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15 Best Eats of 2015

Once again, I’ve spent a great deal of time eating my way around the state of Michigan. It’s a wonderful life when it is your “job” to eat, drink and play in your homestate. Living now in Petoskey has introduced me to a wealth of new restaurants serving up the tastiest of fare. Here are 15 that stood out as best of the best for me.

Cavatelli with Morels at Seventeen1. Morel Cavatelli at Seventeen, Bay Harbor
Shortly after moving to Petoskey, this wonderful thing called “Restaurant Week” was held – a chance for me to visit some new places around town. After perusing the menus online, I settled on Seventeen in Bay Harbor where they were serving cavatelli with morels and asparagus – two of my favorite spring ingredients. It was one of those mouth-watering dishes that you slow down for, savoring each bite until the bowl is scraped clean. It was so good, I went back for it several times during the early summer (and after morels were out-of-season, other mushroom varieties were suitably substituted). The views of the harbor, the staff and live entertainment made Seventeen one of my most visited spots throughout the summer (including July 3 for Bay Harbor’s famous Fourth of July celebration).

Tomahawk Steak at Vernales2. Dry-Aged Tomahawk Steak at Vernales, Harbor Springs
Rated the #1 steakhouse in Michigan by, Vernales has become my “neighborhood” hangout since moving to Petoskey. The vast menu offers some mouth-watering pasta dishes, fish, pub fare and the best steaks around. If you’re hungry and wanting to splurge (or make a good impression), order up the 32-ounce dry-aged Tomahawk ribeye steak (for two). This is where I took my kids for our family Thanksgiving meal, where not only did we get the Tomahawk, but also a selection of pasta, crab legs, stuffed shrimp, lobster tails and scallops.

Shrimp Gazpacho Cocktail at Country Club of Boyne)3. Gazpacho Shrimp Cocktail at Country Club of Boyne, Harbor Springs
There are several places up north that I always thought were off limits – clubs that were reserved for the elite who played golf, sailed or had money to pay for private memberships. Turns out, many of these places are actually open to the public. My first visit to the Country Club of Boyne was to listen to my pal Pete Kehoe play music. It was a hot summer day – and the Gazpacho Shrimp Cocktail seemed a refreshing way to start my meal. The tiny dish of diced tomato, cucumber, bell peppers, onion, garlic and cilantro, topped with a couple giant shrimp was so good I almost ordered a second one. At the end of the night, Pete introduced me to Chef Tyler Brune (who has since been promoted to Executive Chef at Boyne Highlands) who graciously provided me with the “recipe” for this summer treat (which I prepared at home for guests over the Fourth of July holiday weekend).

Caprese Omelette at Palette Bistro4. Caprese Omelette at Palatte Bistro, Petoskey
Brunching is a popular activity in Northern Michigan, and Palatte Bistro downtown does it right. On weekends, you can take your turn at the “build your own Bloody Mary bar” and then settle in on the upper deck and watch the city in motion. The Caprese Omelette is as light as a breeze on a summer day – with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil rolled inside a fluffy egg wrap, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and served with toast and home fries (and for me, a side of crispy bacon, of course).

Cured Salmon at The Winchester5. Cured Salmon at The Winchester, Grand Rapids
While in GR for the Wine, Beer & Food Festival, I spent some times exploring the Uptown area – which includes four thriving business districts: East Fulton, East Hills, Eastown and Wealthy Street – with friends and colleagues as we scoped out the neighborhoods for a possible business venture. Seeking a cocktail and brunch, we landed at The Winchester where this delicious cured salmon “rosette” served on a thin and crispy potato cake, with crème fraiche, red onion and crispy capers (which are an edible flower bud, if you didn’t know). This was another one of the small plate offerings that was so delicious I could have eaten two (or, maybe even three).

Pork (Belly) and beans at Salt of the Earth6. Pork (Belly) and Beans at Salt of the Earth, Fennville
One of my favorite items on the menu and even though it’s a “shared plate” I often enjoy it all by myself! There’s not much better than pork belly. Chef Matt’s team serves it perfectly crispy on the outside and soft and flavorful on the inside, served atop firm pinto beans it is absolutely delicious. I’ve seen it featured also with a poached or fried egg, which I’ve yet to experience (but it’s on my radar for a future visit). Either way, I typically enjoy a simple Farmers Greens Salad as my first course, along with a fine selection of Michigan wines.

