Snorkel Lake Michigan. I swear. That’s what the itinerary said. Now how can you pass that up. It’s like passing up the opportunity to ski Oklahoma.
Being a Midwestern boy, and having froze my ass off swimming in Lake Michigan during the hottest of summers… swimming in Lake Michigan is like eating authentic Buffalo chicken wings, if your lips don’t turn blue it’s not worth the time… how could I resist.
This was (another) press tour. Just so you know. And not to repeat myself, press tours are prearranged itineraries with little (if any) flexibility for participants. But they’re free, so they fit right into the Wine X budget.
This trip concentrated on food, lodging and activities in Michigan’s Northern Lower Peninsula. Kinda sounds contradictory, don’t it. Northern lower… whatever. We would tour B&Bs, restaurants and places of interest, PLUS snorkel Lake Michigan. No wineries. Maybe a chance to sample some local wines via restaurants, hotels, etc, but no winery visits. (Yes, Michigan has a “wine country.” In fact Madonna’s father owns a winery there. Just in case you care.)
I puddle-jumped over Lake Michigan from Chicago to Grand Rapids Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Trust me. Its name is longer than its runways.
We headed up to City Café (Muskegon), an American bistro with European and Mediterranean influences located in the historic Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Muskegon. Okay, that was from their website. But it’s true. It’s on the lower (basement level) of the center, and offers one of my favorite dining options on every table: crayons. Yeah, baby! I love doodling with my food.
I must preface this (as I do in all of my columns) with the info that I have severe food allergies – no eggs and nothing from a cow. This prohibits me from sampling a lot of the menu choices. However, it does showcase the chef’s creativity (or lack thereof). On trips like this all of our hosts are informed of this ahead of time. But, as you’ve read before, some seem to suffer from short term memory loss.
The menu at City Café is nice, nothing exceptional, but, remember, this is Michigan. Having spent most of my gastronomic-developing years in Chicago… there’s only two kinds of Midwestern food – deep and fried – I didn’t expect a culinary revolution overnight (since I’ve left the flyover states). That said, my shrimp cocktail with sesame sauce was very nice. The shrimp were perky, not over-cooked like most are in that part of the world. My next course, a seared Ahi Tuna salad was okay. I ordered the Tuna rare. It came out medium. Maybe that’s rare for them. But when I say rare, it means walk the fish past the fire, put it on a plate and serve it. Rare. The salad itself was uneventful. Greens, few carrots and peppers for color.
Re their wine list, it’s pretty basic. Most large producers from Australia, France and the U.S. Prices were reasonable considering the choices.
Overall I’d say this is a nice place to dine. Comfortable atmosphere. Good, solid Midwestern cuisine. And crayons!
What better activity to undertake after a heavy Midwestern lunch than swimming. Yes. I was headed to snorkel Lake Michigan.
Now. I’ve snorkeled with the best of them. All around the globe. Hawaii… Hawaii… Okay. Maybe just in Hawaii, where the water is warmer than the air, but I think that qualifies me as a authority on the subject. So please pay close attention.
I met up with Heather Bloom, who, along with her husband Dan, own the West Michigan Dive Center at Muskegon State Park. In addition to their diving store, they organize dive trips all over the world. Dan is a PADI MSDT… whatever that means… but I understand that’s a pretty good rating. I was fitted for a wet suit and fins (being a pro I brought my own snorkel and mask thingy) and then headed to the beach to tackle the lake.
Heather decided we should snorkel Duck Lake, an inlet from Lake Michigan, where the water was calmer. Freezing, but calmer. (NOTE: Every other lake in Michigan is called Duck Lake. Make sure you snorkel the one just north of Muskegon.)
Before entering the lagoon, er, “lake”, I asked Heather if I should be on the lookout for anything. She said fish. I narrowed my query down a bit: anything, you know, life threatening. Piranha. Baby alligators. Stingray. She smiled.
After slowly wading in and having the heat sucked from my body, we were off to see… whatever we could see. The water was a bit murky. Lotta vegetation. Fish? Hmm… not yet.
