In Search of the Northern Summer: Part VI

The last full day of our time in the Leelanau area was a very full day indeed – full schedule, full belly! We knew we definitely wanted to go to the beach one last time, but there were also several hot spots we knew our trip would not be complete without visiting. So, on the night before this final day, we had a pow-wow and laid out our grand strategy. We would make a giant circle, essentially: Snowbird Inn (start), Suttons Bay, Traverse City (for Trattoria Stella), Glen Arbor, Snowbird Inn (for the beach), back to Suttons Bay (dinner at Martha’s Café).

On our way to Suttons Bay, we were very fortunate to have found our way back to the little combination taxidermist studio & maple syrup/honey outlet James and I had stumbled upon back in 2008. In my opinion, Michigan has some of the best maple syrup in the world and what better place to buy it than standing in a very distinguished taxidermist’s studio, surrounded by about a zillion-and-one beady eyes from woodland creatures who’ve long since lost their innards?!

I would tell you where to find this guy, but he’s not on the map and he doesn’t have a website that I can find. Suffice it to say that if you’re heading out on the very short highway M-204, look for the sign that says: Michigan Maple Syrup & Honey [& Taxidermy]. He does superb work – often using animals who were killed by passing cars as his subjects. We were told, in fact, that this is probably the only way you’d ever really see a badger in Leelanau County: dead on the side of the road or in his office! We love this place!!

Suttons Bay is an almost sleepy-looking hamlet on the shores of a bay-inside-a-bay: Suttons Bay is a bay within Grand Traverse Bay. (I counted six instances of the word “bay” in that sentence… that’s gotta be some kind of record, no?) Wandering its main street, you can find unique shops and eateries that rival those of nearby Leland. Unlike Leland, though, it does have that air of being more a vacation town than a residence. The fact that they practically roll up and pack away the sidewalks at 9pm adds to this ambiance – though I suppose it could be argued that it disproves my point, somewhat.

Continuing on our one-day circle tour, we headed for Traverse City – the largest city in the area. Traverse City’s downtown area is very charming in an almost cosmopolitan sort of sense. You find a lot less of the “quaint” and more of the full-on “contemporary” in its shop windows, though it is certainly not devoid of the aforementioned fudge shops and t-shirt vendors.

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The view of Traverse Bay, here, is breathtaking from pretty much any angle, and a lot of the shops make for very entertaining shopping and window shopping. Whenever in Traverse City, one particular shop that’s not to be missed is American Spoon. Inside each and every jar of American Spoon’s products, you’ll find Michigan’s own bounty preserved at its highest point of flavor – and they’re not bashful about letting you try whatever you’d like to sample! I’d list for you my favorite American Spoon items, but the list would be too long — though I should mention that they were the ones who introduced me to Maple Cream. I get little shivers just thinking about it!

Traverse City has lots of great restaurants, but one that will forever stand out, to us, is Trattoria Stella. While gathering information for our trip, we were told that Trattoria Stella was not to be missed. IMG_0928Then, while attending the Green Cuisine event, we got a small sample of what they offered (homemade mozzarella and fresh tomato bruschetta was their offering at Green Cuisine). So, naturally, we made paying them a visit a priority.

Finding Trattoria Stella turned out to be another journey of oxymoronic proportions, as it turned out (we’d already purchased maple syrup from a taxidermist, remember?). Trattoria Stella, we were surprised to learn, is located in the basement of what was formerly a giant, state mental health facility. No, no… I’m not kidding. IMG_0930Beautifully restored and transformed, the entire complex is now called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Instead of patients and hospital rooms, you’ll find boutiques, delis, and other small shops and offices.

I have to admit that I was a little creeped out by the idea of the place. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that you’re not supposed to host dinners in old, abandoned mental institutions any more than you’re supposed to build mansions atop ancient burial grounds. And yet, once you’re inside Trattoria Stella, you very quickly forget where you are. For all you know, you’re in Italy.

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Trattoria Stella is a leader in the locavore restaurant industry. More than just claiming to use local ingredients “whenever possible,” they list on their daily menu which specific farms provided specific ingredients. I’m convinced that you can taste the difference, too!

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From the moment our waitress sat the bread basket on the table, we were in awe. The bread was exceptional. Since we wanted to get a taste of lots of things on the menu, we decided to each order what we wanted but agree to share it with everyone!

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Nicole and I each ordered the Heirloom Tomato salad. A stunning variety of heirloom tomatoes were assembled with homemade mozzarella cheese, a little fresh basil, and drizzled with a very fine olive oil – and that’s all this salad needed to be completely fabulous! If you’ve never sampled an heirloom tomato, you should hunt at least one down before summer’s over! They are not to be missed.

James ordered the White Pizza which was loaded with roasted garlic and three cheeses. As with most Italian food, even though the ingredients are quite simple, they come together to form something otherworldly.

Nicole ordered the Turkey Breast Confit sandwich with tomato, red onion, romaine lettuce, and fresh aioli. She and I both had the Buttered Peas with Fresh Thyme as our side.

As it turns out, I ordered the most flavorful item at the table: the Rosemary Ham sandwich with caramelized onions, raspberry mostarda and fontina cheese. The raspberry mostarda was phenomenal and it really sent off sparks when coupled with the ham – which was not called rosemary ham just to sound fancy.

Our bellies stuffed and our plans beginning to seem a bit too ambitious, we loaded back into the car and headed for Glen Arbor – a small village on the western side of the Leelanau Peninsula. Surrounded by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you’d expect Glen Arbor itself to be stunning. Instead, most of the scenery is to be found just outside the village limits; the town, itself, mainly just a crossroads with some interesting shops and a visitor’s center.

One of my favorite shops in Glen Arbor is Great Lakes Tea & Spice. They have a lot of unique tea blends for you to sample and purchase along with fancy teapots and accessories. Their spice selection is also very interesting – lots of things to smell and be impressed by. It was here, in 2008, that I first purchased Spanish Smoked Paprika. I’ve been hooked on smoked paprika ever since!

But, if you come to Glen Arbor for only one reason, it’s probably because you’ve heard of Cherry Republic. Here you’ll find cherries in just about every wacky form you can imagine: sodas, wine, candies, pie, ice cream – if you can squeeze cherry in there, somehow, they’ve got it. Plundering about their three-building complex, you can sample just about everything they offer, so buying a few things is practically irresistible. Though we were frightfully stuffed from lunch, we did have cherry pie a la mode.

IMG_0919After we buttered the car doors so that we could squeeze our bloated bellies inside, we headed for the beach for some relaxation before dinner (vacation can be so strenuous, after all).

For a quiet end to our busy day and a good way to round out our circle tour, we headed back to Suttons Bay for dinner at Martha’s Leelanau Table (or Martha’s Café). Another fine example of a restaurant using local ingredients, Martha’s uses as many local ingredients as can be found, turning out interesting combinations for very reasonable prices.

I was most impressed by the Roast Pork with Maple-Cherry Chutney while Nicole enjoyed the Fried Walleye. Even though Suttons Bay does pack away their sidewalks at 9pm, Martha’s was kind enough to give us an 8:30 reservation and did not rush us out the door even though we were there well after they had closed. A very polite and generous place, indeed.

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And so, after having eaten and sampled more in one day than some people eat in two, we closed out the final full day of our Michigan adventure by retiring in our cozy inn for one more night of quiet slumber near the lake. We definitely needed our sleep for the eventful odyssey that was to begin the next morning. (the dramatic conclusion to follow)

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~ by Jason on July 30, 2010.

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