Chef’s Surprise: Tabor Hill brings refinement to an unsophisticated menu

Michael Nagrant / 12.13.10

“Drink Wine. Laugh Often. Live Long.” That’s what the shingle outside of the entrance to Tabor Hill Winery in bucolic Buchanan, Michigan says. And, I suppose if I were one of those middle-aged Chicago antique-hunters whose wealthy husbands bought a farm in nearby Three Oaks to clear brush on the weekends like an ex-president, I might think that was cute. Hell, I’d probably go out and buy some crochet tools and needle me up a sampler of that mantra for my own kitchen.

But I am not. That sign and the faux ski lodge-like décor featuring knotty woods, rustic stone and tables set with blue glass goblets is baiting my inner Holden Caulfield. Even worse, I’m responsible for this schmaltz. I needed a halfway point to meet my in-laws, who live in mid-Michigan, for Sunday dinner. Food writer that I am mixed with the omnipresent Michael Pollan-induced guilt trip coursing through me, I couldn’t just settle for a rendezvous at the I-94 Long John Silver’s followed by a Coke and a beef jerky chaser from the gas station on the way home. I had to find me some good eats. And so here I am, glass of oxidized Michigan Pinot Noir in hand.

Lest you mistake this for some urbane snottiness toward the Michigan countryside, know that I am a Michigan man, born and raised in East Detroit (no matter what Steve Perry of Journey sings, there is no “South Detroit” unless he was raised on a barge in the Detroit River or in Windsor, Canada).

As such, I would love nothing more than for my home state to be the greatest secret culinary spot in the country. Sometimes it is, especially up north where Larry Mawby makes amazing sparkling wine, Brys Estate turns out legit reds, and the Black Star Farms Creamery whips up some of the best Raclette in the world. However, I have never met a glass of Southwestern Michigan wine I didn’t want to deposit in a spit bucket.

Tabor Hill, which does make an okay Cab Franc, won’t be changing my view on wine. The food’s not looking too promising either. I mean nothing says 1987 (other than brick-style cell phones and square knitted ties) like pecan-breaded raspberry chicken.

Oh, and there’s also a dude wearing a cheap Peyton Manning replica jersey tucked into his nipple-high hitched Dockers, which I guess is an argument for absolution regarding the filet mignon, crab cakes and Caesar salad on offer.

Steakhouse clichés aside, the last time I’ve seen sausage and chicken penne, Japanese sea bass and Manchego chorizo flatbread on the same menu was at a 3am buffet in an Indian Casino. Drunk and ravenous as I was, I don’t remember it being too successful.

Thing is, places like Alinea mash up all kinds of cuisine, and throw a little bubble-gum, chili and hibiscus in a test tube too, and get away with it all the time. Guess what Tabor Hill Chef JohnPaul VerHage’s favorite restaurant in Chicago is?

While Tabor Hill is not the Alinea of Michigan’s middling wine country, it is the best Thai/Spanish/Italian/Cajun/Greek/Southwestern restaurant I’ve ever eaten at.

The sea bass has a perfect golden-cracklin’ crust and buttery hunks of interior flesh. The ragout of Swiss chard, butter beans, pancetta and garlic underneath it is like a free form soul-satisfy vegetarian stew. That sausage and chicken pasta is creamy and the noodle has a nice bit of springy resistance when you bite into it. Butternut squash soup is rife with a yin-yang combo of burning Thai spice and soothing coconut milk.

Cracker-breaded blue gill fillets are perched on a slaw of tiny green beans, julienned broccoli and shoestring potatoes tossed with smoked melting blue cheese. I know the garnish reads like the Bird’s Eye Super Bowl Sunday Frozen Vegetable Medley, but the slaw is crisp, fresh and fantastic.

If there’s any criticism, that slaw and the intense oven-roasted tomato confit girding the fish feels a little like a cook’s first improv on the culinary school playbook. Then again, the technique is so precise, the vegetables shocked and blanched to a verdant green, the blue gill crust so tender, greaseless and light, there’s really nothing novice about it. Young cooks come up so fast in Chicago these days that they rarely master this kind of precision.

Except for the flavor combo, there’s nothing cliche about VerHage’s “BLT” salad, a napoleon of tangy fried green tomatoes and delicate-scrim-like crispy pancetta rounds featuring glassy striations of glinting fat topped with a fried quail egg and a drizzle of buttermilk. It is one of the best salads I’ve eaten all year. It’s the kind of dish that might just inspire me to hang a sign over my door that says, “Don’t Judge a Restaurant By Its Menu.”


Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant, 185 Mount Tabor Road, Buchanan, Michigan, (800)283-3363,