Wild, wild (midwest): Day 2

Rikster and I can be pretty determined people when we set our minds to it, and we were determined that, on the Sunday morning following our Salmon Festival/Salt of the Earth excursion, we were going to drink coffee on Susan’s deck while we watched the waves crash on the beach. The fact that it was *maybe* 50 degrees with high winds didn’t deter us from finishing one round of cappuccinos before we finally called it quits and went inside, where keeping our coffees warm proved much less of an undertaking.

The beach

Going inside also offered the opportunity to heat up a little breakfast treat we had procured at the restaurant: Salt of the Earth’s famous Wood Fire Toasted S’more, a ridiculous concoction of homemade marshmallow, graham cracker crumb, chocolate pudding, salted caramel and spice cake.

Breakfast of champions

Susan reheated the dessert in her toaster oven, and the size was perfect to split amongst the three of us. Letting it rest overnight had allowed the cake to absorb all the caramel-y, chocolate-y goodness, and the warm, gooey marshmallow provided an ideal topping. Combined with our coffee, it was an excellent breakfast for a chilly fall morning.

Properly fueled by sugar and caffeine, we asked Susan to lead us down her beach to hunt for beach glass. We were hoping the night’s wind and wave action had churned up some sizable pieces. We hit the jackpot almost immediately.

Rikster’s beach glass!

We hiked back down the boardwalk, admiring the scenery and the waves and making sure that Trixie, Susan’s cat who had followed us on our little excursion, didn’t get blown out to sea.

Walking back to the house against the wind works up an appetite, even for those who have just gorged on a sugar bomb. Susan had an idea in mind for lunch, however, and allowed us to sit at the table and read magazines while she assembled a beautiful antipasti platter comprised of Ortiz tuna, salami, fresh mozzarella, vegetables from a neighbor’s garden, hardboiled eggs and an assortment of crackers. We washed it down with a glass of crisp white wine, and Susan led us in to town to continue on our weekend adventure.

My mouth is watering again…

Salute! Susan’s awesome antique store glassware.

We had decided to check another lighthouse off our list, so we headed to South Haven Beach, home of the South Haven Lighthouse. The weather, which had been fairly mild up to that point, immediately kicked into high gear when we set foot on the sands: the wind whipped, the skies darkened, and the waves started to get crazy. Once again, we set out down the pier, snapped our obligatory photo, and then attempted to make our way back without dying.

Yes, it’s a different one than the last post.

We explored the town a bit before beginning our southeastern journey home. Susan had advised us to take “the back way” from South Haven to Kalamazoo, which in addition to giving us easy access to the town of Paw Paw would lead us right to downtown Kzoo. We took her recommendation and were well on our way when we drove past the Paw Paw Brewing Company.

How could you NOT stop here?

The brewery appeared to be in a trailer. It was extremely small and rested uncomfortably close to the road. Needless to say, we could not resist stopping. This proved to be a great call because it ended up being our favorite overall brewery experience of the entire trip.

The crowd seemed to be made up mostly of regulars, including a trio of senior citizens with acoustic guitars having a jam session in the back room. We sat at the bar and ordered a flight of all ten brews currently being served. We immediately hit it off with the bartender, a girl of maybe 25 who was very candid about what she liked and didn’t like and didn’t hesitate to climb up on a precariously-placed bar stool to check sizes on some of the merch.

“The usual”

We found most of the beers to be pleasant and non-offensive to the taste buds. We enjoyed the Twisted Pumpkin – not as spicy as New Holland’s offering but with a pronounced pumpkin flavor. The stout was a much better entry into the category than our last brewery (Saugatuck) had offered – this one had some weight to it and a wonderful flavor that I can only describe as “breakfasty.”

Then our bartender poured us a special treat:

Root beer!

Root beer! Paw Paw Brewing Company’s house-made root beer tastes like candy. As a delighted Rikster put it, “Buddy the Elf would approve!”

Now, those who know me know that I do not have much of a sweet tooth. The sugar bomb s’more for breakfast combined with post-lighthouse ice cream (Did I leave that part out – that part where Riki and I decided to warm up in an ice cream parlor?) combined with root beer added up to a lot more sweet stuff than I normally consume. Throw in the espresso from the morning…

Rikster wasn’t immune to the sugar high, either – hence the incredible amount of giggling and our decision to stop at an appeared-to-be-deserted winery in the middle of nowhere not in spite of but because it “could be a Texas Chainsaw experience” (quote: Rikster).

