(Saint Joseph, MI) — The Inn at Harbor Shores is a hotel oasis of unrolled, bright green sod near the delta where the Paw Paw River flows into the Saint Joseph River before emptying into Lake Michigan. It’s a well-placed beacon of quality construction that, when you view it from nearby highway 63, entices you to stop for a cool drink at the water’s edge. Thankfully, it also has a full service restaurant called Planks...
At first, I’m expecting Planks to be one of those all-in-one hotel restaurants where they serve all three meals because they have to—the breakfast is buffet, the lunch is limited, and dinner feels perfunctory. We've all stayed at these places, I'm sure, where you're stuck with what they serve because there's nothing else within walking distance. However, I’m struck by the decent (not exemplary) beer taps on display at the front bar. The main dining room, too, is somewhat isolated from general lobby traffic with a vaguely nautical theme, solid furniture, tastefully muted decorations, and a lot of light streaming through the windows. The outdoor patio looks inviting, though the weather isn’t conducive to sitting outside today.
One glance at the menu and I know we’re in for something different. Ratatouille rubs elbows with grilled ribs; shrimp and grits lounges alongside sage grilled scallops. Color me intrigued! After thoughtful sips of our drinks (mine, a Perrin Grapefruit IPA), we agree to share the Plank’s Grilled Cheese as a starter. Between lightly crisp sourdough is a gooey admixture of confit duck thigh and aged gruyere. A small bowl of thick, smoked tomato sauce is placed on the side. I dip an edge of the sandwich in the sauce and take a bite.
Fireworks. Trains going into tunnels. Rockets red glare. Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”.
I can hardly contain my excitement. Somehow I manage to not eat the whole thing before Juliet can get her share. Chef Tim Hendren knows his way around a grilled cheese!
Next up, I get a bowl of soup du jour: Carrot Bisque. It’s a bold and creamy spoonful. Salt is a tad too heavy-handed; still, I’d rather have it leaning on this side of the salt fence than the usual bland concoctions you’ll find at other West Michigan restaurants.
For my main, I opt for Chicken & Waffles. It’s actually just one monster waffle, infused with thyme and apple chunks. A thick bacon bourbon maple syrup glistens over it all...which is a good thing. The chicken is just a bit overdone, dry, so the syrup helps enliven the dish. I’m able to enjoy the sweet, savory interplay until the halfway mark. After that, the dryness gets to me. If the poultry were just a skooch juicier, this would have been one of my favorite meals.
Every new restaurant needs some time to find a rhythm and Planks is no exception. I feel slightly rushed by our server, who inquires too frequently about our decision making process and the food practically ejects from the kitchen in rapid-fire quick challenge succession. Don’t bring me my soup when we’re still working on the app! And don’t bring me my main course if I have a spoonful of soup halfway to my mouth! Still, I will gladly crawl through broken glass to have another bite of that phenomenal grilled cheese.
As we enter, the first thing I notice is how bright and airy the bar area and lobby are. The whole place still has a tell-tale “new building” smell. The space is beautiful with lots of warm wood and floor-to-ceiling views of the water. The hostesses (there are three tonight) greet us warmly. It’s a bit breezy so we opt to sit inside, though there are a few folks braving the chill on the waterfront patio.
While I usually start a meal with a glass of bubbles, tonight I’m in the mood for a cocktail and order the Sparkling Tarragon Gin Lemonade. It’s incredibly light and refreshing, not at all sweet or cloying. The gin gives it a verdant, slightly piney taste which partners wonderfully with the puckery, effervescent lemonade. The slightly licorice-like aftertaste of tarragon is delightful. These could be dangerous!
We split an order Plank’s Grilled Cheese, griddled sourdough bread stuffed with shredded duck thigh and smoked gruyere. It’s cut into fourths and served with a side of smoky and slightly sweet tomato sauce. It’s one of the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever had and the tomato sauce is highly addictive. I know Jeremy truly likes something when he asks, “Do you think you could make this same sauce at home?” The duck is rich, not the least bit gamey, and the tang of the sourdough cuts through the meaty cheesy loveliness of it all.
I don’t know what I’m thinking, but I order up the Golden Onion Soup, a hefty broth packed with sweet yellow onions and topped with toast and smoked mozzarella. I’ve never had onion soup with this many onions in it; it’s more like an onion stew really. The gooey smoked mozz is amazing, though I’m pretty well “dairied” out for the week!
A fellow foodie and self-proclaimed “fish ‘n chips snob” has highly recommended Plank’s version—the Walleye Fish & Chips. I’m a sucker for walleye and anything fried, so I order it up, asking for it on the crispy side per his advice. (He’s had it slightly undercooked there on occasion—ugh!) The fish and chips are outstanding. The fries are better than most, with a tasty seasoning including some herbs. The ginormous walleye filet is mild and flaky with a light batter. Best of all, it’s perfectly cooked; no gloppy raw batter to be found. The tartar sauce is housemade and quite good, but I prefer the fish with a heavy squeeze of lemon.
Our server has trouble finding the Chardonnay I order and accidentally brings a Pinot Grigio. Also, the service is quite rushed. While the restaurant isn’t packed, the servers are speeding guests through. We have three courses in just over an hour; a more leisurely pace would have been more enjoyable and might have resulted in wine and beer sales for them. No worries, in looking at their brunch menu, I suspect we will be back some weekend morning for the bottomless mimosas. No rushing please!