Yes, There Really is a Food Mecca There

Michael Nagrant / 04.28.10

This article was written for a national publication three years ago, but was never published for space reasons. Life got in the way and I never got around to publishing it. The New York Times and Food and Wine have recently show some interest in the region, so I figured it was time to ressurect the piece. Sadly, Tapawingo, the great restaurant referenced in the article has since closed. The winemakers are are still putting out incredible product, including Left Foot Charley wines which wasn’t open yet during my initial visit. The cheesemakers at Black Star Farms are also still first in class.

As far as I could remember, Michigan had always been dubbed a rust belt state by embattled politicians, but growing up in metro-Detroit, I never believed it. Sure, shopworn laborers left their jobs drenched in sweat, with the boom, thud, plodding of pistons and a gnash of gears ringing in their ears, but they did so in shiny Cadillacs or trailed by the guttural purr of Corvette exhaust pipes.

Local prosperity lingered far past damning rhetorical pronouncements, and nowhere was our good fortune more evident than “up north”, what native Michiganders call all land above the city of Flint. If Detroit was the rust belt, than the Northwestern quadrant of the state that includes Leelanau County and greater Traverse City was the natty suspenders that always lifted the spirit of the working class. Childhood summers spent at my father’s friend Walt Schrodt’s rusty red pine cottage near Traverse city provided me plenty of opportunity to witness the spoils of good union jobs: the thunder of power boats on the Grand Traverse Bay, the buzz of snowmobiles ratcheting nimbly through the snow capped pines, and the chattery schuss of skis on local slopes.

But, by the time I graduated from college and applied for local work, I finally realized how tight the rust belt noose was drawn. Jobs, including the perennial well of skilled trade positions, finally dried up. So for me it was on to Chicago, where urban and coastal cultural superiority crept into my consciousness. As I began to see it, New York City had a gleaming LCD soaked Broadway, while Detroit only the gritty racial dividing line of Eight Mile, California a never ending growing season, and Michigan, an interminable killing frost. Something was askew. I needed to get back to my roots, and Traverse City seemed the perfect place to visit for perspective.

Traverse City is home to the National Cherry Festival, a spirited affair that features a cherry pit spitting contest (Brian “Young Gun” Krause holds the record at 100′, 4”) and the local Cherry Queen. With over 3.8 million tart cherry trees, Michigan produces 70 to 75 percent of the tart cherries grown in the United States. If the youthful George Washington brought his shiny hatchet to bear on a cherry tree in Traverse City, the enduring mythology of our founding father’s truthfulness may have been lost to history.

Couple the cherry windfall with lush forests and fertile land brimming with dewy moisture, and you’ll also find gnarly stalks of asparagus and troves of springtime Morels, their spongy protuberances poking through sandy soil. The region’s bounty always seemed ripe to serve as the natural larder for the rise of a culinary mecca. Yet, while I was growing up, excepting the now defunct Hattie’s in Sutton’s Bay, there were few fine dining spots. There seemed to be no inspiring figure teasing out a culinary renaissance like Alice Waters in California. Little did I know there were already a large group of artisans at work.

There is probably no more inspiring modern culinary figure than Mario Batali, and as it turns out, the prince of orange clogs has a summer home in the region. While he doesn’t have much to do with the local culinary blow-up, his presence is like the Michigan version of Sean “P-Diddy” Combs landing in the Hamptons, a tacit mark of hip approval.

One of Batali’s favorite spots is reportedly Taqueria Margarita near the airport. You don’t get better food recommendations than from a man who’s eaten his way through most of Italy. So as I arrived in town flying down M-72 past pastel colored motels mixed in with Psycho movie like one story dark cedar shake versions, I was on the hunt for Mexican.

When I saw a sombrero perched in the front dining room at Taqueria Margarita, I assumed I was in for a Tex-Mex fiesta replete with deep fried chimichangas as big as your head. Instead I found authentic regional Mexican including hearty chunks of deep fried pork carnitas dripping in earthy Oaxacan mole and tangy achiote rubbed al-pastor or shepherd style tacos. As my server Alfredo Herrera said, “I’ve been a waiter for 43 years, and this is the first Mexican restaurant I worked at, because it serves the food I grew up eating.” Born in Mexico City, Herrera’s grace, knowledge, and four star style were polished in the major leagues of professional waiting at Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s and the Berghoff.

Driving north from Margarita, I eventually hit Old Mission Peninsula, a verdant hilly dagger that slices the cobalt waters of Grand Traverse into east and west bays. Split by a winding trail of asphalt that every German auto owner would love, the peninsula is replete with fruit orchards, many with their own roadside stands bearing hand painted shingles, and a tangle of vineyards.

