The Ultimate Guide to NW Michigan


Up North!
Up North: Michigan's Flavorful Vacationland
By R. W. APPLE Jr. for the NY Times

EAST JORDAN, Mich. - WHEN he was a boy, Ernest Hemingway spent his summers in this remote rural dominion, where Lake Michigan curls around to meet Lake Huron.

Here Hemingway's literary alter ego, Nick Adams (and perhaps he himself) talked of the Giants and the Cardinals, debated the merits of Chesterton and Walpole, cooked buckwheat pancakes over campfires, hunted for mushrooms, caught trout with grasshoppers as bait and shot ruffed grouse ("there was the whirring noise of wings as large brown birds burst out of the willows"). He described it as "the last good country."

Like many things about the Midwest, it is more or less a secret to people from the East and West Coasts, and the local gentry like things that way. "We have a little piece of paradise here, and we don't want to see it overrun," said Ken Winter, the editor and publisher of The Petoskey News-Review.

It has no proper geographical name. Michiganders call it Up North.

But it has a thriving food culture, much to the delight of those who flock here every July and August from Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans and other cities, fleeing muggy summer streets for the soft breezes and sparkling waters that await them in resort towns like Petoskey, Charlevoix, Harbor Springs and Leland. Many of them belong to families that have summered here for three or four generations.

In the final weeks of July, cherries are harvested — shaken by powerful machines from the well-formed little trees on which they grow, then chilled in spring water and rushed to canning and freezing plants while their piercing flavor and ruby-red or garnet-purple skins are intact. At roadside stands, you can buy not only sweet cherries but occasionally the juicier, deliciously tart Montmorencies, which are much too fragile to be shipped any great distance, and the more robust Balaton morellos, recently introduced from Hungary.

A casual midsummer visitor might think that food hereabouts begins and ends with cherries. He might well arrive at Traverse City's Cherry Capital Airport, visit the Cherry Hut restaurant in Beulah to taste its famous cherry pie and cruise down Cherry Bend Road. He will be assaulted by mostly hand-lettered signs promoting the roadside fruit stands, which are inevitably decked with American flags.

Driving around the area not long ago, my wife, Betsey, and I made a mental collection of such signs, like kids counting out-of-state license plates. Our favorite advertised "Donuts, Sweet Cherries, Piano Lessons."

Amon Orchards in Acme sells the most luscious cherry jam I know. "It's just lots of fresh, mature fruit," the owner, David Amon, told me, "with as little pectin and Michigan beet sugar as possible, cooked fast and hot to retain flavor, in five-gallon batches." Worried that dietary concerns will put people off cherry pie, Mr. Amon has been looking for ways to "take away the goo." Among the improbable results: cherry mustard and cherry barbecue sauce.

But important as cherries are to the state's economy — it leads the country in total production most years, with about 250 million pounds — they are just one among many culinary treasures of northwest Michigan. Each spring, clumps of morels grow in forests of maple, beech and ash. Lake Michigan (the big lake, as the locals call it), the hundreds of little lakes and the dozens of streams yield whitefish, walleye, salmon (introduced from the Pacific), steelhead, and brook, brown and rainbow trout in profusion. Game abounds, too — deer, mallard, hare, woodcock and Hemingway's grouse.

Many of the leading figures on the food scene Up North gathered one recent Saturday evening for the annual orchard blowout at an old blue-and-white farmhouse owned by Julia and Charles Eisendrath. Mr. Eisendrath, who runs the Knight-Wallace Fellows journalism program in Ann Arbor during the school year, is an intrepid hunter and fisherman when away from his desk.

He served his guests quail, duck, speckle-bellied goose, caribou and caribou sausage, which he cooked over a cherrywood fire on a grill of his own invention. Built to last a lifetime or two, it is called the Grillery, and Mr. Eisendrath will sell you one for a not exactly negligible sum.

For a significant number of those on hand, I found, food is a second career. Justin Rashid, a former actor, runs American Spoon Foods in Petoskey in partnership with the New York restaurateur Larry Forgione, turning local fruits into preserves, ice creams, condiments and other products. Bob Pisor, a former reporter and press secretary, whom I first encountered as a war correspondent in Vietnam, turns out some of the Midwest's finest bread at Stone House Bakery in Traverse City. William R. Sherman, a former diplomat who served in West Africa, heads Burnette Foods, a large-scale local cherry processor.

