Recently I made it up to the Leelanau Peninsula, north of Traverse City, to visit my brother and his family in Northport for a few days. It’s a rural area, less densely populous than some Northern vacation spots, unspoiled by billboards and traffic, and boasting miles of gorgeous beaches. Driving around, I was struck by the lush, dense woods and the rows of crops growing at numerous farms. I tasted my first really good tomato of the season, purchased at a roadside farm market.
Since my brother’s grill burned itself out last summer and he hadn’t replaced it, we had several meals at local restaurants, all new to me. Our favorite was the Riverside Inn in Leland. The historic building is located at the edge of the Leland River, accessible by water as well as car. The menu was a knockout. Check it out on their Web site at theriverside-inn.com. We started with crab beignets. The Café Du Monde in New Orleans should break tradition and serve these bad boys, savory instead of sweet. Our entrées included Michigan ostrich served with a lingonberry-port wine sauce that would be good on any meat or poultry — especially duck.
My pan-seared peppered lamb loin with a mint-Shiraz demi-glace was served with shallot- and herb-seasoned potatoes and sautéed vegetables. It was well worth its $26 price tag. The desserts were good enough to support the adage, “Life is short. Start with dessert.” We had the warm-centered flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and caramel and bittersweet chocolate sauces, as well as the mixed berry tart. Even the coffee was unusually good.
The service was exceptional, the staff friendly and efficient. Our waitress, Tiffany, came to Leland to visit and ended up staying to work at the Riverside for the summer. The rest of the year she teaches in San Francisco. We ate indoors due to a drizzle, but normally we would have chosen the deck overlooking the river.
Another find was Bells of Christmas, known to most as Bell’s Farm Market. It offered some of the sweetest strawberries I’ve ever eaten. The northern cherries it sells remind you that Michigan’s prize fruit is justifiably famous. In addition, Bell’s has a unique jigsaw puzzle and paperback book program. Used puzzles, some with as many as a thousand pieces, are sold for seventy-five cents and the books are a quarter. They can be exchanged for free. The market is also known, as the name suggests, for its Christmas wreaths.
We lunched at the 45th Parallel Café, a breakfast and lunch spot in Suttons Bay. When we walked in the door, the aroma of smoked bacon nearly convinced me to have breakfast for the second time that day. Instead I ordered a Philly cheese steak that featured a cheese so strong it obliterated the flavor of the meat. And this, after a good half-hour wait from the time we ordered. My wife had a tasty chicken and portobello quesadilla.
My inclination, having had a view of the tiny kitchen while waiting to be seated, would be to stick with the breakfasts. The omelets and pancakes looked excellent.
Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern in Northport is a fun, inexpensive spot that serves broasted fresh whitefish. It’s the first time that I’ve had it prepared this way, and not the last. A whitefish dinner with salad and potato was $14.25. Fried chicken appears to be one of tavern’s most popular dishes. A sirloin steak at the next table smelled like good grilled meat! Myers’s Rum for $3.50 is less than I pay at most of the places I frequent up North. A Sanders hot fudge cream puff was big enough for four of us.
Bob Pisor, a former Detroit television news anchor, opened Stone House Bread, an artisan bakery, in Leland several years ago. Last year he added a café, serving sandwiches, soup, cheeses, pâtés and salads for lunch, as well as a few breakfast items. But bread is the thing at Stone House. North Country, cherry walnut, seven-grain, Asiago and ciabatta are among the varieties. I was advised to try the oatmeal raisin cookie. Good advice.
One of my brother’s favorites is the Eat Spot in Northport. It’s a sandwich, salad and pizza joint that is better than the name and exterior appearance would lead you to expect. We ordered at the counter and went out to the patio to be served. I had to try the pizza. Top-notch crust and toppings, but too thick a sauce for me — cloying is the word that comes to mind. In fairness to the Eat Spot, I was the only one of the five of us that complained. The tandoori chicken salad was a hit, but for me the real winner was the grilled grouper sandwich. Plenty of fish and a fine house-baked grainy bread. The patio contains a lush garden that makes this a serene spot to enjoy an inexpensive well-prepared meal. The chocolate chip cookies are delicious.
Bells of Christmas is located at 11200 N. Mill St., Northport. Call 231-386-5909; The Eat Spot is located at 215 N. Mill St., Northport. Call 231-386-7536; Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern is located at 7144 N. Manitou Trail West in Northport. Call 231-386-9923; 45th Parallel Cafe is located at 102 W. Broadway, Suttons Bay. Call 231-271-2233; The Riverside Inn is located at 302 River St. in Leland. Call 231-256-9971; Stone House Bread is located at 407 S. Main St., Leland. Call 231-256-2577.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org