Actually, when the sun was out and you stayed close to the shore, it wasn’t so bad. But once the sun found a cloud, brrrr.
The experience was well worth the shrinkage. It was a fun, very relaxing afternoon of floating around looking for fish. We did see a few. And some tires, a few sign posts and a ’57 Desoto. K, kidding.
The real diving experience in the area is the off shore ship wrecks in Lake Michigan. Heather and Dan coordinate group and private dives in the lake.
NOTE: Since my trip, Heather and Dan have closed their shop (West Michigan Dive Center ) and now operate West Michigan Dive Center Travel out of their home. Their focus is on worldwide dive travel. They also have a not-for-profit scuba club that sponsors area dives for free: Sea Hunt Dive Club.
Dinner was at The Hearthstone in Muskegon. It’s a rustic setting, little dark (for those of us who’re going blind with old age), but comfortable and popular with the locals. The cuisine of executive chef Gina Lister is a blend of French, Italian and California influences.
Upon scanning the menu, I saw a prelude of Midwestern “delicacies” that would emerge throughout the rest of my trip: Ahi/Yellowfin Tuna; calamari; onion soup; and parmesan rolls. Oh, and quiche. Don’t forget the quiche.
The Hearthstone has a nice selection of local beers, like Blue Moon and Belle’s Amber Ale. So I started with one of each (seriously) then a Caprice Bruchetta salad, which was a nice presentation: a wedge of romaine leaning on bruchetta bread. The dressing was customized to my allergies and was quite tasty. For my entre I ordered a Yellow Fin Tuna atop rice infused with coconut. Now, I’m not a huge fan of coconut, but the rice was done superbly as was the fish. In fact, everyone’s entrées were superb. The desserts as well, especially the crème brule, croissant bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and the sorbet. I partook in the latter.
Accommodations for the evening were at the Cocoa Cottage B&B, located in the town of Whitehall, which is just north of Muskegon. Owners Lisa Tallarico and Larry Robertson focus a lot of their attention on the food (as well as the rooms). And the food revoles around… take a wild guess? Chocolate. Staples include: Extra moist chocolate zucchini bread; and Mama Tallarico's Classic Chocolate Hot Fudge with fresh fruit.
Now, I’ve gotten used to not being able to eat a lot of things due to my allergies. But chocolate is not one of them. I crave it. So staying at the Cocoa Cottage was torturous. All of that delicious smelling (and from what I heard, tasting) chocolate and not being able to partake?
Oh, and thanks to my fellow travelers who unselfishly ate my portion of the chocolate with orgasmic-like passion. Yeah, thanks. Grrrr.
The breakfast at Cocoa Cottage is worth the price of admission alone. The faves were: Larry’s Cottage Eggs, which are baked and served in a delicate crepe cup with Gruyere cheese, shallots and a hint of tarragon; Maple smoked bacon (this was fab!); Italian Strata, a thick slice of Italian bread with layers of vine ripened tomato, homemade pesto, smoked gouda cheese and fresh cilantro smothered in an egg custard and baked to a puffed golden perfection, served with mild Italian breakfast sausage; Organic, homemade granola with organic yogurt and fresh fruit. This was also fab! (sans yogurt.) Seasonally they offer fresh berries and vegetables, some grown on the grounds.
Oh yeah, the rooms. Very well appointed, comfortable and decent in size. Except the bathrooms were a bit small. And they all have a chocolate name: Hershey Room; Cadbury Room; Godiva Room; and the Ghirardelli Room. They do have a workout room downstairs... just in case you need to work-off some of that chocolate. I didn’t have to, thanks.
After breakfast, well, ya just gotta have lunch. So we headed up the lake (north for those of you who’re directionally challenged) to Onekama to The Blue Slipper Bistro.
We were running early, actually (a rarity on press trips), so we sidetracked a bit and stopped in the small port town of Manistee. If you have the chance to spend a few hours walking around this cool little town by all means do. Lotta lake stuff, old boats, etc.