Well, once we got inside the winery (Lawton Ridge) we found that it was not creepy at all –  just a slightly over-decorated tasting room and a very nice woman behind the counter that guided us through the wines, some of which we found quite pleasant. I left with a bottle of the AZO Red, a pleasant fruity blend with a peppery kick on the finish.

Heading into Kalamazoo, we knew that we couldn’t in good conscience have a brewery weekend without a stop at Michigan’s craft beer mothership, Bell’s – home of Oberon, Two Hearted, and several other long-standing Michigan favorites.

Bell’s sampler

We ordered the usual sampler and lined up our choices, ranging from stout to mead. Yes, you read that correctly – mead. I was skeptical at first, but I trust the Rikster’s judgment. And she was – as usual – completely on-target. I was afraid that the mead would be cloying and syrupy, but was instead treated to a lightly sweet honey flavor with a light weight and clean finish. The rest of the lineup was solid, if not particularly memorable.

With the beer and wine tasting portion of our trip complete, we made one last stop – this time for dinner. The original plan was to try out Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall – this plan was thwarted by the fact that Dark Horse A) doesn’t offer a sampler and B) was incredibly crowded. Not feeling the vibe, Riki and I decided to get our senior citizen on and head to Schuler’s, a behemoth historic mansion with a dark pub (Winston’s) in the basement. We indulged in a plate of Schuler’s famous bar cheese and a couple filling sandwiches before getting back in the car to head home – this time with no stops along the way.

The signs of a great weekend/

Thank you Riki for providing so many of the photos used in these two posts!

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…

Cabin Girls Strike Again: Part II

When the Cabin Girls go up north, we focus pretty heavily on wine – as outlined in my post yesterday and a similar post from our March buying trip. However, we’re also all about our food.

(I am pretty sure when my grandma purchased the cabin way back when it was intended as a bear hunting/snowmobiling lodge…our ski trips aren’t such a stretch but no one ever expected the cabin to become the stopping point on a foodie tour. Hey, whatever works, right?)

Anyway, now that we’ve done this trip twice, we have our Friday night routine down. We usually get up to Grayling pretty late, so instead of stopping for dinner, we call Spicy Bob’s pizza and pick up our pie on our way in to Frederic. Spicy Bob’s is open late and has delish veggie and Mediterranean pizzas, both of which incidentally pair well with the various red wines we haul up.

Normally, this is a tasty but not particularly notable event; however, this time around, the Rikster saw something called “Cheese-Stuffed Silly Sticks” on the menu, so we added them to our order. Following is a transcript of the first part of this phone call:

(Ring, ring)

Spicy Bob’s: “Uh, hi.”

Me: (Silence)

Spicy Bob’s: “Oh, um. Hey, Spicy Bob’s! Can I get you a pizza or something?”

Me: “Yes. We would like an ultimate veggie for pick-up.”

Spicy Bob’s: “Cool. Did you know your phone number is in our system? That’s neat.”

Me: “Um, OK. Can I also get some cheese-stuffed silly sticks?”

Spicy Bob’s: (Voice cracking with enthusiasm) “CHEESE-STUFFED SILLY STICKS?! Abso-LUTELY!”

When we arrived at Spicy Bob’s, we found the counter manned by one very relaxed-looking teenage boy while another teenage boy literally ran around the back of the room, throwing boxes and banging spatulas around and yelling “WHAT DO I DO WITH THE HAM AND PEPPERONI???” at which point counter boy looked at me, shook his head ruefully, and informed me “Right after you called, we got hit, man. We got hit hard.”

(I should add that this was said with the weight and seriousness of someone talking about, say, the Vietnam war rather than a Friday night pizza rush.)

Anyway, after informing me that he just needed to put the “finishing touches” on our silly sticks (which involved some exaggerated brushing with something that looked like movie theater butter and some heavy-handed shaking of a spice container) everything was packed up and ready to go. We took the two-track in to the cabin, where we promptly changed in to PJs, Rikster opened the kick-off bottle of wine, and we commenced with the eating of our delicious, veggie-laden pizza.

Rikster opens the festivities

Ultimate Veggie and Silly Sticks

We managed that night to only consume four bottles of red wine instead of our usual six, so when we woke up we actually felt pretty good. Fortified with bagels and coffee and with some regular Cokes for the road, we headed to TC, where we tasted wine until we were ready for lunch, at which point we headed to the Hearth & Vine Cafe at Black Star Farms.

