(Traverse City, MI) Oftentimes, an acquaintance will say, "Oh, you have to try this place!" We are usually diligent about jotting down these potential new adventures, but sometimes we commit them to memory...which is less than infallible. "Where did so-and-so say we should go if we were ever in Traverse City?" "I think it was mumble mumble House." "Well, there's a place called The Cook's House..." "Yeah! That's it!" And so we make our reservations, quite positive this is the place that so-and-so told us about. But is it, really? We're about to find out...
We have not had great luck with weather in Traverse City our last couple visits, and today is no different. After more than 2 hours on the road, a grey drizzly afternoon greets us. We are also dismayed to see the Traverse City Film Festival is in full swing. Don't get me wrong...I love movies and film festivals. But the last thing we want to tangle with is a large group of out-of-towners (like ourselves) who are swarming over the restaurants and other venues, clogging the streets. Our fears are for naught; the filmgoers are no trouble at all.
A short walk takes us to The Cook's House, a tiny little nook that might have once been a coffee shop or ice cream store. I peek in to see about seven tables (the "patio" seating is obviously closed due to the drizzle) that are packed, except for one. It's ours, and it has a reserved sign on it! We are greeted by the hostess/waitress, amid bustling waitstaff and cooks, and bid be seated. John and Diane, our fellow adventurers this weekend, join us very shortly and we nestle into the cozy table for four. I order a pomegranate Izze and stick with ice water for the duration. We are also told the Lentil Burger with Mint Chutney and Fromage Blanc, which is not music to my ears; that's what I was going to order!
Nevertheless, we blaze forward. A waiter offers two small slices of bread, one of which has cheese baked into the middle and the other is sweeter, with cherries and nuts. Both, slathered with salted butter, provide a hefty chew in anticipation of the meal. To whet my appetite, I decide upon a cup of soup...the Pozole, with chicken, pork, hominy, cilantro, and chilies in a tomato broth. It is chunky and on a day like this, very welcome. I take a spoonful and am met with instant heat. The chilies surge to the front of the acidic tomato, and infuse the meat, but there is a sweetness that begs for more tasting. The chef is not fooling around here! I think most people might shy away from the bravado of this soup, but I am in heaven. I grab more bread to sop it up. Meanwhile, everyone else gravitates toward the Red Wine and White Bean Soup, which is nice and creamy but too subtle for my taste; it almost begs for some dark chicken or rabbit meat.
One of the usual dinner choices pops up on the lunch menu, and I am intrigued: Braised Pork Belly in some kind of root vegetable puree and braised greens. Usually pork belly will be nearly fork tender and succulent; I can only imagine the contrast between the veggie puree and the salty, sweet fat of the meat. Unfortunately, my expectations are thwarted somewhat. The meat turns out to be too tough (perhaps left over from Friday night's dinner?) although the contrast with the gritty, yellow puree works quite nicely. The greens, however, are sad and ill-placed at the bottom of the dish, soggy and disgruntled. I'm not above finishing my meal but it feels like a lost opportunity.
Everyone else seemed to like their dishes. Diane enjoys a smoked rabbit salad, with varied greens and shreds of rabbit meat (which she reports are good, but not too unlike chicken). John enjoys a thick ham sandwich with fig jam. The bread is deliciously fresh-baked but almost too hearty for my teeth, when I sneak a bite. It is amazing what these guys can do in the tiny, tiny kitchen. The ingredients are fresh, unusual, and innovative. I only wish the end result had been a bit more on-point for me. Still, I wouldn't mind trying them again, perhaps for dinner sometime.
As we walk into The Cook's House, my first impulse is to turn and run the other way. It is tiny, hot, and humid. The tables are set close together. For some this might suggest "charming" and "cozy" but on a sticky July weekend, the only words that come to mind are "cramped" and "clammy". I want to leave, only there's literally no room to turn around.
I ask about the ladies room and the hostess/waitress directs me to the one unisex restroom through the kitchen. I have to squeeze past the cook and the busboy to reach it. The sink is HUGE...one of those deep soaking sinks folks install next to their washer and dryer. As I wash my hands, I wonder what this sink was used for. Overall the bathroom is is ridiculously small and dark and quite cramped. Again, I begin to doubt our choice for lunch.
I emerge unscathed, but still dubious after I have to maneuver out of the kitchen. Our friends John and Diane arrive and both do a bit of a double-take after surveying the place. The only table available is a four-top with a reserved sign on it; luckily it's reserved for us!
We wait a for our server (the waitress/hostess) to take our order, but in the meantime ice waters are filled and some out-of-this-world bread with bits of what tastes like Jarlsburg cheese is served. I enjoy the extra time to peruse the menu, not because it is expansive, but in spite of being somehwat limited, nearly everything sounds fantastic. I really want to try the platter of Michigan cheeses with fresh fruit and local honeycomb.
Jeremy starts with soup, which inspires me to try the "red wine and white bean" soup. I'm not disappointed. The soup is velvety and downright divine with the creaminess of beans blended with the lovely complexity of an earthy red wine. I have to admit, the blended bean soup and the greyish tone (white beans + red wine = grey) puts me off for about four seconds until I taste it. By the end of the cup (which I tilt to maximize my spoon's intake), I am seeing sexy, inky eggplant, and plummy tones in the soup. "Grey" is in the mind of the beholder.
I want to try "Jen's Special Bolognese" as I am a fan of traditional authentic bolognese (beef, pork, veal, and maybe a bit of ground liver anyone?). Once I see the whitefish tacos, however, I am a goner. We're up north; how could my first meal of the weekend not be whitefish? The soft corn tortillas are housemade and grilled to order. WOW! I don't think I've ever had a "fresh" taco shell before. It makes a world of difference. The whitefish planks are generous with a mild, light batter. The cabbage slaw is crunchy, a bit creamy, and packs some heat with the chipolte mayo. In one bite, I've got fresh corn tortilla, flaky flavorful fish, and spicy slaw. This is Northern Michigan fish taco nirvana at its best. And there are two of them on my plate; I'm a happy girl!
Despite my initial snobbiness -- I cannot emphasis this enough -- the amazing food is worth the tiny setting. Once again, proof that I need to lighten up, be a little more flexible, and not judge the cookbook by its cover. The food is as honest as the setting. Pure, simple, and luscious. I will come back to Cook's House; in fact I'd like to make a seasonal visit four times a year to see what they're concocting in that kitchen. It's probably just as well that they do not have a liquor license, as I'd probably move in and never leave.
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