Wild, wild (mid)west: Day 1

Rikster and I had a small case of the end-of-summer blahs recently; thus we decided the only cure was more cowbell a road trip to the southwestern side of the state (if you read this blog with any regularity, you know we make the trek north fairly frequently). We decided to drive up to Grand Haven for the annual Salmon Festival, work our way through several small towns, and end up in South Haven, where we’d bunk with my Aunt Susan for the night.

Before our departure, we obsessively researched the area and put together a rather eclectic list of must-sees, mainly comprised of microbreweries and lighthouses. We set off at 9:00 a.m. last Saturday, pumpkin spice and salted caramel lattes in hand.

The total driving time from Ann Arbor to Grand Haven clocked in at right around three hours, with no stops on the way. We easily found a parking spot in a municipal lot and set about exploring the town while we waited for the salmon festivities to begin. We quickly stumbled upon the first item on our checklist, Odd Side Ales.

Odd Side Ales is tucked away in what appears to be an office building, but once you get inside, the atmosphere is much more what you’d expect from a brewery: lots of dark wood, chalkboard menu, etc. Odd Side is known for the use of slightly unconventional ingredients – pineapple, peanut butter, and habenero, for example (thankfully not all in one brew). We split a sampler of the seven beers on tap that day. The Mayan Mocha Stout was the standout: velvety texture, balanced coffee/chocolate flavors, and a serious burst of heat on the finish.

Odd Side Ales sampler

By the time we finished our sampling, the Salmon Festival Cook-off and Wine Tasting was beginning. We met up with our friends Rob and Sandi and headed toward the huge white tent set up in the marina parking lot. For $20 per ticket, we were each given a souvenir wine glass, three drink tasting tickets and five food tasting tickets.  Ten local restaurants/caterers/markets were preparing various salmon dishes, which could be purchased for one ticket each. Several wineries and distributors were there with various Michigan-made products, pouring two ounces per ticket. A number of free samples rounded out the offerings, including a giant vegetable tower, fresh-baked bread and (perhaps best of all) Blue Moon ice cream.

It was a little crowded in the tent, but the vendors kept the lines moving and there was plenty of room to spread out outside. The portion sizes were generous – for example, D&W Market was offering a whole salmon roll. The offerings were varied – we tried everything from salmon salad with capers, fennel and lots of crunchy red onion (a great mix of flavors) to a bacon-wrapped salmon/jalapeno popper (the festival equivalent of “bar food” and actually quite delicious). The majority of the food was interesting without being gimmicky and really let the salmon flavor shine through. Our group thought this food festival definitely gave you good bang for your buck in comparison to similar events.

A sampling of salmon cook-off offerings

Sated with salmon, Rikster and I bid Rob and Sandi farewell and made our way down the street to Grand Haven Beach, home of the Grand Haven Lighthouse. The wind had picked up drastically, causing dramatic waves and wreaking havoc on the seagulls struggling to make headway into the wind.

Grand Haven Beach

Grand Haven Beach

We paused briefly to consider this sign + the gale-force winds:

Hmmmm.

Then we continued down the pier anyway. We tried to stay in the middle and out of the way of the waves that were crashing in a very picturesque yet more-than-slightly-dangerous manner over the sides of the pier. We snapped our obligatory photo at the base of the lighthouse, then made the executive decision that we had gone far enough and hurriedly yet cautiously made out way back.

Grand Haven Lighthouse

The road NOT taken

We had the wind at our backs trekking back to the car, although we managed to get so caught up in scenery and conversation that we trekked right past our parking lot. Our clue that we had gone too far:

Um, how far west did we go?

While we hadn’t managed to wander all the way to California, we knew we would have definitely remembered walking by a (fake) palm tree, so we turned back into the wind and eventually found the Subaru. After emptying the folds of our clothing from all the sand that the winds had wedged in there, we were back on the road – heading in a southern direction, toward Holland.

The salmon-coma was starting to wear off and we figured it was a good time for a snack…and more beer. The logical choice? New Holland Brewing Company, where we could indulge both impulses at the craft brewery and distillery’s expansive downtown pub.

