Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traverse City Travelogue, Day One

Originally published in D-Tales here, edited for content.

...Once I was settled in (and posted a blog), it was time for lunch. I had done my research prior to the trip, and I had already selected a number of restaurants I wanted to try. I started with Trattoria Stella, located on the edge of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

I took a seat at the bar and started with a wine flight, the Old Mission Peninsula Trifecta (I figured, when in Rome, drink Italian wine...when in Traverse City, sample the local wares). My flight was all Rieslings from producers Bowers Harbor, Left Foot Charley, and Chateau Grand Traverse. The real standout here was the Bowers Harbor; of the three, this Riesling had the most depth, as opposed to the quick acidic burst of fruit that disappeared from the tongue seconds later as the others were. Impressed with this offering from Bowers Harbor, I decided to also try their Pinot Noir.

Bar manager Jon Ingham commended this selection...then proceeded to talk the many ins and outs of whiskey production with another customer at the bar. Turns out, he's somewhat of an expert on Scotch whiskey (and also just recently passed the introductory certificate course of the Court of Master Sommeliers), but still...I had barely been in Traverse City for an hour and already I was feeling like the social leper traveling solo (I often felt like Ingham was scared to approach me...perhaps he's just not the warm and cuddly type, but it did seem strange that he was Chatty Cathy with Whiskeyman but when I tried to broach a conversation on the Pinot the answers were short and clipped before he quickly skittered off).

Anyway, the Bowers Harbor Pinot. White pepper on the nose, green pepper on the tongue. Classic funky French. The grapes are actually Dijon clones from France and grown on the Old Mission Peninsula. The climate of northwestern Michigan is good to these grapes and they thrive, producing a very New-World-French-style Pinot right here in the Mitten (this would not be my last experience of this strangely French wine grown on Old Mission, either...stay tuned for Day Two).

This wine paired well with my cheese flight. I sampled a Canestrato Pugliese, Bra Duro, and Sottocenere di Tartufo (if I'm skipping Italian wines, by God I will have Italian cheeses). All were simply incredible--the sharp, nutty Bra Duro; the mild sheep's milk cheese Canestrato Pugliese (rare to find anywhere outside of southern Italy); and my favorite--Sottocenere di Tartuffo (cheese with truffles). The trace of black truffle was strong on this otherwise mild cow's milk cheese. Truffles + cheese = the only thing missing is Christian Bale.

After all that, I was still hungry from my long day of driving. The southern couple next to me ordered a pizza (y'all), and the aroma so consumed me that I needed to consume it. Ingham gave me another one of his indecipherable (and I'll go ahead and say trademark) strange looks as he served it to me (before skittering off). I ordered the White Pizza--parmesan, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses, roasted garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and parsley. OMFG yum. This wood-fired pizza had a thin, crispy crust, reminiscent of pizza in Tuscanny. The cheese blend was a perfect balance of mild and tangy flavors, and the whole cloves of roasted garlic brought the whole thing home. I was spared another one of Ighman's weird looks at the empty wooden plank by the efficient busboy. So, I have a high metabolism and I binge eat, so what?

I was disappointed that the Panna Cotta I found on the website (red wine sauce with pomegranate) was no longer featured on the dessert menu...the substitute wasn't nearly as enticing. Ingham, in a rare moment of attempting to warm up to me, handed me a dinner menu just to peruse, where I found spaghetti with roasted boar shoulder. I commented to him "If only I could keep eating," which garnered a smile. Too bad it was right before I left.

...I had a head full of wine and was sleepy from driving, so I decided to nap...

After my rejuvenating nap in my too-big hotel room with the clean-smelling sheets, it was feeding time again. In my prior research I had found a place called Red Ginger, a trendy sushi bar featuring "luxe Asian cuisine" in downtown Traverse City (think the Social House of northern Michigan). It looked pretty...and trendy. What's that, you say? Chef and owner Dan Marsh studied at The Culinary Institute of America in New York and has worked in New York City and San Francisco? I'm there.

This newly-opened Asian bistro is the first of its kind in Traverse City, and the demand is clearly high as the place was packed. The menu features a variety of pan-Asian cuisine, which is Marsh's passion, but non-Asianphiles can also get a great steak (and hell, even rack of lamb). The menu is not an assault to the American palate--consumer-friendly Asian-fusion items such as crab rangoon, potstickers, lettuce wraps, spring rolls, Kung Pao Chicken, and Thai Curry abound...nothing too funky or too distinctly "Asian" (even the sushi menu is chock-full of rolls with cream cheese and mayonnaise...FYI, cream cheese and mayonnaise are NOT staples of Asian cooking). But the dishes are all accented with the appropriate Asian sauces and spices and the flavors all work well together. It might not be terrifically unique, but it is unique to the area and Pam and Dan Marsh definitely nailed the "trendy Asian bistro" theme that has become so widely popular throughout the States.

I sampled the Mu Shu Duck with Fried Wonton in Chinese Black Bean Sauce. The idea was to used the wonton as "crackers" and eat the duck as a finger-food...that lasted about 5 minutes (and one douse of Chinese black bean sauce all over my white pants) before the chopsticks came out and I called it a damn wrap. The duck was quite good, if a little stringy at times (which is common with such a fatty game bird), and the spicy-sweet black bean sauce was a compliment to the pungent flavor of the duck. The drink menu was what impressed me the most about this place: a wide selection of Asian-themed martinis, including flavors like Blood Orange, Ginger, and Lemongrass, as well as a half-dozen flavored mojitos including pomegranate, pear, and cucumber. If I hadn't been so full already I would have generously imbibed...alas, I merely dabbled at my stained pants, had impure thoughts about the hot waiter, and walked back to the hotel to change.