TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Attention, traveling foodies: Something yummy is happening in the Traverse City area, and it's even grabbed the attention of luminaries such as celebrity chef Mario Batali, who has a summer home on the scenic Leelanau Peninsula just northwest of town.
Long a top Midwestern tourist draw for its lakes, rivers, forests, beaches - and the orchards that inspire the self-proclaimed moniker "cherry capital of the world" - the Traverse City area is now home to an increasingly varied and sophisticated culinary culture with a strong emphasis on local ingredients.
The Lake Michigan resort town is awash in award-winning restaurants and wineries, artisan bakeries, dairies and farm markets. Midwest Living magazine recently placed Traverse City second on its list of the region's best "food towns," trailing only Madison, Wis.
The area's food scene "has just exploded" in the past decade, Batali said in a phone interview: "What you're seeing up there is a renaissance, the rise of a gastronomic subculture that makes it a fascinating place to be."
Trattoria Stella restaurant serves Italian fare ranging from crescenza cheese ravioli to veal scaloppine, but the menu also lists information about where the ingredients came from.
Sleeping Bear Farms provided the honey, Shetler Family Dairy the milk and cream. From Land of Goshen came eggs and Italian sausage. Other producers from the Grand Traverse Bay region of northwestern Lower Michigan supplied veggies, ground beef and lamb, maple syrup.
"It's just better when it hasn't traveled thousands of miles to get to your plate," Trattoria Stella proprietor Paul Danielson says.
It helps that Traverse City's Northwestern Michigan College hosts the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, which has trained many of the region's chefs. "I can't go into many of the restaurants around here without seeing what looks like a class reunion," says Fred Laughlin, the director.
Local farms by the hundreds reflect a statewide agricultural diversity second only to California's. Michigan leads the nation in production of tart cherries, blueberries, three types of dry beans and pickling cucumbers while ranking in the top 10 for dozens of other commodities, including apples, asparagus, carrots and potatoes.
And nature cultivates its own jewels. Batali delights in the morel mushrooms that grow wild on damp forest hillsides. So highly prized are the delectable fungi that productive gathering sites are closely guarded secrets.
Want to prepare your own meals while visiting Traverse City? The area has a couple dozen farmers' markets during harvest season, which typically runs from May to October. Or stop by a roadside stand en route to attractions such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a half-hour's drive west of town, or Mackinac Island two hours northeast.
Of course, many of us want someone else to cook while we're on vacation. That's where the restaurants come in.
"You can bring home all the cherries and asparagus you want," Batali said, "but if no one is creating sophisticated, specialty dishes with them it can have a sort of state-fair quality." Fortunately, he added, northwestern Michigan has restaurants and chefs whose skills are up to the challenge.
Danielson and his wife Amanda, co-owners of Trattoria Stella, are among many restaurateurs whose arrival in recent years has bolstered the region's culinary credentials. They chose an intriguing location: a building that once housed the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane. Seriously.
Constructed in the late 19th century, the mental institution occupied a grassy, tree-lined 480 acres. The yellow brick buildings are of Victorian Italianate design, and their rooftop turrets are reminiscent of European castles. Nowadays, the complex is a tourist attraction unto itself as it's redeveloped into a village with boutiques, eateries, wine tasting rooms and more.
With the asparagus harvest in full swing, Trattoria Stella's menu on a recent day featured the tender stalks in two appetizers - one with poached egg and toasted sourdough - and as a side dish for a Berkshire pork loin entree. Among other choices: fettuccine topped with morels sauteed in garlic butter and salad with pickled local ramps.
"Our suppliers have such an amazing selection of great stuff, we can rewrite the menu every single day," Paul Danielson says.
Plenty of neighboring restaurants are showcasing local ingredients as well.
Hanna's morel mushroom ravioli draws raves. The Cook's House, tiny but popular, wows customers with smoked rabbit salad, walleye and whitefish dishes - and liberal use of cherries. Eric Patterson, chef and co-owner, apprenticed under the celebrated Andre Rochat in Las Vegas before migrating to northern Michigan. His business partner, Jennifer Blakeslee, is a local native who began working with Patterson at the celebrated Andre's restaurant in Vegas.
Both are among a cluster of quality restaurants in Traverse City's thriving downtown on Grand Traverse Bay. During the summer, sidewalks are busy as tourists sample cherry jams and salsas from vendors such as Cherry Republic and American Spoon or take in a movie at the historic State Theatre, headquarters for an indie film festival headed by Michael Moore.
For simpler fare, try a salad or sandwich at Lake Street Kitchen and Cafe in the Oryana Natural Foods Co-op, where shelves are packed with organic vegetables, fruits and locally produced foods ranging from peanut butter to ice cream. And just about anywhere, you can savor a slice of oven-warm pie oozing tart cherries, northern Michigan's signature fruit.
Dining opportunities abound outside town as well. A few miles east, Aerie Restaurant & Lounge changes menus seasonally as different local produce becomes available. An added bonus: its location on the 17th floor of Grand Traverse Resort, offering spectacular views of the bay and verdant countryside.
To the west, the Leelanau Peninsula is dotted with lakefront tourist villages and restaurants galore. Martha's Leelanau Table, a European-style bistro in Suttons Bay, stuffs its pancakes with northern Michigan blueberries and its frittatas with cheeses from nearby dairies.
Thirsty from all that food? Wineries and breweries have sprung up across Michigan's northlands, and their products are featured on many local restaurant menus. A favorite day trip for tourists is the 18-mile drive to the lighthouse park at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula. Along the way, visit tasting rooms at the likes of Chateau Grand Traverse, Chateau Chantal and Bowers Harbor Vineyards and watch a spectacular sunset. Nice way to work up an appetite for the next meal.