Eating Traverse City Part I
A few years ago, a vacation to Northern Michigan wouldn't have even crossed my mind. Though my brother went to college in Grand Rapids, and I've visited Brandon's family in Kalamazoo many times, I'd always thought of Michigan as a place to visit people. Not so much a trip as a reunion. But then recently I started hearing about Traverse City, dubbed "an up-and-coming foodie spot," way up the mitten on Lake Michigan. I read in Bon Appétit that Mario Batali had a summer home nearby on Leelanau Peninsula, and I heard that Michael Moore, founder of the Traverse City Film Festival, had moved there. My good friend Rebecca sang the praises of the area's local wines–especially its bubblies, and cool climate varietals like Riesling and Cabernet Franc–and delicious farm-to-table restaurants. I read about the many lakes and beaches and hiking trails and vineyards (not to mention cherry trees!) and decided: we MUST go.
After months of dropping hints (I didn't think I was that obvious...), Brandon surprised me with an anniversary trip to Traverse City. He, being the amazing husband he is, booked the flights, the car, and the B&B, and let me do what I do best: plan the meals.
Needless to say, I love to travel. I love the adventure of the unknown, and the joy of discovery. I love the excitement of hopping in a cab, bulging suitcase(s) tucked away in the trunk, and heading to the airport (all the while praying fervently that traffic moves so we don't miss our flight). But perhaps most of all, I love arriving in a new place, dropping my bags, and heading out for an exploratory jog. That's how I get the lay of the land. Unencumbered by technology (no need to tweet on a run!) or expectations, I set out to stretch my legs and just observe. There is often quite a bit of stopping and starting on these jogs, I admit, to check out the menu at a cute café or peep in the window of a local gallery, or run down an unmarked trail just to see where it leads. Often by the time I've finished that first run, I've got our meals mapped out, a list of spots I want to visit, and already feel–sort of–like a local. Which in Traverse City, with its compact downtown and super-friendly residents, isn't difficult.
We ate a fantastic meal our first night at Cook's House, a cozy 8-table restaurant that has gotten national praise for its ultra-local, sustainable fare. You can try the seasonal five-course tasting menu for $50 with beautifully plated dishes like heirloom tomatoes with warm lobster mushrooms, beet risotto with chocolate shavings–so good that I, a non-beet-eater, actually liked it–and a local white fish called walleye, served in a delicate miso broth with rapini. For an added cost, they'll pair (mostly local) wines with each course–definitely worth the extra money to sample all the wines. We especially loved the L. Mawby Brut Blanc de Noirs and the Two Lads Pinot Grigio. Fortunately for us, it was just a couple minutes' walk back to our B&B, the antiques-filled Wellington Inn.
We headed out the next morning to explore Old Mission Pennisula, a skinny, 22-mile-long peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. Despite its petite size, Old Mission has seven wineries, a brewery, six restaurants, four B&B's, and more farm stands than I've ever seen in my life. We had perfect blue-sky weather all weekend, so with the windows rolled down and old Nirvana tunes blaring from the radio, we meandered along the lake and through the tree-shaded back roads on our way to visit Two Lads winery. Not to wax rhapsodic, but the scenery was pretty spectacular. With its rolling hills–covered alternately in vines or forests–and rows and rows of fruit trees (cherries, peaches, apricots, and apples), plus lake views from all sides, B and I almost felt like we were back on our honeymoon last year on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. (And to think, we could have saved ourselves a 24-hour flight!)
We stopped off at a fruit stand on the way to buy some blackberries, peaches, and apricots. There was no one at the stand, just a sign that read: SELF SERVE. MAKE CHANGE IF YOU NEED TO. THANKS, JULIE. She then had a second sign saying checks could be made payable to her. These two memos were taped to the table, beside a very large coffee can with a plastic lid: the deposit box, presumably. I couldn't believe this woman was so trusting, but yet, come to think of it, none of the other farm stands were occupied either. We picked out our fruit, paid, and were on our way.
We stopped off at a winery (who will remain unnamed) whose tasting room was–in total contrast to the manicured vineyards outside–total kitsch. Packed with tourists, it resembled a Cracker Barrel gift shop, selling farm animal dish towels and wine- and cherry-themed tschotskes. We slowly edged out the door and headed up north. A word of warning to French-wine lovers: sweet wines are all the rage in Upper Michigan (late-harvest Rieslings, sweet reds, cherry wines, etc.). Though I prefer drier wines, the tasting experience is still a lot of fun. You can pop in any winery (no appointment necessary) and taste five or six wines for just $5. And there's absolutely zero pretension–everyone is having a blast and the mood is contagious. (Note: We didn't make it to Brys Estate Winery, which makes an earthy, aromatic Pinot Noir that I sampled for dinner one night. Nearby Bowers Harbor Vineyard also has some nice wines, and a lovely back patio for tasting.)
Several miles up the road, Two Lads feels world's apart. With its ultra-modern corrugated metal exterior and concrete and steel interiors, the winery is both sleek and functional–and happens to offer the best views in the area. We opted to do their six-wine tasting (along with a little tapas plate) and enjoyed not only sampling the wines, but talking to their knowledgeable staff. Opened in 2008 by the "two lads," South African-born Cornel Olivier and Traverse City-native Chris Baldyga, the winery is the newest in the area, as well as the smallest: they only produce about 4500 cases per year. We were amazed, given the preferences of other local wineries, to taste how dry the Two Lad's wines were. Their Riesling was crisp, with a lively acidity, and the Cabernet Franc rosé was super dry, with a surprisingly peppery finish. Unfortunately we didn't get to taste the wines they are best known for–their Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs, and sparkling wines–as they were all sold out. Clearly that's good news for them, and for us too: we'll just have to come back for a visit next year.
We continued our drive up to the tip of the peninsula to the Old Mission Point Lighthouse. Built in 1870, this beautifully preserved lighthouse sits on a rocky beach, with picnic areas and hiking trails and a cool little museum telling the history of the lighthouse. After climbing up to the top of the lighthouse and taking some self-portraits on the beach (see below) we headed back down the peninsula for a late lunch at the Jolly Pumpkin Brewery. Located next door to the upscale Mission Table (which has its own blog post coming soon) on the former historic Bower's Inn property, Jolly Pumpkin brews all sorts of beers, including some award-winning Belgian-style pale ales. Unexpectedly, we discovered our favorite beer of all time, their Oro de Calabaza, which happened to be on tap for the first (and only) time all year. Neither of us are big beer drinkers, but after tasting this aromatic, slightly spicy Belgian-style golden ale, we were hooked. And apparently, so is Eric Asimov of the New York Times: last year he ranked this beer the #1 Belgian Pale Ale in the world. Lunch was fantastic–crab tots (crab cakes + tater tot shape = genius) with preserved lemon aioli, local whitefish dip, and ribs for B. After a day of exploring, wine tasting, and a late brewery lunch, naps on the beach were definitely in order. And, for the record, any place that has vineyards and beaches a few miles a part, is my kind of place.
Stayed tuned for Traverse City Part II: the best croissants in North America, bubbly tasting on the Leelanau Peninsula, and hiking in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park...