On Old Mission, they don’t use spit buckets. Rather, most visitors who hit the local tasting rooms are happy to drink themselves from one end of the peninsula to the other. If they’re still standing at the end, they’ll find themselves at Chateau Chantal in the hands of Bill Autenreith. Autenreith’s no puckered tasting room wonk waxing about tannins and terroir. Instead he occasionally dons a hat featuring a corkscrew that looks like it’s barreling through his skull. He knows his stuff, but couches his knowledge in aphorisms like “Gewürztraminer is like the Frank Zappa of wines. Either you get it, or you don’t”. Part Jester, part TV pitch man, Autenreith could sell a bowl of cherries to a cherry farmer, and at the end of your crawl, you’ll most like find yourself walking out with a case of Chantal’s best, Cerise, a tart cherry cordial.

While Autenreith might seem a little zany, he’s got nothing on some of the former inhabitants of the Northern Michigan Asylum. The former state mental institution, now part of one the country’s largest historic and adaptive reuse development projects, houses the seasonal and locally focused Trattoria Stella, where Chef Myles Anton’s airy parmesan and cornmeal encrusted house-made gnocchi tossed with spring spinach and morels are guaranteed to drive you batty. Anton’s taken advantage of the seasonal winter slowdown in business to travel and cook in Italy, and honed his pasta making skills at a Stella Marina, a fishhouse on the island of Elba. Owners Paul and Amanda Danielson are former Detroiters who like me summered in the area growing up. As Paul says, “we were both in the restaurant industry and saw that our future was not there (Detroit). … Traverse City has been growing for the last fifteen years as opposed to the rest of our fair state…” Amanda, who doubles as the restaurant’s sommelier, chooses her wines solely on taste and individuality. As a result, she’s got one of the deepest offerings from local wineries, including a 2006 Cabernet Franc from Brys Estate that, in one spicy fruity bomb of a sip, changed my mind entirely about Michigan wine. Sharing similar latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux, aspirations for Michigan as a serious wine growing region have been championed for years. Unfortunately, many local winemakers catered to the White Zinfandel set, earning the region a reputation for syrupy Rieslings and cloying fruity swill. If you told me the Brys cab franc I drunk at Stella was made at a cult California winery, I’d be more apt to believe it.

Walt and Eileen Brys, the proprietors behind Brys Estate vineyards, couldn’t shake memories of a trip they once took to the budding Napa valley. Looking to recreate that trip, they considered land in California and Oregon, but eventually settled on Old Mission, because it had the spirit of Napa from “30 years ago.” Hooking up with a series of talented South African winemakers including Cornell Olivier, and now Coenraad Stassen formerly of Chantal, the Brys’s pursued complex reds like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc out of the gate. Their elusive light cherry-noted 2005 Pinot Noir feels like “a tipping point” for Michigan wine.

Across the west bay, out on the Leelanau peninsula, directly across from Old Mission, Larry Mawby, the second guy to grow grapes in this region, exclusively produces sparkling wines. He once wrote an experimental novel, but confines his writing to free form poetry on his bottle labels these days. While Mawby’s noted for selling “Sex” – in 2003 he had an underselling rosé, and so on a lark, he said, “I’ll apply for (the) sex (trademark name) and they’ll reject it, and I can say look, the feds won’t let me sell sex. But I applied and they approved it.” – his Cremant, with it’s yeasty nose and fruity body, is one of the best domestic sparklers I’ve ever had.

Farther up the peninsula, you’ll also find Lee Lutes, winemaker for Black Star farms, where the motto posted above his office is, “We don’t go home at five o’clock if the wine needs us until ten o’clock.” Raised in Traverse City, Lutes took a detour as a stockbroker, learned winemaking in Italy, and worked for Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern in New York, before returning to the region. His subtle refreshing sparkling apple cider defies a genre of sugar bombed high alcohol ciders. Likewise, his Sirius Raspberry, which uses a base of fermented raspberries fortified with house distilled brandy, beats the stuffing out of a dusty bottle of Chambord.

Lutes isn’t the only artisan at Black Star. Anne and John Hoyt brew up small batch nutty creamy award winning artisan raclette cheese from the milk of pasture fed Black Holsteins. John wields his tranche-caille (curd cutter) like the trident of Neptune, as he and Anne hew to traditional cheesemaking practices with a few modifications including using vegetable rennet to form their curd. This decision stems from the fact that Anne, raised in Northern France, is what I always thought up until now an oxymoron, a French vegetarian. Unbelieving, I prodded her until she admitted that she liked the blood sausage that was served every Wednesday in her childhood home.