Duck confit carbonara at Reserve7. Duck Confit Carbonara at Reserve, Grand Rapids
It’s no secret that Reserve is one of my favorite places to eat in the entire state of Michigan. And, narrowing down one menu item to feature on this annual list is always a challenge. Over the years, I’ve raved about the lamb Rueben on the lunch menu, as well as the pork belly hash and smoked rabbit gnocchi (the best gnocchi I’ve ever had is at Reserve), among countless other dishes. This time, they’ve knocked it out of the park with the Duck Confit Carbonara— pasta with leeks, chestnuts and a rich deliciousness known as confit duck. It’s one of those dishes that you have to keep yourself from burying your face right into bowl. One of those dishes where you struggle between eating slowly to savor every single bite and rushing through it because it’s just so darn good.

Shrimp linguini at Vintage Chophouse and Wine Bar8. Shrimp Squid Ink Linguini at Vintage Chophouse & Wine Bar, Bay Harbor
Formerly the South American Grill, inside the Inn at Bay Harbor, Vintage Chophouse was unveiled this summer and affords one of the best outdoor dining options in northern Michigan – with Little Traverse Bay just a stone’s throw from the patio. The Squid Ink Linguini, with roasted shrimp, blistered cherry tomatoes, spinach, fresh herbs and white wine garlic cream sauce, was the perfect summer dish. Upon further research, I found out that squid ink is a thick gourmet ingredient that is often used to create a dark and briny coating to pastas and risotto rice. Though it has a sea salt, somewhat “maritime” flavor, it is not fishy in taste. Combined with traditional linguini, it reminded me a tuxedo with its classy black and white color scheme.

Hash at The Southerner9. Breakfast Hash at The Southerner, Saugatuck
The long-anticipated southern-influenced restaurant from Chef Matthew Millar opened this summer in Saugatuck. I was fortunate enough to attend a sneak preview back in May, including a guided foraging trek through the nearby woods, followed by an insane seven (or eight) course dinner back at the restaurant, overlooking the Kalamazoo River. In early August, when Mother Nature prohibited my mother and I from getting out on Lake Michigan aboard the historic sailboat the Bernida, we opted for shopping and eating in downtown Saugatuck. The comfort food at The Southerner was perfect for this cool, rainy day and we loaded up on the breakfast special: smoked rib hash with cabbage, potatoes, jalapeno peppers, poached eggs and that glorious topping known as hollandaise sauce, served on country-style plates reminiscent of grandma’s house. After our meal, we treated ourselves to a sweet cinnamon roll—which we shared.

Risotto with smoked salmon at BIstro Fou Fou10. Risotto with Smoked Salmon at Bistro FouFou, Traverse City
I’ve love the creamy, fulfilling taste of risotto and Chef Guillaume always tosses in the best ingredients to make it even more enjoyable, especially on a cold, winter day. I think risotto is actually always on his menu, but the preparation varies from season to season. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed his morel risotto, asparagus risotto and most recently, the smoked salmon risotto with roasted tomatoes (and, traditionally fennel—which I’m not a fan of, so I asked for sans-fennel). If I recall correctly, the night I enjoyed this risotto there was also a hearty beef bourguignon on the menu (which I had never had, but wanted to try ever since watching Julie & Julia)—so I ordered it to go and enjoyed it at home the following evening with a Michigan pinot noir and crusty bread.

Rack of Lamb at Bay Harbor Golf Club11. Rack of Lamb at Bay Harbor Golf Club, Bay Harbor
Another one of those places I thought was private, but opens it restaurant doors to anyone. Following my pal Pete again, I landed here one summer evening just in time to hear some classic tunes, watch the sun set and to savor a half dozen decadent lamb chops served over mashed potatoes, alongside fresh asparagus and topped with a rich au jus. After dinner, I convinced the bartender to bring our table individual servings of vanilla ice cream and a couple bottles of what I believe was Founders Porter, which we used to make sinfully savory beer floats.

Duck at Chandlers12. Duck Breast at Chandler’s, Petoskey
I think I’ve had duck more than any other single meat at Chandler’s, and I’m never disappointed. The accoutrements changes seasonally, but one thing remains constant – the crispy skin and the rare meat, tender enough to cut with a butter knife. In early summer, the preparation included roasted beets, asparagus and a few leaves of arugula drizzled with au jus.

