Mustard Seed distinguished by its longevity, innovative dishes
When the idea first materialized about doing a story on the Mustard Seed Asian Cafe, my immediate reaction was rhapsody, thinking about one of my favorite dishes: Chicken Osaka. An “Ode to Osaka” started to play in my head just imagining the gingery, sublimely creamy Osaka sauce. Then, I realized the story is more about the fact that I have loved that dish for 30 years.
The Mustard Seed opened in 1978 before Asian fusion was even a “thing,” and ethnic restaurants in Missoula were even fewer and farther between.
Owners Betty and Nancy Tokumoto, who grew up in Japan (Okinawa), Bangkok and Hawaii and attended college in Oregon, had the vision of blending the cooking styles of the Far East with the tastes of the Pacific Northwest. With Betty’s husband David Hall, they opened the Mustard Seed as an 11-seat, mostly take-out place on Orange and Third streets. Soon after, they moved to Orange and Front where they remained until 2000, when the downtown location was closed and the remodeled restaurant in Southgate Mall became the Mustard Seed as we know it today.
Tim Leegan, manager of the Mustard Seed, has worked for the company for more than 25 years.
“I’d love to know how many kids we’ve put through college,” he says proudly when asked about the impact he thought the organization has had on the community.
At any given time, the Mustard Seed staff is about one-third university students, but don’t let that give you the impression the staff is a transient crew. Of the 150 employees, 12 have been with the restaurant for 20 years, and six for 30 years or more. That’s an impressive statistic for an industry known for its turnover.
“We take care of our people,” says Leegan. “People tend to work here and appreciate the atmosphere, then their siblings do, then their cousins do.…Heck, our long-time pastry chef, her daughter is now one of our managers. We’ve proudly been an excellent place for Missoulians to work for over 30 years.”
The payroll of the Mustard Seed is $100,000 per month, not chump change by any means. The positive economic impact it has on the area is significant.
Enough about the history, let’s talk about food.
The menu is extensive. And innovative. The kitchen uses fresh veggies (local and organic when possible, according to Leegan), their dressings and sauces are made from scratch, and the menu is updated often but keeps the perennial favorites.
New to the menu this summer are a number of items created based on recipes suggested by staff, both bar and kitchen.
“We encourage innovation and we incent our staff to bring new ideas to the table,” says Leegan. “If it ends up on the menu, the employee is compensated for it— it’s a win-win situation.”
The Burmese Shrimp Noodles, flavored with coconut milk, cilantro, thyme, pineapple, lemon and lime, garlic and hot chilies, and the marinated and grilled Montana Bison Rib-eye topped with huckleberry compote or a spicy curry sauce are both recipes suggested by an employee, and they are newly and deliciously on the menu.
And then there are the desserts.
The Mustard Seed hands-down wins the “Best of Missoula” choice award year-after-year for desserts, and for good reason. They employ two full-time dessert chefs, one who has been there for more than 30 years.
When the dessert tray was presented to me, I felt like a kid in a candy store who couldn’t pick just one. Strawberry-meringue cheesecake, raspberry-coconut cake, chocolate-mousse cloud cake, the dozen or so choices including gluten- and dairy-free options could have been taken straight from the pages of Bon Appetit.
And the cocktails. The enthusiasm longtime-bartender Tony Desantis has for his job and the concoctions he shared with me are contagious.
Grapefruit-basil and cucumber melon martinis, a dragon fruit cocktail, or a coconut ginger cilantro spritzer are not run-of-the-mill cocktails. There is artistry involved in both the recipes and the presentation. The bar also boasts house-infused vodkas, house-pickled garlic and hand-stuffed blue cheese olives. No detail is left to chance.
People have known and loved the Mustard Seed for many, many years, but the other day it felt like I had discovered a new and fabulous restaurant. I had to think outside my Osaka box. You should, too, and come see for yourself!