In a parking lot just a block from serene Suttons Bay, market-goers swap recipes with young farmers as they examine spicy arugula next to heirloom tomatoes just off the vine. Some leave with hearty loaves of artisan bread, bouquets of wildflowers and fresh goat cheese, or head to nearby Hansen Foods to chat with the community grocer’s in-store sommelier about local wines.
The region’s culinary bounty, explored at relaxed stops like the area’s fruit farms, fish markets and farm-to-table restaurants, is an increasingly popular getaway theme — one made even more memorable when centered around the favorites of Iron Chef and part-time local resident Mario Batali.
“It’s a place,” he says, “that’s beautiful, a place that’s not crowded, and a place that has a culinary point of view.”
Spend enough time in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, and you might spot Batali’s trademark orange Crocs at a local farmer’s market, butcher shop or local venue like The Cove in Leland. He’s one of many fans of the restaurant’s “Chubby Mary,” a fortuitous experiment that slips a smoked chub into a Bloody Mary and is sipped by waterfalls roaring over the Leland River Dam in view of vibrant sunsets.
Batali also is enthusiastic about sharing his favorite local stops and what makes them so. The culture of wine making, beer making, cheese making, fishing, fish smoking, salami making — an artisan food culture set amid a lush landscape — is much like you’d find in Italy, he says. Italians view ingredient shopping as significant as preparation, he notes, believing cooking has little to do with special tricks and everything to do with quality products like you’ll find around Leelanau. There, he says, “you’re that much closer to deliciousness.”
“What I truly love about it is that it’s very much like the way I grew up,” he shares. “We celebrated food. We were totally into it — canned and pickled and cured meat and made our salami.
“That’s how it is in Michigan now. It’s not a ready-for-Saveur Magazine moment. It doesn’t feel precious. It just feels right.”
The cuisine at The Cooks House in Traverse City certainly could find its way onto the pages of Saveur. The cozy, converted neighborhood home has been featured in several national magazines and Batali has named it one of his top 10 favorite restaurants world-wide. But chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee highlight the landscape’s food roots.
An ever-changing chalkboard lists as many as 50 food purveyers who supplied the greens or cheese or tomatoes. What’s served depends on what’s fresh, though you can reliably depend on finding the popular house salad of smoked rabbit, seasonal vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, goat feta and watermelon ice — a perfect prelude to Lake Michigan whitefish served, perhaps, in grape leaves with white cucumber relish, pea shoots and baby leeks.
One of Batali’s favorite dessert options — the Grand Traverse Pie Company — is a short stroll down Front Street in Traverse City, backed by the Boardman River. Batali ate his first slice at a county farm stand, owner Mike Busley says, and has since called the venue’s signature cherry crumb pie a “religious experience” that he likes to pair with local Pinot Grigio.
To encompass the complete sensory experience Batali and his family enjoy, take your boat or rent one for a scenic trip to Elk Rapids’ Siren Hall, where seafood shines as the menu star and local wines elevate its freshness amid a casual, contemporary setting. But the road trip here from Traverse City is memorable, too, winding alongside Caribbean-hued Grand Traverse Bay, rolling orchards and tiny produce stands.
Martha’s Leelanau Table, another of Batali’s favorite stops, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in Suttons Bay, sometimes paired with live music in its sunny café or shady garden. Batali has praised the everything-made-in-house bistro with European flair for its “simple Alice Waters sensibilities.”
Presently, owner Martha Ryan is adding another creative spin with new craft cocktail options developed by a mixologist to augment the café’s French, Italian and Leelanau influences. Try the Leelanau Mimosa (fresh-squeezed orange juice combined with the sparkling wine “Sex” from L. Mawby Vineyards) with the M-22 — eggs, potatoes, onions and greens topped with artisan-made Leelanau Cheese raclette. A strip of bacon sits atop a line of sour cream to represent the scenic highway.
“When you drink wine where it’s made, with food grown there, something magical happens,” Batali observes. “It’s more than a sum of its parts.”
Such combinations can easily be found on regional wine trails. Leelanau homeowner Batali often makes stops on the Leelanau Peninsula, where the state’s fastest growing trail has become so large it’s recently been sectioned into three separate tours (lpwines.com). One quarter of Michigan’s 100 wineries are located along this bountiful stretch, and two signature autumn events showcase the magic of local food and wine pairings crafted on it.
The Harvest Stompede (Sept. 7-8) invites serious runners and casual walkers alike through vineyard rows weighted with ripe grapes before a small plate feast. While “Toast the Season” (Nov. 2-3 and 9-10) extols pairings that are perfect to serve during holiday gatherings.
Visitors any autumn day can take the new Northern Loop to 10 wineries around Lake Leelanau, Leland, Northport and Omena; the trail features some of the county’s newest tasting rooms and a Batali top spot, Tandem Ciders, for a semi-sweet/tart blend of apple varieties called “The Sweetheart.”
The Grand Traverse Loop includes some of the area’s agri-tourism leaders such as Black Star Farms, whose Arcturos Cabernet Franc (paired with the inn’s wood-fired pizzas) Batali has heralded as the best wine in Michigan, and L. Mawby Vineyard, a must-stop for lovers of sparkling wine.
