In all honesty, I never would have said “Michigan? Dining destination!” Well, call me a convert. Over the last week I found everything I ate to be anywhere from really good to astounding. The area benefits from a climate similar to Germany’s (thus some tremendous wines and vineyards) and local restaurants are well stocked with local meats and produce. Buying local has all the benefits of saving energy and supporting local economies, but it also just means damn good flavors and fresh products. It’s a cliche to say a local tomato tastes a million times better than one plucked before it is ripe from an industrial farm in who-knows-where that’s being recalled for possible salmonella. OK, maybe that’s not a cliche, but it may be soon.
I ate at too many places to mention in a blog, so let me pick on one culinary complex in Traverse City: The Village. I admit it sounds like a M. Night Shyamalan film, and when you find out it is an old brick mental asylum that once housed up to 3,000 “residents,” it does ask for a certain raise of the eyebrows. It was once destined for demolition, but some local wisdom saw the potential to restore this and put in a variety of shops and restaurants, and even some housing. The process is not finished, but the initial phases are gastronomically top-notch.
The former laundry facility (which looks a bit like an elementary school) now is home to Left Foot Charley Winery — which specializes in some wonderful whites which to my palate all have a subtle twist to them that makes them stand out — and a coffee roaster and coffee shop — all strictly fair-trade and high-quality direct-from-the-finca coffee. The owners once volunteered in Chiapas and were so inspired by the plight of coffee growers that they opened Higher Grounds Trading Company.
Just across the lawn is the old firehouse, now Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery. This place is a lesson in quality and health. No sugar added? No yeast? The starter (“the Mother”) has been maintained for over 20 years. The baker even takes it on vacation with him to keep it fed. The whole grains are soaked to make the nutrients available for digestion. (Who knew that this was necessary? Otherwise cracked grains just pass on through without even saying hello.) This is Old World style bread.
For dinner, I headed to the main building, the asylum itself. As for fine dining, I’m not sure there is anything better than Trattoria Stella. I know simply having lived in Italy for a year doesn’t make me some kind of restaurant critic, but I can say this reminds me of the meals I had in Calabria. Everything is fresh of course and the menu changes every day depending on what produce shows up at the door. The pasta is made on site. The appetizers are varied, simple combinations. The entrees are delightful recipes in an Italian tradition. A meal here is meant to last a long time, and trust me, you don’t want it to end.