We were immediately drawn to two sandwiches on the menu: the Italian (prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, onion, arugula & balsamic reduction on ciabatta) and the Wood-Roasted Chicken (pesto, roasted peppers, chicken, and provolone on ciabatta). Since there were four of us, we ordered two of each and had the waitress plate them half and half. We were not disappointed:

Sandwiches and chick peas at Black Star Farms

We loved them both, and after a much-debated taste test, came to the conclusion that the chicken was just a little bit better…flavorful and moist meat, pesto that tasted more herbacious than oily, chewy ciabatta…mmmm. The sandwiches were served with spiced chickpeas, which we thought were a delightful alternative to chips. (Psst – I just found their blog – check it out: http://saveurthyme.blogspot.com/)

After snacks at Brys Estate and 2 Lads, we headed downtown for dinner. We arrived a bit early for our reservation at The Cook’s House, but this wasn’t a problem as they now have a liquor license. We enjoyed a glass of wine on the deck while we waited for our table.

Enjoying St. Suprey cab on the deck of the Cook's House

After doing the seven-course tasting menu at The Cook’s House in March, we couldn’t wait to do it again in June. Since the restaurant focuses heavily on local seasonal cuisine, we knew it would be different – and hopefully every bit as delicious.

We were NOT mistaken.

We started with asparagus soup, which had a depth of flavor so intense that we were shocked to learn that it was blanched rather than roasted. Drizzled with some good olive oil and flavored with nothing but sea salt, this looked like baby food but was absolutely divine.

Asparagus soup

We moved on to a creamy risotto with small pieces of lamb and spinach. The texture was perfect and the meat complimented rather than competed with the chicken stock and Parmesan flavors in the risotto.

Risotto with spinach and lamb

A perfectly-crisped piece of whitefish on garlic scapes followed. Dressed with a light mustard-y vinaigrette, this was absolutely bursting with flavor.

Whitefish with garlic scapes and mustard vinaigrette

The next course almost killed us, in the best possible way. We were served a thinly-sliced New York strip steak with a beef cheek ragout. The ragout literally melted in our mouths. The richness of this dish was almost over the top…not that that stopped us.

NY Strip with beef cheek ragout

After the beef, we were in desperate need of a salad. What came to us looked like Easter on a plate. The pickled radishes and crispy pig ears were actually very mild, and it proved a refreshing follow-up to the rich meat, if not particularly a stand-out item on its own.

Salad with fried pig ears

One of the main reasons we get the tasting menu is because it includes a cheese course. A mixture of local and non-local artisan cheeses, this is a real treat. In addition to favorites such as herbed chevre and Leelanau Raclette, we were thrilled to find the ambrosial (read: delightfully stinky) Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery. We all sighed audibly when this plate landed on our table.

The highly anticipated cheese course

The last time we did the tasting menu, we were all served a delectable coffee creme brulee. No one was disappointed to see duck egg creme brulee as the dessert this time around – however, since it was a slower night and we’d been chatting amicably with, well, anyone who would stop by our table (chef, waiter, busboy, bartender – we weren’t picky), the kitchen offered instead to send us one each of four different desserts to share. We didn’t hesitate for a second. The creme brulee came out accompanied by a panna cotta with rhubard compote, a savory spiced honey cake with vanilla ice cream, and a flourless chocolate cake.

Panna Cotta with rhubard and duck egg creme brulee

Honey cake - a table favorite

Flourless chocolate cake

We loved them all, but agreed the rich, spicy honey cake was our unanimous favorite. After thanking the entire staff profusely, we stumbled to the car, where we immediately went in to food comas that lasted not only the entire ride home but well in to the next morning.

I can not tell you how much I enjoy these weekends up north with these girls. We have so much fun and we love making friends and chatting with the staff at all the wineries and restaurants we visit. It will probably be late fall before we go on another expedition – maybe even winter – but I already can”t wait until the next one.

Cabin Girls strike again

After the success of our last Cabin Weekend, the Cabin Girls (Diane, Riki, Melissa and myself) decided that we needed to make the pilgrimage seasonal rather than just annual. Last weekend we headed up for our summer buying trip, hoping that by going the last weekend in June we could beat the fourth of July/Cherry Festival crowds but still take advantage of good weather and summer offerings at the wineries and at our favorite restaurant, the Cook’s House.

