Tuesday, July 24, 2012

[HOT LIST] Old Mission Peninsula

Sunset on Old Mission. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Mario Batali has been yammering on incessantly about Traverse City once again, which is great and all but based on his "favorite picks" it sure does seem like he never makes the journey from his pad on the Leelanau Peninsula around the bay and onto Old Mission all that often. Old Mission (along with its sister Leelanau) is pretty much the crown at the head of Traverse City. And if the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is the most beautiful place in America, then Old Mission Peninsula is the most beautiful place on the planet.* It is 19 miles long and divides Grand Traverse Bay into East and West Bays. At its widest point it is three miles wide; at its narrowest points you have truly breathtaking panoramic views of both sparkling bays over the sloping vineyards and fruit orchards. Say what you will about Napa, Tuscany or Bordeaux, they look like an Ohio cornfield compared to this. (It's true. I've been. They do.)

In fact, do say what you will about Bordeaux; the world’s most esteemed winemaking region happens to sit along the same circle of latitude, the 45th Parallel, as the Old Mission American Viticultural Area (AVA), and world-recognized winemakers are taking up the challenge of making world-class wines in this region. The peninsula has seven wineries (though two more have been approved) and only a smattering of restaurants and hotels (well ... "inns"). The rest is preserved land (a state park and lots 'o farms), so Old Mission will stay frozen in this tranquil state of un-development forever. If late summer travel plans take you "up north," make this one of your highlights.

#1 Mission Table + Jolly Pumpkin
Do your life a favor and have dinner and many many drinks on the deck at Mission Table. With places like Trattoria Stella and Cook's House in Traverse City stealing all the thunder, Mission Table never seems to gets its due. Executive Chef Paul Olson is a quiet genius: he just does his thing, tending to his herb garden out back, cranking out some fan-freakin’-bloody-tastic farm-to-table seasonal dishes. This restaurant is a true representation of the indigenous flavors of Michigan. Think tender, succulent lamb loin with oven-roasted cauliflower, or crispy pork belly with housemade kimchi, roasted brussel sprouts, and a poached egg ... as one friend put it, "Paul should Iron Chef the shit out of Batali." As I put it, "I fucking love Paul." Attached to Mission Table is the Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery, which is DUH IT'S JOLLY PUMPKIN. (And all their beers are also available at Mission Table; the deck is shared.) Oh, the deck? Overlooking West Bay, quiet, surrounded by trees, sunlight reflecting off the water -- some people meditate. This is better.

#2 Chateau Chantal 
Chateau Chantal is an estate winery and bed + breakfast. The Inn is connected to their tasting room, and guests are free to conduct their own wine sampling after-hours (this is northern Michigan, where people still believe in the honors system). The chef-prepared daily breakfasts are fantastic, and during the summer you can follow it up with their lunchtime "tapas tours" through the vineyard. They also have what might actually be one of the most stunning patio views in the state: order a glass of wine and a plate of cheese from local creameries and chill on the patio overlooking the bay, or check out their prix fixe seven-course wine dinners held several nights a week through October.

#3 2 Lads Winery
It's fun and young (four years old this year), and it also has the best damn view on the peninsula. 2 Lads' sleek, ultra-modern tasting room is perched atop a hill overlooking the bay with absolutely no obstructions. You might find it difficult to pay attention to the pourer's spiel when right behind them is a massive window showcasing this spectacular view, but do try to pay attention: 2 Lads specializes in cool climate reds and sparkling wines, and winemaker Cornel Olivier (originally from South Africa) believes that Michigan's reds can one day be on par with Bordeaux. Genius? Or insanity? It may be a fine line, but it sure does have a nice view.

Here's more of me gushing over Old Mission wines.

Actually here's more of me gushing over Old Mission to New Yorkers.

#4 Peninsula Grill
For casual fare, the Peninsula Grill offers classic American grill cuisine of serious excellence (try one of the flatbreads), along with a solid selection of local wines and beers. Longtime bartender Johnny even promises he’ll remember what you drink for next time.

#5 Tesoro Inn
A lot of people don’t like B+Bs because they’re a little too…folksy. The Tesoro Inn is the ultimate anti-B+B B+B. Owners Jane and Les Hagaman have created the kind of bed and breakfast experience that will appeal to even the most ambiance-sensitive. Jane is an artist and interior designer; Les is an accomplished fine dining chef. Their home is beautifully decorated with their own Asian-inspired art pieces and multi-colored slate floors, yet is also comfortable and inviting with warm tones and soft textures. For those of you seeking the “foodie” experience, their three-course farm-to-table breakfasts and homemade evening desserts (left on your nightstand next to the following day's breakfast menu printed on gorgeous cream-colored stationary) will make you want to make yourself at home FOREVER. But book early: the word is out on this three-year-old spot and they only have three guest rooms.

Bubbling under Brys Estate, The Boathouse, Peninsula Cellars, Black Star Farms Tasting Room, Chateau Grand Traverse, Old Mission General Store, Bowers Harbor Inn

*Eye for an eye, hyperbole for hyperbole.