The Blue Slipper Bistro kinda looks like a biker bar from the outside. But the inside, well, okay, maybe the inside does, too. But for what it is – a laid-back Italian-American food bistro – the food was pretty good. We started with an Italian sampler – calamari, Perch and Mussels – which was nice. The calamari and Perch were lightly dusted with flour and briefly pan fried. Both were tender and not chewy (as calamari can get). The mussels were cooked well, but nothing exciting about them. Others ordered the Bistro Bread Blossom, which is a heavier bread (in texture) with cheese, herbs and garlic. They liked it. I watched.
For my main I had Mahi Mahi with mango salsa accompanied by white rice. The fish was delish, but the rice was hard and dry. It came with a side of veggies that had a tasty Italian dressing tossed in. Others recommended the salads as well.
Overall, The Blue Slipper Bistro delivers nice food for the price. Their wine list, with a number of local wineries present, also includes a house label white and red, both reasonably priced and worth a try when there.
After lunch we headed north along the lake to Frankfort, a small town set against Lake Michigan. It’s a neat little place… a place that you could imagine yourself living when you decided to quit your job, move to a sleepy little town and write that great American novel that’s been stewing in your brain for the past 10 years. You know the one. No? You will.
Anyway, it’s the typical “one main street” town with an inlet that harbors boats and lots of restaurants.
We checked into the Betsie Bay Inn, located downtown. Big rooms. With a hot tub. Yeah, I’m staying. Forever.
We had the afternoon off (another anomaly), so I decided to jog along the harbor path, work-off some of that lunch. The plan was to run along the harbor, across the bridge, then down along the lake to the lighthouse. Easy run. Four, maybe five miles tops. (I would’ve much rather have bikeed, but it was Sunday and the bike rentals were closed). I hadn’t run for a while. But I’m an active guy. Hockey. Cycling. Same muscle groups, right?
The first leg muscle snapped at about 100 yards. By the time I fell to the ground (at 101 yards) I was crippled beyond repair. As I limped back to the Inn swearing-off ever running again. (It was a bit embarrassing to hobble past the cute Betsie Bay Inn receptionist on my way back to my room. On the way out I may have mentioned, you know, causally as men do to cute women, the word triathlete, or something like that. The look on her face was “did you mean try-loser?”)
But that’s what the hot tub’s for, right. A lengthy sit in the tub helped the cramping a bit before I limped down to dinner.
We started in the ThistleBrae Wine Cellar with wine steward Don Martin Shrake. Don’s a quirky old guy, more Joe Isuzu than wine scholar, but he was very entertaining. And it was nice to taste some local wines as well as some offered on their wine list upstairs. Of the local wines, the Shady Lane 2006 Riesling Semi Dry – Leelanau Peninsula (Michigan) stood out, with a pretty nose of peach and apricot, some floral spices and a well-balanced body and finish. Kinda like the cute receptionist.
For hotel guests wine tasting (in the ThistleBrae Wine Cellar) is free. Can’t beat that. For non-guests the price is only $2 for a flight of three wines. Ah, the Midwest.
Upstairs we sat down for dinner in the Tantelle Fine Dining room. Owner Lesley Perkins joined us. We started with calamari (yes, again), a caramelized onion and jack cheese quesadilla, and deep fried pickles. What? You’ve never heard of deep fried pickles?
My calamari and quesadilla were specially prepared (for me) and done quite nicely. No deep fried pickles for me, thank you.
For my main I had lamb, which was cooked perfectly. However, the sauce served with it was too heavy for the meat, and overwhelmed the dish and distracted from the experience. (Kinda like too much oak in a wine.) Too bad. The others enjoyed their choices, though, so stop in Tantelle for lunch or dinner. And tell Don Martin I say hello.
After a light breakfast the following morning, we were in for a day of food sampling in downtown Frankfort. Three local restaurants were preparing sample menus for us, so we’d be eating for the next three hours. Hey, someone has to do it.
We started at Rhonda’s Wharfside (300 Main Street). Chef Rhonda presented the following dishes:
Seafood Nachos – I couldn’t eat them but everyone thought they were very good.
Tuna Sashimi with Happy Noodles – this was very good, especially the sauce on the noodles and the fresh wasabi.