This time, we were much more organized. We headed up with specific assignments for food to bring, meals planned, and a Traverse City plan of attack already mapped out. We knew exactly what time we were going to get to Grayling, had mapped out a stop at Glen’s, made a list, and programmed the Spicy Bob’s number into our phones and decided ahead of time what we would order. We were on a mission.

Then we started talking about Coach bags in the car and had to take a detour to the outlet mall in West Branch, which in addition to a Coach Outlet also boasted new Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft stores. After spending a portion of our wine money on things like purses and dresses, we were back on the road, slightly off-plan but happy with our purchases. (We veered from the plan once again to add something called “cheese-stuffed silly sticks” to our Spicy Bob’s order, also proving to be a good choice.)

The next morning, fueled up on bagels, scallion cream cheese (thanks, Rikster!) and coffee, we headed up to TC. Last time we focused exclusively on the Old Mission, so this time  we began on the larger peninsula, the Leelanau, heading first to one of my personal favorites, L. Mawby.

At Mawby

L. Mawby focuses exclusively on sparkling wines. Some are made with the more labor-intensive “methode champenoise” under the L. Mawby label and some under the less-expensive but equally tasty “cuve close” M. Lawrence label. The complimentary tasting always begins with the M. Lawrence Sandpiper, a very middle-of-the-road, reasonably-priced dry-ish wine available only on the premises or via the winery website. (The first time we had Sandpiper, Noe and I decided that it was such a crowd-pleaser we actually ordered cases of it for the “Champagne” toast at our wedding – which reminds me…I should probably finish my wedding posts!)

Sandpiper at our wedding - photo by Rebecca Martin

From the Sandpiper, you can choose to go drier or sweeter for your second taste. Paid tastings – accompanied by small plates of crackers with either herbed chevre or whitefish pate (both delicious) are available for purchase, so we ordered a variety of those and effectively tasted every wine available in the tasting room. We left loaded down with boxes and fortified for our next stop.

The variety

Stop number two was Willow Vineyard. Willow is small and tucked away, but has one of the most fantastic views on the peninsula. We beat most of the crowds to Willow, so the extremely pleasant tasting room staff offered to let us do our tasting on their patio. We sat in the sun next to an outcropping of rocks, gazing at the bay and sipping wine…why, yes, it was as idyllic as it sounds!

Me, Melissa and Riki in the Willow parking lot

We enjoyed all four wines – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, rose, and Pinot Noir – with the Baci Rose, a light-colored strawberry-tasting wine made from Pinot Noir grapes being a real standout. We also enjoyed the company of Frankie, the winery cat, who navigated the rocks as I imagine a small grey mountain lion would.

Frankie to Diane: "Relax."

Next we headed over to Black Star Farms, mostly for lunch and cheese (mmmm, Raclette!) but since we had glasses from our last visit, also did a free tasting. Nothing really grabbed our attention wine-wise, but our lunch in the cafe was FANTASTIC (more on that in tomorrow’s food post).

We had talked about visiting Bel Lago, but once again found ourselves deviating from the plan when we found out it would take us about half an hour to get over there. Instead, we decided to spend that time driving over to our “regular” stomping grounds, the Old Mission, and try to visit the elusive Brys Estate, which has never been open any of the times I’ve previously visited.

We were in luck- Brys was open for business and had their entire menu in stock. Even better – their wines were quality. I enjoyed a crisp, citrusy unoaked Chardonnay, but found their reds to be standouts. The Merlot and the Pinot Noir both had the depth that sometimes cool climate reds seem to lack. They also poured a Pinot Noir – Reisling combination that sounded strange, but was actually fairly dry, cranberry-tasting, and pleasant (I bought some to take to cook-outs).  We all did the cheesecake and ice wine pairing, confirming what we knew all along: we all love cheesecake and do NOT love ice wine.

Ice, ice baby...too sweet.

At this point, it was getting later in the afternoon and we figured we only had time to really “hang out” at one more winery – so naturally we picked 2 Lads, a continual favorite of ours.