Running 24 hours a day during harvest season, Burnette's Elk Rapids plant cranks out 14 million cans of cherries in five weeks.

The region's epicenter, gastronomically speaking, is Tapawingo in the hamlet of Ellsworth, which may be the best restaurant anywhere in the country that's a four-hour drive from the closest major city. It is the creation of another career-swappper, Harlan Peterson, known as Pete, a North Dakotan who left a good job as an auto designer for Ford to move to the North Woods.

Tapawingo, set amid gardens of rudbeckia and giant alliums, overlooking a crystalline lake reflecting stands of firs, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in May. It has evolved from a modest if excellent regional restaurant into a place of international stature, serving focused, sophisticated dishes like a bracingly refreshing cold melon soup with a kaffir lime and chili ice. Main courses run to items like a rack of rabbit with veal sweetbreads, spaetzle and mustard greens, and seared sea scallops with an English pea emulsion, golden tomatoes and bacon.

For desert, there are devilish temptations like a cherry napoleon, an apricot tarte Tatin and a lemon verbena ice cream so good that it must have come, as Ms. Eisendrath said, "from another planet."

Mr. Peterson's chef, Stuart Brioza, 28, who grew up in Cupertino, Calif., near the legendary Ridge vineyards, was chosen this year by Food & Wine magazine as one of the best new chefs in the United States. With his uncanny ability to synthesize elements of Asian and Mediterranean cuisines in a style that remains thoroughly American, and a particular gift for balancing strong flavors, I think he will be one of the best chefs in America, full stop, in just a few years.

His restless spontaneity is matched by that of his colleague, Nicole Krasinski, who makes not only the desserts but also the bread. And no less imagination is brought to bear on the wine list by Ron Edwards, the sommelier, who oversees a 6,000-bottle cellar comprising some 650 vintages. Who would have thought, a decade ago, that you could find, just off a Michigan country road, a dozen champagnes, a dozen German rieslings, two dozen Montrachets, Margaux and Ducru and Latour, not to mention Grange and Harlan Estate and assorted gems from Austria, Italy and Spain?

A dozen smaller trees rise alongside the mighty trunk of Tapawingo. Among the old-timers are the Rowe, also in Ellsworth, where Mr. Peterson did his training under Wes Westhoven; La Bécasse, an outpost of France in Burdickville; and the yellow-walled dining room of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The hotel, built in 1887 of Michigan white pine, has a 660-foot veranda, a Sunday buffet table very nearly as long and charming Jamaican waiters.

Less venerable are Hattie's in Suttons Bay, which serves a memorable morel cream sauce, and Tuma's on Torch Lake, a cottagey establishment perfect for lingering over coffee to watch the Technicolor late-evening summer sunsets.

Friends would flog me if I forgot the Bluebird in Leland, a bright, simple place that has specialized in tasty deep-fried whitefish and French fries, the fish and chips of this part of the country, since 1923. My colleague Bill Schmidt, a Michigander through and through, once told me that on cold, dark nights during his assignment to Moscow two decades ago, he "dreamed of heaven, consisting of long summer afternoons at the Bluebird, with a bucket of smelts, an ice-cold Stroh's drunk straight from the bottle and the Tigers on TV."

Kurt Luedtke, the journalist-turned-screenwriter who won an Academy Award for "Out of Africa," favors the surf-and-turf at Art's in Glen Arbor: a quarter-pound of batter-fried smelt and a hamburger, for $2.75. "Art's is listed in the phone book and on its only two legal documents as Art's Tavern," Mr. Luedtke reports, "which substantially overstates the matter." Regulars call it Mary's, and the owner is named Tim.

East Jordan, whose ironworks makes many of the country's manhole covers and fire hydrants, used to have one of the area's best breakfasts, a skilletful of eggs, potatoes, cheese, bacon and sausage. But the restaurant that cooked it, the Round Table, known to some as the Cloggery because of the artery-blocking propensities of its fare, unexpectedly shut down early this month. Now the best the town offers by way of prole food is a monster burrito.

Northwest Michigan is full of surprises, not least the emergence of a full-fledged wine industry, with 43 wineries, concentrated on the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas north of Traverse City, where winds blowing across Lake Michigan protect the vines from frost in winter and cool them in summer. According to Charles Cook, the superintendent of the Michigan State Fair wine competition, wine recently passed snowmobiling as a revenue generator here.