Fried Green Beans – Now, I’m not a green veggie lover. In fact, don’t like them at all. Especially green beans. It took a lot of arm twisting to get me to taste them. And I liked them. So there you go. That must say something.
Cesar Salad – I couldn’t eat, and everyone else said it was just okay.
Overall, I think Rhonda excels with her sauces. Worth the visit.
Next, right down the street is Coho Café (320 Main Street). Here we were not only treated to a sampling of food but wine as well. Chef Kari White presented the following dishes:
First, the bread here is delish.
House Salad with choice of Raspberry Vinaigrette or Balsamic Vinaigrette – both dressings were perfectly balanced and tasty.
Good Harbor 2006 Pinot Grigio – Leelanau Peninsula (Michigan)
Dry, crisp, well-balanced wine, with peach, pear and citrus flavors, and some floral spices. The crisp acidity makes it a perfect candidate for seafood and shellfish.
Mapema 2005 Tempranillo – Mendoza, Argentina
A nice, simple red with good balance and a nice lingering soft finish.
Orange Glazed Atlantic Salmon with Orange Marmalade, which is blackened briefly – absolutely outstanding! Tender, great spicy component and sweet lingering flaves.
Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling (Michigan)
This medium-sweet wine worked wonderfully with the glaze on the salmon. Well-balanced, this riesking has a really nice mouthfeel and lingering finish. Good choice.
Alaskan Halibut seared with Potato-Thyme Crust – another outstanding dish. Others had it with a brown butter sauce, but I don’t think it needed anything else. The fish was so moist it literally melted in my mouth. Three for three!
Martin Codax 2006 Albarino, Spain
Worked well with the halibut. Crisp, dry, floral and a lingering snappy finish. Snappy? Yes, snappy!
Black & White Sesame Yellowfin Tuna served with a ginger-scallion sauce – either I’ve forgotten what mediocre food tastes like or this is another brilliant dish. Especially the sauce. And the tuna was prepared perfectly.
Crispy Stuffed Chicken stuffed with prosciutto, roasted red peppers, asparagus and goat cheese, with a red pepper-tomato sauce – can I be redundant? Superb!
For dessert we were offered Panchetta and Kahlua Chocolate Mousse. I watched as the others partook in shameless gluttony.
Coho Café is probably some of the best cuisine I’ve tasted anywhere. Don’t miss it. Or you’ll be sorry.
Our final stop was across the street at Fusion (411 Main Street). Fusion’s cuisine is mostly Pacific Rim, with Pan-Asian flare. I think there was some bit of confusion as they didn’t seem to be expecting us. But things settled down a bit and we started in on the sampling.
Starter Soups were the usual – Egg Drop; Hot & Sour; and Chicken Noodle. I tried the Hot & Sour, which was nice. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Others said the same for the Egg Drop and Chicken Noodle.
The rest of the samples were oaky to good in quality:
Shrimp Sushi (good)
Eel and Avocado Roll (good)
Egg Roll (good)
Thai Fried Noodle (okay)
Sweet & Sour Shrimp (okay)
Chicken Red Curry (good)
Generals Chicken (okay)
Nong Tong Wings (good)
Fusion Blend salad (okay)
Fusion has nice, standard fare, with good ambiance and reasonable prices. However, be careful if you’re like me and have food allergies. The waitstaff isn’t very knowledgeable about what’s in their food.
Other Distractions in Frankfort
Visit Trick Dog Gallery – Everything for the dog lover and/or art seeker.
Walk out to the Point Betsie Lighthouse – They say it’s the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S. The view from the breakers (and lighthouse) is spectacular, looking up and down the coast and especially at sunset.
Drive around Crystal Lake (just north of Frankfort) – the lake is beautiful. Breathtaking.
Jog along the… never mind.
Crystal Mountain Resort
Okay, fat and happy we’re headed southeast (inland) to Crystal Mountain Resort (just west of Thompsonville) for, yep, dinner at The Thistle Pub & Grille.