At the 2 Lads bar

Tasting Room Manager Stacey greeted us at the bar and led us through a tasting of all their current wines, and also gave us the heads up on what was going to be gone soon so we could stock up appropriately. We ordered some of the small plates, which we were delighted to see came with Grocer’s Daughter truffles (Rikster and I fell in love with these chocolates through Zingerman’s) that paired deliciously with the Cab Franc-Merlot blend. (2 Lads knows how to give already-tasty Cab Franc a punch, don’t they?!) We finished our tasting and celebrated the late afternoon weather and the view of Lake Michigan with sparkling lemonade, a fresh-tasting concoction of tart, delicious lemonade and 2 Lads Sparkling Pinot Grigio. YUM. It was the perfect finish to our wine experience.

Refreshing sparkling lemonade

From 2 Lads, we headed in to town for our seasonal seven-course meal at the Cook’s House…but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for my account of that experience, because, quite frankly, I am burned out on typing right now and the farmers market is calling my name. Ciao!

Food, glorious food

After our wine tasting adventure on Saturday, the girls and I headed in to downtown Traverse City for a little food fun. Our first stop? American Spoon.

American Spoon, based in Petoskey, started out as a maker of artisanal jams and preserves. They’ve branched into other related products, including salsa, relishes, marinades, and more, though they probably remain best-known for their Early Glow Strawberry Preserves, made with fresh strawberries grown on the Leelanau Peninsula.

One of the best things about visiting an American Spoon store is that much like Zingerman’s, you can sample just about anything. There’s a large table in the middle of the Traverse City store with about twenty open jars and hundreds of little tasting spoons, but if you see something that you’d like to try and it’s not on the sampling table, just ask and you’ll probably receive – the women working in the store were extremely accommodating.

The ladies at American Spoon

After sampling more or less every product in the store (including the pistachio gelato, which may be the best gelato I’ve ever had), we left loaded down with bags. Standouts for me were a kiwi-lime salsa and the Portobello Mushroom Relish, an intensely savory concoction of  various mushrooms, white wine, garlic, olive oil, and herbs. YUM.

(For those not in the area: American Spoon has a mail order business – request a catalog or order online.)

After we miraculously found room in Melissa’s car for the American Spoon bags, we still had time to kill before our dinner reservation. We decided a cocktail downtown was in order. Since we were right across the street, we decided to go to Amical, where Noe and I ate dinner over labor day weekend. Melissa, Riki, and Diane went with the Le Petit Senegal, a blend of berry liqueur, ginger, lime juice, ginger ale, and soda water. I ordered a French 75, which consisted of gin, fresh lemon juice, Cointreau, and Champagne. Yum all around.

French 75, photo courtesy of Riki

Once the cocktails were finished, it was time to head to dinner. We had made a reservation at The Cooks’ House, a chef-owned restaurant specializing in local and seasonal cuisine. We were delighted to pull up and find the restaurant literally in a house.

At The Cook's House

The restaurant is very small but not crowded. We were greeted right away by a friendly server. The Cooks’ House does not serve alcohol at this time, and Traverse City does not allow patrons to BYOB, but we knew this going in. We ordered the Hummingbird iced tea (black tea with hibiscus) and sat back and waited for the food.

The four of us chose to do the seven-course tasting menu and see what the chef would put in front of us. We were not disappointed. I spent most of the evening in a food coma and NOT taking notes (bad blogger!) so you’re just going to have to take the pictures and my word for it: this food was amazing.

We started with a pork pate and fresh bread:

Our soup was a savory blend of potato and parsnip:

We moved on to gnocchi with venison Bolognese:

An intriguingly spiced, perfectly cooked piece of lake trout came next:

Then there was the beef cheek with the mashed potatoes (basic meat and potatoes, but so flavorful and perfectly cooked):

A palate-cleansing salad followed the beef, made with tender greens, dried Michigan fruits, salty pepitas, and tossed in a very light cherry vinaigrette (we think):

We were happy up to this point, but we went in to overdrive when the waitress brought out a cheese course – five different cheeses (including the famed Leelanau Raclette), dried Michigan fruits, and raw honey:

We could have stopped there and been totally satisfied, but we still had one more course – dessert. Our server brought out a cappuccino creme brulee. I think we all sighed with contentment at the sound of our spoons tapping through that caramelized crust:

Dessert was served with individual press pots of freshly ground coffee, the perfect end to the perfect meal. Needless to say, we did NOT need to dig in to our stash of Better Made licorice or Funyuns on the drive home – we were full and more than satisfied.

