Category Archives: Michigan

Chicago Chef Morel & Ramp Romp

Chefs flock to Chicago not only for its cutting-edge culinary scene, but for the city’s diverse neighborhood cuisines. Inspiration lies in every corner of the city: carnitas from Pilsen, downtown fine dining, a gourmet hot dog from the Northside. Essentially any type of cuisine can be found in Chicago’s city limits, and culinary exploration is unlimited. The only thing that Chicago is really missing (besides its fair share of warm months) is a true green space.  Of course, Lake Michigan offers some solace from city life, but when chefs crave some inspiration from nature, they travel up the shore to Harbor Country, Michigan, roughly an hour away from the city.

The First Annual “Chicago Chefs’ Morel and Ramp Romp” recently offered some hardworking Chicago chefs the opportunity to kick back, relax, and mingle with the culinary-minded. This locavore-centric retreat was thoughtfully coordinated by Adam Seger of Hum Spirits, wine distributor Beverly Malen, Drew and Lauron Turnipseed of Two Turnips catering and consulting, Rachel Collins of Collins Caviar, and Scott and Kristen Sullivan of Greenbush Brewing Company. Participating chefs (including Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg and Prosecco’s Executive Chef Mark Sparacino) spent the day in Baroda, Michigan foraging for morel mushrooms and picking fresh ramps, touring local wineries and eating roasted pig prepared by Rob Leavitt of Chicago’s Mado Restaurant. Winemaker Mike de Schaaf poured tastings from Hickory Creek, one of the premier wineries found along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. The day’s events held a mood of earthy spontaneity and peacefulness, as well as revealing Harbor Country’s culinary aspirations and resources, which perhaps deserve more attention than granted previously.

Adam Seger muddling ingredients for a cocktail made with Hum Spirits.

Rachel Collins serving Michigan caviar on fresh blinis.

Chicago chefs embark on a morel and ramp hunt.

Morel mushrooms-what a find!

Picking local rapini from Michigan fields.

Chicag0 wine distributor Beverly Malen munches on just-picked rapini.

Roasted pig prepared by Adam Leavitt of Mado Restaurant.

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Dining in Harbor Country, Michigan

Of course, our trip to Harbor Country wouldn’t be complete without visiting our share of the local restaurants. After our arrival Friday evening, we visited the Bentwood Tavern at the Marina Grand Resort in New Buffalo. Touted by the Tribune as “the area’s newest restaurant and arguably, its best,” Bentwood is a waterfront eatery featuring fresh seafood, locally grown ingredients and sophisticated decor. We started with a tasty but predictable salad of greens, goat cheese and dried cherries. I had the fish and chips (fresh, flaky cod served with tangy and perfectly dressed coleslaw) and Aaron enjoyed roasted Amish chicken with a spicy sweet and sour sauce.

Bentwood Tavern, New Buffalo MI.

The next morning, we ventured down Red Arrow Highway to Harbert Swedish Bakery/Luisa’s Café for breakfast. After chatting with the owner of the bakery, I learned that the business has been one of Harbert’s best known exports since the early 1900’s. Luisa’s, owned by the same family who currently run the bakery, serves breakfast and lunch items like Swedish pancakes, organic salads, and sandwiches made with just baked bread.

Harbert Swedish Bakery, Harbert MI.

Swedish Baked Goods, Harbert Swedish Bakery.

For lunch, I had a crab cake salad, which Aaron pined for. The cakes were perfect; large pieces of lump crab with minimal filling served with a spicy aioli. Aaron stuck to a simple omelet with goat cheese, spinach and mushrooms.

Crab Cake Salad, Luisa’s Cafe.

Omelet, Luisa’s Cafe.

After lunch, we explored Warren Dunes State Park (or to be more accurate, I climbed half-way up a dune and then watched Aaron leap like a man-deer all the way down). Once we had our fill of sand and sun, we took off on Harbor Country’s wine trail. Round Barn Winery’s wine was forgettable, but we were enamored with its DiVine Vodka. Apparently, its only one of four vodkas in the world produced with grapes.