Well, thank God I had three lunches ‘cause I was about to watch a lot of food pass me by. I guess the news of my allergies was still en route via carrier pigeon, so there’s only a few items I can write about.
Grilled Romaine (lettuce) is worth a try if you’ve never had grilled lettuce.
Spinach and pear with Apple Cilantro was interesting.
Cedar-Wrapped Pork tenderloin was very tasty, tender and well prepared.
Tea-Smoked Duck was done nicely.
Among the activities at Crystal Mountain are: Golf, snow skiing/boarding, hiking, biking and family-friendly entertainment. Also, don’t miss their Michigan Legacy Art Park, which harbors some “interesting” pieces.
If you can snag a condo accommodation, well, by all means do so. They’re fab. I didn’t know what to do with all of the space. But, of course, when you’re in a situation like that, you feel obligated to mess up every corner just so you feel like you’ve experienced it all. And yes, I left the cleaning service an extra little diddy for my messes.
Dawson & Stevens Classic Diner
Next morning we were headed north. Destination: Gaylord. On the way, though, we stopped at Dawson & Stevens Classic Diner (Grayling) for lunch. I’d say it’s a Johnny Rockets prototype, but the ambiance is much better and the staff much more fun. Plus, it has a Coca Cola and bottle cap museum. Yes, you read right. A bottle cap MUSEUM.
Dawson & Stevens Classic Diner offers the typical 50’s food, complete with menu items with names like “Leader of the Pack,” “Chubby Checker” and “Low Rider Wet Burrito” (not gonna touch that one). Plus, it has a large soda fountain for shakes and “real’ soda’s made fresh.
Re the food, here’s what we tried:
Mulligatawny Soup (East Indian soup) – it was fine. Needs some umph, like salt and pepper, but…
The Twist salad – typical salad.
Homemade Chips – nicely done. Not too greasy.
The Drifters Wraps – I had a turkey, tomato, onion and lettuce version that was okay. Again, needs some umph.
Overall this is a cool place to stop and check out. Don’t come for the food as much as the atmosphere. And, if you can indulge in shakes and floats, you’ll be very very happy.
Onward to Gaylord, and to Garland Resort for diner at their restaurant Hildegard’s.
Garland Resort boasts four golf courses, and has an array of other activities to keep you busy: hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, canoeing/tubing, tennis, basketball, swimming and, of course, Jacuzzis. Thank God. I was startin’ to cramp again.
The focus at Hildegard’s is Italian and Greek, with a slant toward Northern fare (i.e. wild game, venison, etc.)
Luckily the news of my allergies made it there before I did, and they took very good care of me, altering some dishes so that I could actually eat. Here’s what we tried:
Goat Cheese and Chicken Quesadilla with onions and peppers – it came our flaming, which was almost as good as the dish itself. Very tasty and well done.
Garlic Shrimp – the shrimp were, say it with me, perky and not over done. Very nice.
Seafood Chowder – was okay, little gritty.
Duck – was very good. Not dry or overly tough. Good texture and crisp skin.
They also have a fine wine list. Some of the more notable wines are:
Duckhorn Sav Blanc
Penfolds Kalimna Shiraz
Beringer Reserve Cab
Heitz Napa Valley Cab
In the winter, Garland offers a Gourmet Glide, where you can ski, snowshoe or walk to five tasting stations on the property to taste/drink different selected wines and/or beverages. In addition they offer a Zhivago Dinner Night for up to 16 people. You start with a beautiful horse drawn sleigh ride to the Bridge Inn (pictured above) outlined with hundreds of tiny lights. There you’re served a five-course wild-game dinner accompanied by wine and other beverages. Very nice.
After a nice breakfast at garland the following morning, we head over to Treetops Resort in Treetops Village (Gaylord). Treetops is home to 81 holes of championship golf. Five distinctly different courses by renowned designers Robert Trent Jones, Sr., Tom Fazio and Rick Smith offer some of the best golf anywhere in the country. At least that’s what they say.
In addition to golf, Treetops also features the typical activities associated with the area: skiing, hiking, fishing, tennis, etc.