Once again, we ordered a sampler of six beers, plus a small bacon-potato pizza. The pizza was amazing – crispy crust, thin-sliced potatoes baked to perfection, sprinkles of gorgonzola and bacon, and topped with fresh spinach. The small proved to be the ideal snack size – two small pieces each of pure comfort food.

New Holland Bacon and Potato Pizza

Our beer selections were equally satisfying. We had more to choose from here than at Odd Side, so our primary goal was making sure that a variety of styles were represented. I enjoyed the Poet stout immensely: a weighty (but not chewy), smooth (but not watery) mouth feel and a pleasant roasted flavor were highlights. Rikster immediately gravitated toward the seasonal Ichabod Pumpkin Ale, which had a clove and nutmeg finish that I haven’t tasted in most pumpkin beers that I’ve tried. Additionally, New Holland is the home of Dragon’s Milk, a cask-aged brew I was introduced to by one of my partners in (food and drink) crime, David: it’s super smooth, with vanilla-y goodness that can only come from oak. It’s also incredibly alcoholic and weighty and I’m not sure I could ever drink more than a small serving.

Sampler/snack at New Holland

Fortified with hearty fare, we were back in the car en route to Saugatuck. Unfortunately, we pulled into the parking lot of the Antique Pavilion after it had closed for the day (Rikster and I had agreed setting out on this adventure that even though we had a number of items on our wish lists, we wouldn’t hurry or rush to get to any one or the other).

The Antique Pavilion

We were in for a treat, however…if you look at the above photo of the Antique Pavilion, you will see that it is attached to another green building…and THAT green building just happened to be the Saugatuck Brewing Company.

Score!

We ordered our standard sampler, once again trying to include all styles represented on the menu. We weren’t impressed with the stout here (a bit watery) but found the Beach Blonde and Scot ales enjoyable.

Saugatuck Sampler

(Don’t worry, dear readers: the beer portion of day one has concluded.)

We had one more stop planned – this one non-negotiable – before calling it a night: we were bound for the tiny town of Fennville to dine at the farm-to-table restaurant, Salt of the Earth.

Specializing in “authentic Midwest American rustic food experiences”, Salt of the Earth has a menu that changes seasonally, offer fresh-baked breads from their own bakery, and an eclectic craft cocktail and bar menu focused heavily (but not exclusively) on Michigan-made beer, wine and spirits.

There was a short wait for a table, but the host was kind enough to offer cocktail service in the waiting area, so we began with a “Midwest Farmer Fizz” – served in a mason jar and comprised of Grand Traverse vodka, elderflower liquor, house-made sour, soda, and herbs, this cocktail had an incredibly fresh, almost vegetal taste. The sour made a huge difference: the drink lacked the cloyingly sweetness found in store-bought mixes – yet without having an assaulting citrus flavor.

Farmer Fizz at Salt of the Earth

Once seated, we ordered the night’s special appetizer, pork belly cooked and sliced in a similar manner to beef brisket. The thin slices of slightly bacon-y tasting pork melted in the mouth, providing a pleasing contrast to the charred edges.

Pork belly

Our entrees were fairly straightforward and simply prepared: hangar steak (deliciously charred on the outside) served with chopped tomato and cucumber, and handkerchief pasta with sausage and sweet peppers.

The true standout of the meal was a side dish – and a surprise: fried brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic vinegar. Crispy but not burned, tangy but not too much so, Riki and I devoured these like a kid devours candy.

The bounty of our table

We DID order dessert, but you’ll read about that in the day two entry – we ate it for breakfast since at this point we were (understandably) too stuffed to eat one more bite. (I will assure you, however, that the smell of said dessert almost caused us to pull over and devour it roadside, grotesquely stuffed or not.)

And with that, we were off to our final day one destination, Susan’s lake house, where we would watch the end of the Notre Dame game and part of Saturday Night Live before completely crashing in anticipation of day two.

To be continued…

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One thought on “Wild, wild (mid)west: Day 1

  1. Pingback: Wild, wild (midwest): Day 2 | A Wiseman Once Said…

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