You can’t live on wine and cheese alone, and the best place for a meal, not only in the region, but in the state is Tapawingo. In fact. if a tornado flung the restaurant to Oz, or any other city in the United States, Tapawingo would be one of the best spots wherever it landed. Indeed, Toto, we’re not in Traverse City anymore. Arriving from the southwest, I shot across Essex road, a rollercoaster of inky blacktop that splits dusty acres of Northern farmland. Once I reached Ellsworth, a one blinking stoplight town, I rode down Lake St past a cluster of single wide trailers, until I spot an oxidized sign signaling my destination.

Owner/chef Harlan “Pete” Peterson, a former industrial designer for Ford, got bit by the cooking bug on a trip to Paris, where he met Julia Child and attended Anne Willan’s fabled cooking school La Varenne. Tapawingo has been around for 24 years, which makes it extraordinary that this isn’t some dusty spot relying on an old four star review and serving steak Bordelaise. Peterson, whose style was to glam up ethnic favorite like Bigos (Polish hunter’s stew), keeps things fresh by hiring hungry executive chefs. Jeremy Kittleson, formerly of Chicago’s Blackbird, is the newest kid on the wood block. With his shaved head, reddish goatee, icy blue eyes and diamond stud earrings, he would make the perfect Viking. While he looks fierce, Kittleson’s humble and lets his cooking speak for itself. His crispy seared diver scallops are strewn with smoky pink shards of ham hock, English peas, tangy preserved lemon and drizzled with zingy Razor clam vinaigrette. Each fork stab is like an exquisite hunt for palette pleasing treasure. Kittleson’s nine course tasting menu is clean seasonal New American with a Spanish accent, and the finesse of his platings which include perfect micro-brunoise of vegetables and velvety purees reminds me of Thomas Keller’s execution at the French Laundry. As a reminder that Tapawingo is more like the Laundry’s rustic brother, an older woman behind my table swept her entire bread course into her purse. Her exasperated husband said, “Did you take the butter?” She responded gleefully, “I took the whole kit and caboodle.” My initial reaction was amusement, followed by self-loathing that I wasn’t bold enough to do the same with Keller’s magnificent brioche last time I was at the Laundry.

While Ellsworth has always been the small Northern town with extraordinary eats, nearby Bellaire is gearing up to steal the crown. At LuLu’s Bistro, Chef Michael Peterson glams up tater tots, serving a parmesan risotto version with a chipotle Ketchup, while a block down at Short’s Brewery, Joe Short is serving up some of the state’s best craft brews since Bell’s opened in 1983. Before taking a sip of Short’s huge hoppy ales, including the Huma-Lupa-Licious, I’m hit with waves of citrus perfume. Brewed with the mineral rich lager style local water supply, his light chocolate and coffee laden porters encourage the drinking of more than one pint. Thankfully, there’s plenty to go around. In addition to the 17 house brews on tap, Short created 13 new beers including a black licorice lager to celebrate his third year in business. He and his very small crew hand bottled, labeled, and signed over 12,000 limited edition bottles for this effort.

Haute eats and craft beers sidle up quite comfortably to hearty rustic fare in these parts. You can get whitefish or smelt anywhere in Traverse City. At Sleder’s, you can do so while bellying up to the original 125 year old mahogany bar top, and outside of Ted Nugent’s hunting ranch in Jackson, you probably won’t find a more impressive mounted animal head collection in Michigan.

One of my rustic local favorites is Ham Bonz, a central Traverse City spot owned by Bo and Vida Uzzle. Using a Lang smoker stoked with apple, maple, and cherry woods, they turn out tender beef and pork shoulder, for their smoked meat omelettes, and crusty Bay Bread encased sandwiches. The pulled pork sandwich kissed with their signature bbq sauce infused with Vida’s homemade preserves made with fresh local cherries, won’t disappoint

But the best smoked protein is found in Leland, near a collection of dockside weather beaten shanties collectively known as “fishtown”. Following my nose to the end of the dock, I found a carbon streaked smokehouse, and Carlson’s retail outlet, where fourth and fifth generation fisherman Bill and his son Clay sling golden shimmery smoked chubs, aka fish crack. On my way out of town, I grabbed a few, ripped into white butcher’s paper and started gnawing the salty delicate flesh from head to tail. As I grabbed another chub, I noticed fingers of sunlight crowning the edge of Lake Michigan, and I realized I could care less about New York, California, or even Chicago. I was finally home.