We were also very impressed with Hickory Creek Winery, tucked away among beautiful rolling hills and bright green farmland. One of the co-owners, Gottfried, was extremely gracious and his hospitality added to our tasting experience. Hickory Creek’s show stopper is certainly their slightly creamy and toasty 2005 Chardonnay. The flavors of honeydew, melon and Gala apple marry together and are balanced by a hint of lime.

At the recommendation of our innkeeper, we stayed on the wine trail for dinner and drove to Tabor Hill Winery. Tabor Hill is the only winery on the trail that also doubles as a restaurant-not necessarily a good thing. While the ambiance was beautiful, the food was a bit heavy-handed and extremely overpriced. Our starter, yet another crab cake, was hardly as delicate or as flavorful as Luisa’s. It was also accompanied by a bizarre orange juice, cherry juice, herb and wine reduction sauce which completely marred the simplicity of the crab.

Tabor Hill Vineyards.

Crab Cake with Wine Reduction Sauce, Tabor Hill Winery.

Filet Mignon wrapped in apple-smoked bacon was perfectly cooked, but sloppily presented. An extremely under-seasoned and underwhelming Alder Wood Smoked Hawaiian Swordfish was somewhat saved by its accompanying salsa of grapefruit and zesty ginger. Thankfully, we did enjoy Tabor Hill’s 2006 Lake Michigan Shore Cabernet Franc, a lush, soft, fruit-driven and elegant wine.

Ridgefield Farm Filet Mignon, Tabor Hill Winery.

Alder Wood Smoked Hawaiian Sword Fish, Tabor Hill Winery.

The next day, our final Michigan feast took place at Blue Plate Café, also located on a stretch of the Red Arrow Highway. Blue Plate is a funky little place that’s open for breakfast and lunch. Most of the customers seemed to know each other, and thus the atmosphere was friendly and laid-back. Complimentary samples of chocolate chip banana bread started things out on the right foot. Our lunch selections of a salad plate with so-so tuna salad and phenomenal chicken salad, and scrambled eggs wrapped in tortillas with Verde sauce were fresh, light, and satisfying for our journey home.

Blue Plate Cafe, Harbor Country MI.

Salad Plate, Blue Plate Cafe.

Scrambled Eggs in Tortilla with Verde Sauce, Blue Plate Cafe.

We plan on returning to Harbor Country again next summer, and I’m already planning our restaurant itinerary. We’ll definitely stop at Cafe Gulistan, a Turkish restaurant known not only for the food but for its owner’s battle for his citizenship, and Bistro on the Boulevard, a quaint French bistro located in picturesque Saint Joseph. As always, recommendations are appreciated!

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Found Inspiration

Aaron and I escaped for the weekend to Harbor Country, an area in southwest Michigan that’s composed of 8 small towns. It was my first visit to HC; Aaron spent time with his family there years ago. I had no idea that this unsuspecting corner of Michigan held so many interesting components, most (that we sought out, at least) a bit upscale while still retaining a clackety old world charm.

Lake Michigan Dune.

We stayed at the Rabbit Run Inn, a newly constructed property that’s gorgeously maintained by innkeepers Linda Jo (an interior designer) and Rodney Clough. Located just minutes from Warren Dunes State Park, the inn is decorated in a modern yet whimsical style: Alice left Wonderland for new digs in Manhattan. With only four guest suites, Rabbit Run is the perfect retreat for city dwellers seeking solace.

Rabbit Run Inn.

Linda Jo’s Kitchen, Rabbit Run Inn.

Rabbit Run Dog.

Soaring.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings, the creativity of Rodney and Linda Jo, two artists in love (like Aaron and I), struck me. What a lovely way to live, carving out a beautiful space for others to enjoy, all the while developing your creative Spirit. I know I could spend my days happily cooking, writing, painting, photographing and decorating. Its these glances into the lives of artists that keep me hopeful and inspired.

Blow it Out.

I’m Only Sleeping.

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