by Mel Small
The Michelin guide awards its highest honor, three stars, to restaurants that are "worth a special journey." Tapawingo, in tiny Ellsworth 40 miles north of Traverse City and 265 miles from Detroit is considered by many critics to be the best restaurant in the state. But does it merit a special journey?
For starters, the setting is exquisite. Tapawingo, the Native American name for the land that the restaurant occupies, is a remodeled handsome country home, bordered front and back with lush gardens, overlooking St. Clair Lake (!). It features arresting modern art for sale on the walls, tasteful flower arrangements on the tables and mantel, cool blond wood accents and, especially, large windows that frame picturesque water views for most of the diners at the 20-odd tables.
But why this elegance in rustic Ellsworth? It started 24 years ago, when owner Harlan "Pete" Peterson, who was working at the comparably elegant Rowe Inn (situated incongruously in the same hamlet), leaped at the chance to buy the Tapawingo mini-estate and open his own place. Peterson, who earlier had been a designer at Ford, has never looked back.
Tapawingo's prix-fixe dinners run from $50 to $65 for three courses appetizer, entrée and dessert. The menu changes frequently through the seasons, as does the consistently creative complimentary amuse-bouche that amounts to a mini-course. On one recent occasion, chef Jeremy Kittelson who formerly worked at Chicago's Blackbird, composed "Three Colors of Cauliflower" with tiny flowerets sandwiched between paper-thin truffle tidbits floating in a béchamel sauce.
Although the other courses are, of course, much larger than the minuscule amuse-bouche, the portions are generally smaller than those served at many restaurants. This may be one way Kittelson is able to keep the price of the incomparable fare within reason.
Appetizers might include a unique Caesar salad that is based on long whole romaine leaves, with large curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, whole Spanish anchovies and one huge crouton-toast in a very delicate, almost imperceptible sauce. An even busier first, more characteristic of much of the fare at Tapawingo, is a combination of crunchy pieces of fried perch with even crunchier thin green beans, hard-boiled egg and morsels of radish, baby beets, Yukon gold potatoes, arugula and gunciale (bacon) in a mustard vinaigrette. The colorful morsels in this dish, as in others, are often so microscopic that you must carefully and slowly use tiny forkfuls to savor all the tastes and flavors and, if necessary, don your reading glasses.
Other typical appetizers are soup of the day, rabbit pâté with frisee, arugula, confit, brioche and three mustards, or a scallop seviche with mango, watermelon, cantaloupe, honey dew, jalapeño, cilantro and yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit). And these complicated preparations, for which a glossary might be helpful, are only the appetizers.
As for the mains, a surprisingly meaty Cornish game hen is surrounded by chorizo, shell beans, stuffed cabbage, summer squash, almonds and manchego cheese in another subtle sauce, a pequillo pepper puree. During the summer, especially, most of the fresh ingredients in most of the dishes come from sources within 50 miles of Ellsworth.
Aside from the hen, it is difficult to resist the moist chunk of perfectly grilled sturgeon atop a mélange of corn, baby leeks, chanterelles, pancetta, Gulf shrimp, hearts of palm and hazelnuts. Poached cod with beets, tomato concasse, truffles, brandade (French fish puree), horseradish and dill in an English pea broth, rack of lamb, filet mignon, and a vegetarian extravaganza round out the six entrées offered on a recent summer evening.
All of this culinary sophistication may sound intimidating, but the experience is lightened by the accomplished and helpful servers, who aren't as haughty as one might expect in such an upscale establishment. They can also help navigate the lengthy wine list, which roams the globe for interesting and relatively unknown vintages. Moreover, Peterson has sprinkled his impressive selection with enough bottles in the low thirties to please those worried about the bottom line.
The complicated preparations continue with dessert, the last course in the prix-fixe. Here one might try a toasted chocolate brownie with coconut sorbet, caramel sauce, passion fruit crème Anglaise and bittersweet ganache or the simpler bittersweet chocolate bread pudding that comes with only butterscotch sauce, chocolate chip ice cream, and vanilla shortbread.
All of this appears to be a lot of food but the portions are modest enough to please the most calorie-conscious of patrons. And as for the price, much of the same food is available at lunch during the summers at a lower tariff. But even a three-course prix-fixe for $55 is quite reasonable considering other "fancy" eateries.
On all accounts then, from the lovely surroundings, the gracious service and the fascinating dishes, Tapawingo lives up to its national reputation. But is it worth a special journey? That obviously is a personal decision, but I should note that celebrity chef Mario Batali, who summers in Northport, periodically makes a pilgrimage to this singular temple of gastronomy 70 miles distant from his home.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.