One of the county’s most stunning blue views — Lake Leelanau from the Bel Lago tasting room — is part of the Sleeping Bear Loop. Here in Glen Arbor, don’t leave out the Cherry Republic; you’ll be asked to “Declare all Bananas” as you pass a single cherry tree en route to some 175 cherry products, all made from local crops.
Chances are, you won’t mind a bit.
Mario Batali’s Michigan Walleye in Prosciutto with Pesto Fregola (Yields: Serves 6)
2 pieces walleye fresh fillets (about 2 ½ pounds total)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces thinly-sliced prosciutto
1 pound fregola, acini di pepe or orzo
1 cup pesto (see recipe)
2 red bell peppers (cored, seeded and diced ¼-inch)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted until golden brown
Rinse the walleye and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange half of the prosciutto slices on a work surface, overlapping them to make a rectangle large enough to enclose one of the walleye fillets. Lay the fish in the center and fold the prosciutto up and around it to make a tight roulade. If necessary, secure with butcher’s twine or toothpicks. Repeat with the second fillet. Set seam side down on a plate and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Place a piastra (flat griddle stone) on the grill to preheat. Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt. Set up an ice water bath. Drop the fregula into the boiling water and cook until just al dente. Drain and immediately refresh in the ice bath; when it is cool, drain the fregula well. In a large bowl, toss the fregula with the pesto and red peppers. Set aside.
Brush each prosciutto-wrapped fillet with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Place on the piastra and cook for 6 minutes, unmoved. Gently roll each one over 90 degrees and cook for 4 minutes. Repeat twice, for a total cooking time of about 18 minutes (the temperature should be about 150°F in the thickest part of the fish). Transfer to a platter and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Cut the tails into ¾-inch slices and arrange atop the fregula. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with the pine nuts and serve.
3 garlic cloves
2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
3 tablespoons pine nuts
Generous pinch of Maldon or other flaky sea salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano
With the motor running, drop the garlic into a food processor to chop it. Add the basil, pine nuts, and salt and pulse until the basil and nuts are coarsely chopped, then process until finely chopped. Drizzle in the oil. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the cheeses. (Pesto can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, topped with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil, for several weeks in the refrigerator.)
Terrace Tapas at Chateau Chantal
Chef Mario Batali has extolled both the wines and azure bay vistas of hilly Old Mission Peninsula: All eight wineries boast memorable views, award-winning wines and harvest-time wine releases and events (oldmission.com). Flavorful “Terrace Tapas” such as these are offered at Chateau Chantal through October, paired with suggested wines. Find this fall’s Tapas Tour menu at chateauchantal.com/recipes.
Whitefish Pate on Crostini (Yields: 24 servings)
2 pounds deboned smoked whitefish
2 pounds cream cheese
Juice of 2 lemons
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Blend ingredients together until spreadable.
24 ¼-inch slices baguette or French bread
¼ pound salted butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small jar capers
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Preheat oven to 375°F. Melt butter over low heat and stir in lemon juice. Place baguette slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush lightly with lemon butter. Bake at 375°F for 5 minutes or until lightly browned and crisp. Remove from oven and cool. Place whitefish dip in a pastry bag with a star tip or a Ziploc bag with one corner snipped off. Evenly pipe dip onto crostini. Garnish each with a couple of capers and sprinkle lightly with parsley.
Ciabatta, Smoked Gouda and Grape Trio (Yields: Makes 24 skewers)
48 1-inch by ½-inch cubes Ciabatta bread
48 ¼-inch thick wedges smoked Gouda cheese
24 red grapes, washed and dried
24 “Frill pick” toothpicks
Slide onto each of 24 skewers: 1 cube bread; 1 Gouda cheese wedge; 1 grape; 1 Gouda cheese wedge; 1 cube bread.
Pear and Blue Cheese Crostini (Yields: 16 servings)
Place cream cheese in glass bowl and microwave for 20 seconds. Add Gorgonzola and blend thoroughly. Spoon cheese mixture into a pastry bag. Using a mid-sized star tip, pipe a single rosette (about 1 tablespoon cheese mixture) onto each water cracker. Slice pear thinly, creating small triangular shapes. Place pear slices into a bowl filled with cold water and lemon juice (to prevent fruit from browning). Arrange each cracker with single flower and pear slice.
Wild Mushroom Phyllo Tartlet (Yields: 16 servings)
3 6-ounce containers assorted mushrooms
32 phyllo mini pie shells
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Boursin cheese for garnish
Preheat convection oven to 350°F. Wash, dry and chop mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Peel and mince garlic cloves. Place large sauté pan over medium/high heat and let warm (about 2 minutes). Add olive oil. Wait about 30 seconds before adding garlic, then sauté using wooden spoon to prevent garlic from burning. Add mushrooms and all other ingredients, agitating with wooden spoon. Sauté until completely cooked through (about 5 to 7 minutes). Remove from heat. Place phyllo shells on small baking sheet. Fill each shell with a heaping spoonful of mushroom mixture. Top each mushroom pastry with a dollop of Boursin cheese and place in oven 5 minutes before serving. Remove from oven when cheese just begins to brown. Serve immediately.
Learn more about some of Mario’s top regional spots to shop and dine by visiting these websites:
Freelance writer Kim Schneider resides in Suttons Bay.