Monday, February 7, 2011

Cooks' House

About 20 years ago, when John and I were a newly-married couple working in Washington, D.C., we made a fabulous two-week roadtrip vacation through New England and eastern Canada. Four days were spent hiking and canoeing at the Gaspé Provincial Park in Quebec. When we chose to visit this remote, northern rural area several hours drive from any city, our dining expectations were modest. But wow, were we surprised. Helming the park lodge dining hall, which looked like any other rustic dining hall except for the addition of white tablecloths, was a French-trained chef of excellent skill. For four nights, we feasted like jet-setters, but at an unbelievably low price.

Now we live in a remote, northern rural area far from any city, and we have dining on par with the finest in the nation (and at small town prices). The excellent chefs in northern Michigan have put this region on the national culinary map, and area restaurants, such as Trattoria Stella, have ensured that a visit or relocation here will not result in dining deprivation.

The unassuming exterior
Despite this culinary richness, when the special occasions pop up that get me out of my kitchen and into a chef's dining room, it is always the same room. Since the Cooks' House opened two years ago, it has been my only choice for a fine dinner. This is partly due to it being a five-minute walk from my house but mostly because the food is exactly what I would cook if I could cook that well. It is an exquisite blend of French style and  technique with that indescribable northern Michigan je ne sais quoi.

It is my opinion that an inverse relationship exists between the size of the restaurant and the quality of the food. Sure, this is a generalization, and I have had very good meals at large restaurants. But I can't recall any great meals I've had at a restaurant with more than one location. It's been my experience that even a small chain sacrifices quality.

From that perspective, the Cooks' House is the next best thing to dining in a chef's personal kitchen, especially if that chef is immensely talented and ethical.

List of local sources
Chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee have an uncompromising commitment to quality and to showcasing the region's finest agricultural products. The menu is inspired by what is available seasonally and locally from small, mostly organic farmers and other food artisans. A chalkboard  lists about four dozen sources that "made our menu possible." Most of them I know, and I appreciate their own commitment to producing food sustainably, or even regeneratively.

The restaurant borders the eastern edge of the downtown district and my residential neighborhood. From the outside, it looks like another house. Inside, one small dining room accommodates about 26 seats (at its original location on the other side of Front Street, the dining room was even smaller). Eric's wife, Theresa, manages the dining room and sets a tone of friendly, casual ease. I feel like I'm almost going to a neighbor's house for dinner, and not just because it's in my neighborhood. The white tablecloths come out at night, but the motif is simple North Woods elegance, with just a small glass containing a votive candle on a bed of river stones as a table decoration.

Pumpkin risotto with quail legs
Like the setting, the food is without pretension. There is no effort to make a cabbage leaf look like a lemon wedge, or whatever certain famous chefs might be getting up to lately. The cooking is expert and straightforward and causes the diner to exclaim, "this is so delicious, I wish I could eat it every night" rather than, "What a stunning plate! I can't believe how creative the chef is. I almost don't want to eat it for fear of spoiling the artistry."

These talented chefs have rightly become superstars in the local foodie scene, but they try to redirect the spotlight to the people on that chalkboard. Eric's and Jen's philosophy is that exceptional ingredients speak for themselves and do not need egotistical chefly embellishments. However, I shop at the same farmer's market and co-op as Eric, and purchase many of the same ingredients, and I can attest that skillful preparation (which Eric and Jen possess in abundance) is also a huge part of the equation.

But it's not just the superb quality of the food that makes me value the Cooks' House. This restaurant is Traverse City in microcosm and not just due to that chalkboard. Its story is so typical of the people that make up this community, some who grew up here and have always known this as "home" and others who have come here seeking a slower pace and deeper connections. Eric was head chef at the Michelin-starred Andre's in Las Vegas, where Jen was his sous chef. Eric and Theresa had been investigating different regions of the country to open a restaurant that would focus on local produce. Jen was interested in partnering and suggested her hometown of Traverse City. Eric did some research and discovered the area matched his requirements.

Like other small, local businesses, the Cooks' House has to contend with the seasonal vagaries of a "tourist town". In the summer, dinner reservations are often filled days in advance and celebrities such as Mario Batali are occasionally spotted there. In winter, half the tables may be empty on a Saturday night.

There are also uniquely Traverse City annoyances, such as the wine policy. Being too small to qualify for a liquor license, the Cooks' House originally allowed diners to bring in their own bottle of wine, which was a wonderful option considering that one of the town's best wine shops was directly across the street. However, apparently BYOB at restaurants is illegal in Michigan, although enforcement is up to local authorities and is ignored in most places. Sadly, someone in Traverse City complained, and the police department decided to shut down this practice at the Cooks' House and the other establishments in the city that were allowing BYOB. Now there is no wine (or any alcohol) allowed, which is why Eric and Jen moved the restaurant to a larger space across the street in an effort to get a liquor license. They expect to have the situation resolved by spring.

In the meantime, I'll continue to do without wine and relish the incredible food.

To those of you outside of northern Michigan, you can enjoy the Cooks' House at a distance. Eric and Jen published an excellent cookbook last year. Some of the ingredients are local, but the spirit of their cooking is to use what is fresh and available, so substitute with things that are local to you.

And, since cooking seasonally and locally is kind of a big thing right now, it's not that hard to find restaurants similar to the Cooks' House all over the country. Thanks to my high school friend, Phil, I've had this place in Raleigh bookmarked since he mentioned on Facebook a few months ago that he was taking his wife there for her birthday. I definitely plan to check it out next month.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds delicious! Of course at the moment I would be doing good to afford a cup of soup there. :(