Lentil stuffed tomato at Sante13. Lentil Stuffed Tomato at Café Sante, Boyne City
One of the things I enjoy about Sante is their attention to the seasons of northern Michigan. In the spring, you’ll find dishes featuring ramps, morels and asparagus. In the summer, its strawberries and other fruits. In the fall, harvest vegetables and in the winter, root vegetables. One of my favorite menus was the one focused on tomatoes (the fruit that we all treat like a vegetable). After speaking on “Michigan’s Ghost Towns” at the Boyne City Library, I stopped in to Santa for a late dinner – a plump and juicy tomato stuffed with a mixture of lentils and served on a bed of greens, that was light yet satisfying.

Grilled Mac n Cheese at Bridge Street Tap Room14. Grilled Mac & Cheese Sandwich at Bridge Street Tap Room, Charlevoix
While following John Gonzales on his search for “Michigan’s Best Mac & Cheese” we landed at Bridge Street Tap Room to indulge ourselves in an ultimate carb-overload. As if stuffing creamy mac-n-cheese between two pieces of asiago sourdough bread wasn’t enough, the addition of crispy bacon, avocado and sriacha aioli make this a two-handed sandwich. Be sure to wash it down with one of the nearly 30 Michigan craft beers available on draft.

Grilled Pizza at The Write House15. Grilled Pizza at The Write House on Round Lake, Petoskey
With all of the great places I get to eat, it’s inspired me to do more cooking at home. From my favorite breakfast (Eggs Benedict) to infused salads to appetizers and full entrees, it’s a challenge to cook for one. Luckily, I’ve found lots of friends in the area willing to take “leftovers” off my hands. I’ve also found an interest in creating “new” meal ideas from leftovers brought home from my favorite restaurants. Probably my favorite thing to cook at home these days is grilled pizza. I start by grilling seasoned chicken thighs, adding the pulled pieces to crust coated with either pesto, tomato sauce or simple olive oil, and then any ingredients I happen to have on hand: sweet banana peppers, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, asparagus, roasted garlic, capers and then topped with shredded cheese and added back to the grill. Even the leftovers are great when warmed in the oven. The great thing is, no two pizzas are the same.


Moroccan dates at GL Culinary SchoolBest Appetizer: Moroccan Dates at Les Cheneaux Culinary School, Hessel
During my first visit to the Les Cheneaux Islands area (Cedarville & Hessel), I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple meals at the newly opened Les Cheneaux Culinary School—overlooking the lake. I started my meal with the recommended hors d’oeuvres – Moroccan dates stuffed with goat cheese, toasted pecans and house-cured duck prosciutto.

Beet salad at six one sixBest Salad: Beet Salad at inside the JW Marriott, Grand Rapids
When it comes to salads, the culinary team at always delivers something unique and tasty. The kale salad has made this list in previous years – and this year, it’s the beat salad. Roasted red beats and a pickled hard-boiled egg are served over a bed of lightly seasoned greens, making for a colorful and flavorful summer lunch.

Butternut squash and roasted tomato bisque with roasted pumpkin seeds at Mustang WendysBest Soup: Butternut Squash & Roasted Tomato Bisque at Mustang Wendy’s, Harbor Springs
I never would have thought to combine two of my favorite bisques together in one pot, and I was intrigued to see how they blended together. Turns out, it was pretty tasty. Topped with a swirl of crème fraiche and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Grand Hotel Pecan BallBest Dessert: Pecan Ball at Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island
This dessert is synonymous with this historic hotel, and yet with all the times I’ve stayed there (on personal vacation or business), I’ve yet to have the noted Pecan Ball. So, while staying at the hotel for four days during the Bayview to Mackinac Yacht Race, I finally gave it a try. Normally not a dessert person, I found that I couldn’t put the spoon down and ended up eating nearly the entire thing (it’s ice cream after all, which just fills in all the spaces in your stomach after a multi-course meal).

BLT Bloody Mary at Sundance GrillBest Liquid Meal: BLT Bloody Mary at Sundance Grill, Grand Rapids
After the Michigan Winter Beer Festival, it seems fitting to end the weekend with a liquid brunch in the form of a BLT Bloody Mary. Homemade bloody Mary mix and vodka is served tall, on the rocks and garnished with bacon, lettuce and tomato standing upright in the glass, served with a side of toasted sourdough bread, mayo and a five-ounce shorty beer.

Safe Travels!

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