This was pretty much the perfect day any of us could have asked for on our up north adventure. It was great to go during the off-season and not have to deal with the crowds, and we still had great weather as a bonus. And definitely check out The Cooks’ House if you’re in that neck of the woods – I can’t wait to try it during different seasons and see what ends up on my plate.

Northern Exposure

This past weekend, I headed up to the cabin with a few girlfriends. The idea was to relax and indulge in a little food and wine therapy. We took advantage of the cabin’s close proximity to Traverse City yet again for a little wineaux/foodie fun. Unlike the last time a group of us randomly ended up in TC, however, this was planned – and we went at it as a serious buying expedition.

Although Melissa and I had been to most of the Old Mission wineries, Diane and Riki hadn’t. This was a great excuse to do a whole day of tasting (not that we really needed an excuse). After fueling up on bagels and coffee (we might have over-indulged a bit on wine we had brought up the night before) we headed down 72 toward the city.

We decided we needed a little more grease and carbohydrate sustenance before we got into our wine-tasting groove, so we stopped at the Bad Dog Deli. The Bad Dog and the attached Peninsula Grill practically have a lock on the wine tasting traffic, being conveniently located on Center Road, but that doesn’t mean they slack on quality. They make delicious sandwiches from Boar’s Head meats and cheeses and a variety of accompaniments. The method is simple: you are given a slip of paper that lists the breads, meats, veggies, and condiments. You circle what you want. You circle “hot” or “cold.” They make it for you. Fairly fool-proof. (They also sell Better Made potato chips, including the new-ish kettle cooked variety – bonus!)

We decided to start with the farthest out and work our way back down the peninsula, so we began at 2 Lads. Because the weather was so fantastic – about 40 degrees but extremely sunny – we were able to fully appreciate the view from 2 Lads’ perch on a hilltop. (We feared that the beautiful weather would mean big crowds, but we were pleasantly surprised. Everywhere we went had plenty of visitors but we never hit a real crowd.) 2 Lads was tasting the Sparkling Pinot Grigio, a stony, citrus-y crowd pleaser. It was the perfect start to our adventure.

2Lads hilltop

We left 2 Lads loaded down with bottles (mostly the sparkler and Pinot Noir, though there were some Cab Francs and some Chards thrown in for good measure) and continued down to Bowers Harbor. Bowers Harbor is probably the friendliest winery on the Old Mission. Their staff is always so warm and informative, volunteering lots of info about the wine and answering questions. They also manage to come off as informal and welcoming, which I think really puts a lot of people at ease. The icing on the cake is a Bernese Mountain Dog running around the property, sometimes dragging along a lengthy piece of grapevine. Favorite wines here included the slightly spicy Cabernet Franc Rosé and their signature red blend, the 2896 Langley, a blend of Merlot and Cab Franc with a splash of Cab Sauv.

Wall of Wine (from the Bowers Harbor Facebook page)

We stopped at Chateau Chantal mostly for the view.

The Rikster contemplates the lake.

Chateau Grand Traverse proved to be a fruitful stop. I don’t usually buy a lot of wine when we visit the CGT tasting room because so many of their wines that I enjoy (mainly the dry Riesling and the Gamay Noir) can be found at stores in Ann Arbor. I did, however, taste and purchase several bottles of the Silhouette blend, a mix of Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Meunier, and Merlot. It was a soft red but still had some spice and some bite. My thinking is this will be good to serve to people who don’t drink a lot of “big” reds, but it has enough character to not be brushed off by dedicated red drinkers. Good table wine, essentially.

Melissa and I tasting at CGT

I also purchased – without tasting, because they don’t taste it! – several bottles of the Gruener Veltliner Laika, an Austrian varietal that I am completely unfamiliar with. Melissa had tried it before and believed that I would enjoy it. The description certainly sounded like something I’d go for (“white pepper, celery seed and orange peel wrapped around a lemony apple core”) so I figured, why not?

We wound down at Black Star Farms. I had never been to their Old Mission tasting room before, so it was a sort-of new experience. We tasted a variety here, including several fruit-based dessert wines. In the end, I left with a couple of bottles of the 2009 Arcturos Riesling. This Riesling isn’t quite as dry as I’d normally go for, but the little hint of sweetness was subtle, and I think that Noe and several friends who prefer slightly sweeter wines will enjoy it. (Side note: we were a little sad that the Old Mission tasting room does not carry the Black Star Farms cheeses.)