Too far north, you say? Much too cold? Not really. The 45th Parallel cuts through the vineyards here, as it does through the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Médoc and Hermitage regions of France, and Piemonte in Italy — several of the world's very best wine-producing areas.

At the suggestion of Madeleine Triffon, the state's leading sommelier, I visited three vineyards, producing what she termed "the kinds of wines people like a lot because of their intrinsic quality, not just because they're made in Michigan": L. Mawby, a sparkling wine specialist; Peninsula Cellars, which produces outstanding dry and semidry rieslings; and Black Star.

Black Star is a lavish operation on a former horse farm, with vines planted in a natural amphitheater reminiscent of Italy and a white-porticoed inn (where we ate a delectable breakfast built around potato nests and, you guessed it, cherry-smoked bacon). Among its products are fine, hand-crafted cheeses — an herb-and-garlic-flavored fromage blanc and a firm, nutty Swiss-style raclette, both made by Michigan-born, Swiss-trained John Hoyt and his French wife, Anne Maillet, in a small, glass-walled area off the wine-tasting room.

The top wines, I thought, were the light, high-acid but still properly earthy and peppery 2000 Arcturos pinot noir and the sensational 2000 A Capella Riesling Ice Wine, made from grapes left on the vine long after the normal harvest and, in this case, picked in a fierce December snowstorm.

In addition, Black Star distills clear, traditional European-style eaux de vie, a rarity in this country, heretofore made only in Oregon and California. Pears, grapes, apricots and damson plums are used for these fragrant, luxurious spirits, as well as cherries (with the pits), as in kirschwasser.

Donald Coe, the managing partner, helped start Black Star after retiring from Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine, having spent summers here for 30 years. He and his team — including Lee Lutes, the winemaker, who once worked at Union Square Cafe in New York — approach their work with evangelistic zeal, bent on showing that value-added agriculture can succeed in Leelanau County. After investing $7 million, the owners hope to break even this year.

"I don't plan to take any money out," Mr. Coe explained when I expressed skepticism. "I see this as a kind of exhibition farm, devoted to the preservation of the countryside. If we don't show the farmers a new approach to agriculture, all the land around here will end up as subdivisions."

L. Mawby is, in fact, Larry Mawby, a jolly, bearded local boy made good, who produces some of the best sparkling wine between the Coasts, notably the fastidious, creamy 1997 Mille, with 53 months' aging on the yeast. "Here in the Midwest," he said, "we pronounce that Millie." His goal is to make something in a league with Roederer Estate's classy Anderson Valley sparklers.

Peninsula shows its wines in a little red schoolhouse, and the proprietor, David Kroupa, is as modest as a country schoolteacher. Having won regional, national and international awards for his rieslings last year, he is about ready to uproot some of his other varietals and concentrate on that one.

"I guess it makes pretty good wine — at least for up here," he told me.

Mr. Pisor's bread, especially his chewy sourdough, modeled on Lionel Poilâne's discus-shaped Parisian loaves, and his "all-crust, no crumb" garlic fougasse, are another welcome surprise. So are the Illy coffee bar, the magnificent wines and the packaged foods (Charlie Trotter sauces, Dufour puff pastry, flavored sea salts from Marseilles) at Pram and Suzanne Acharya's new shop, Esperance, in Charlevoix. And so is the superb smoked freshwater fish, including chub, an all-but-forgotten childhood treat, at Carlson's in Leland, which has been in the same family for five generations.

Most welcome of all are the clear, distinct, intense flavors of the ice cream at Mr. Rashid's new Gelato Cafe, next to his retail outlet in Petoskey. Eating a cone of his spearmint chocolate chip is like chewing a leaf freshly plucked from the herb garden.

I asked Mr. Rashid why he came here. For the quality of the fruit, both cultivated and wild, like thimbleberries and marionberries, he replied. But he conceded that it was something more than that.

"I'm like a lot of people," he said. "We all come here as children and fall in love with it. It becomes part of your psyche. After living somewhere else for a while, you say, `I'm not happy here. Where was I happy?' And pretty soon you're back."

Gloria Whalen, the young people's author who won a National Book Award in 2000 for "Homeless Bird," has lived for almost 30 years on Oxbow Lake, southeast of here, enchanted by the region, she said, because "you can move with ease between civilization and isolation, between the sophisticated and the rural worlds."

But like many here, she worries that it may prove ephemeral. "It may be getting away from us," she said. "Traverse City is becoming a real city instead of a pretend city. They just built a new parking garage."