Oh, and the spa. Definitely go to the spa. Ah… Lunch? Not so much. Nothing exciting. Typical Country Club-like fare. And not real good with “adjusting” for allergies, either. Dinner may be another story, but we were there for lunch, so… I’m just saying.
NOTE: Before leaving the town of Gaylord stop in the Alpine Chocolat Haus to say hello to owner Bruce Brown. If you love chocolate (who doesn’t) you’ll be in heaven here. Me, not so much.
Hermann’s European Café
Now, we’re headed south to Cadillac, more specifically, Hermann’s Hotel and Hermann’s European Café. The hotel, well, it’s nice. Nothing exciting, but… nice. And the café, well, before we ate we went down the street to Blackberry Rose, a culinary store, to meet owner Carol Donohue. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I could spend all of my money in a store like this. Things I need and lots o’ things I don’t but want (for whatever reason). They also offer cooking classes if you’re in town for a while.
Okay, Hermann’s European Café. It’s kinda got that old world feel to it. Nothing wrong with that, but you expect traditional old world cuisine in a place like this. Not so.
Chef Hermann joined us. Which was… nice. But he was REALLY hungry, so a lot of the food disappeared down to his end of the table at first. Chef Hermann’s an interesting guy. A bit self indulgent (what chef isn’t). I really didn’t care for him at first; left the restaurant liking him a lot. Yeah, ya just gotta get to know ‘im. Here’s what Chef Hermann presented (and I managed to get a piece of):
Tuna Sashimi – mouthwatering good. Tops.
Salmon with Seafood (Scallops) – another wonderful dish. Excellent flaves and a sauce to die for.
So far Hermann’s rivals Coho Café for quality. Oh, and make sure to stop by Hermann’s “Chef’s Deli,” “Opa’s Butcher Shop” and “Icelandic Wine Bar” to stock up on goodies for the road. Can’t miss ‘em. They’re all right next to one another beside the café.
Mountain Town Station and Brewery
Next morning we headed south to Mount Pleasant. There were a couple uneventful stops along the way (my mother always said, “if you can’t say anything nice…”), then we arrived for dinner at Mountain Town Station and Brewery. Now we’re talkin’ More local beer. I ordered the complete sampler and here’s what stood out:
Gambler’s Golden Ale – light, crisp and the colder the better.
Cow Catcher Red Ale – okay. Malty, roasted barley, heavier than most red ales and a lot of brown sugar on the finish.
Chip River Weizen (seasonal) – very German in its herbal (cloves and spices) flaves. An acquired taste.
Iron Horse India Pale Ale – the best of the bunch. Hoppy, bitter, nice balance and a long lingering finish.
Railyard Raspberry Wheat – light, well-balanced, with just the right amount of raspberry influence.
Steam Engine Stout – a medium-bodied stout, malty, brown sugar and a nice lingering finish.
Brewmaster Special – Bock – a bit bitter and tart, but a nice beer.
Dinner was typical brewpub fare, although the calamari (yes, again) was done very well. Nice and tender and had a great spicy kick to it. Actually, I love calamari and could eat it every day. Wait. I have.
While you’re at Mountain Town Station and Brewery, please check out their on-premise wine store. They’ve got a great selection from around the world. And the pricing is excellent: retail out the door; $5 over retail to bring it into the restaurant. Jeez, why can’t other restaurants follow this trend. Don’t get me started.
NOTE: While in Mount Pleasant, make sure to check out the Ziibiwing Cultural Center – to be reminded that “we really screwed over native Americans.” Seriously, it’s a great presentation of their local history. Then, hit the Soaring Eagle Casino across the street to pay back some of that guilt.
Well, that’s it. If you find yourself in Michigan’s Northern Lower Peninsula check out these recommendations. And don’t forget your snorkel!
Michigan Wine Country
If you have a little extra time on your hands, head to Leelanau County – a about an hour north/northeast of Frankfort, about 45 mins north of Crystal Mountain Resort (Thompsonville), about a coupla hours north/northwest of Cadillac – where the vast majority of Michigan wineries are located. For more info and touring maps go to http://www.lpwines.com/.