sushi that contained the fresh essence of the ocean. Slices of fish are served over plump, yet firm sushi rice, seasoned with a balance of sour, salty and sweet. The nori is not soggy and crumbles when it hits my teeth. Chilled plates honor the integrity of seafood while seasonings bring out the natural flavors.
We leave comfortably full and smiling cheek to cheek as we pass the crowds filling East Main Street just as we have just discovered the secret behind the frosted glass wall.
Stella Fong, author of ‘Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food’ hosts ‘Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region’ for Yellowstone Public Radio.
TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that offers stories of tasty Montana food, travel and culture…one bite at a time.