Tasting at Black Star

When all was said and done, we managed to pack Melissa’s car to the gills with wine:

How will we get our luggage home?!

It was a great day for tasting. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of wine tasting, even though I’ve been to many of these tasting rooms multiple times. It’s so different from just buying a bottle of wine at a grocery store. Our day was freakishly ideal with great weather and not a lot of people, but even with slightly less fabulous conditions, tasting on either peninsula is a treat.

Tune in tomorrow for the food portion of our Traverse City excursion!

Oh Cabin, my Cabin

Aside from our Labor Day jaunt to Traverse City, I hadn’t been to northern Michigan since before our move to Connecticut in 2007. While I still have yet to make it over the bridge, we finally managed to get up to the Grayling area for a weekend of R&R with some friends.

Image: sledheadsusa.com

My family owns a cabin in Frederic. If you happen to be a snowmobiler, there is a great chance that you know where Frederic is located. If you are not a snowmobiler, it is quite likely that you’ve never heard of it. Located between the thriving metropolises of Grayling and Gaylord, Frederic is a town consisting of a post office, a gas station, a bar, and a restaurant. And that’s pretty much it, aside from Sledheads of Frederic, a snowmobile shop owned by “Pete the Greek,” who, in addition to running the snowmobile shop, also dabbles in real estate and posts the daily snow and trail conditions. He also occasionally finds dead bodies and takes trips to Alaska. All of these delights can be found on his website.

I digress.

The cabin is actually outside of the town center, making it pretty remote. However, it’s withing driving distance of some of the best Michigan downhill skiing (Shanty Creek, Boyne, Nub’s Nob), cross-country skiing (the trails at Hartwick Pines), and tourist delights such as the aforementioned Traverse City. It also boasts a halfway decent sledding hill. We never have trouble filling our winter hours at the cabin, because even when we’re not jamming them with activities, we’re holed up by the fireplace, drinking beer and playing cards, or maybe just relaxing.

View from the cabin window

We eased right back into our old MLK Weekend tradition, caravaning up on Friday night and meeting for a late dinner at Spike’s Keg O’ Nails in Grayling. The SpikeBurger ranks pretty highly on my list of favorite burgers, and it did not disappoint (although the fish fry, usually so crispy and delicious, was not up to par on this visit).

Heavenly.

Post-Spike’s, we sat in the warm and toasty cabin, enjoying the fire and the growlers of Ypsi Gypsy and Red Snapper we’d hauled up from the Corner Brewery. We also surveyed the remarkable amount of food we had gathered to feed five people.

On Saturday, we drove through Kalkaska (stopping at Jack’s Sporting Goods for snowpants) and on to Traverse City. Lake Michigan in the winter is amazingly beautiful. We were treated to breathtaking views as we drove up the Old Mission Peninsula, stopping at several wineries along the way.

Almost prettier than in the summer.

Our first winery stop was one of my personal favorites, 2 Lads. I was finally able to try their Pinot Noir, and I was knocked out by it. The minute I got a noseful of that damp, earthy smell (it smelled so FRENCH!) I knew I was a goner. I almost didn’t even need to taste it…but I did, of course, and was treated to the lovely cherry, plummy, flavor that seemed to have a little meat behind it. YUM.

These glasses look familiar...

Other stops were Chateau Chantal (blah) and Chateau Grand Traverse, which produces some fantastic Rieslings behind that touristy exterior. I also enjoyed the Gamay Noir, a cold-climate red that I have not encountered very often. It had some characteristics of a Cab Franc but was subtly different somehow.

Tasting tokens at Chateau Chantal

Some of the day's spoils.

I digress AGAIN.

We could have eaten dinner in TC – it is sort of a northern foodie paradise – but we had the meal to end all meals planned back at the cabin. Steve smoked up four racks of ribs. He marinated/mopped them in a couple different homemade concoctions, and we ate them with pimento cheese mac and cheese (an experiment by me to get rid of leftovers that was wondrously successful) and a salad that Sandi put together of fresh greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, dried cranberries, candied nuts, and feta.

O.M.G.

We were still full at breakfast the next morning.

We spent most of Saturday night sledding (the difference between sledding as an adult and sledding as a child? Beer.) and all day Sunday on the slopes of Shuss Mountain at Shanty Creek. It snowed lightly but continuously the entire time we were up north, creating the perfect atmosphere.

What a wonderful way to get reacquainted with the northern part of the mitten. I already want to go back!