Vander Mill Cider Dinner

(Spring Lake, MI) — We received a text message from a friend: “Vander Mill is hosting their first in-house Cider Dinner. Interested?” As luck would have it, our very busy November just happened to have a hole in it on the exact night of the dinner. You don’t have to ask us twice! With reservations secured, we drove out to Spring Lake for a pairing of ciders and a five course meal...

He Fed:

We experienced a Vander Mill cider dinner at Graydon’s Crossing in January which left a bad taste in our mouths, but only because the food wasn’t up to par. The cider was phenomenal. I’m excited to see what Vander Mill will do when they’re in charge of developing the menu.

It’s our first time to the mill, but we’ve passed it several times while out visiting friends and other establishments toward the lakeshore, so we know the location. Inside, the building is much like a gigantic pole barn with the fermenting equipment housed in the back while the front space is the store and eating/drinking area. It is decorated in a rustic cottage look which makes me feel at ease. We join friends Old E, T Fuss, Cookie, and LettersToJ at the long trestle table assembled for the event, and await our first course.

To start, we’re poured a few ounces of the Chapman’s Blend. It’s a light golden color, made from American heritage apples including Winesap, Baldwin, Northern Spy and Jonathan. There’s a nice, dry tartness that reminds me of champagne, though not as carbonated. My palate wants more!

Chef Stefanie Luke and owner Paul Vander Heide arrive to present the first course. Although the online menu showed a ceviche with chile, apricot, and morita, the print menu has tuna ceviche instead. Paul explains their initial pairing plan wasn’t up to par so they switched gears. He also declares his dissatisfaction with other cider dinners at other restaurants, where chefs simply want to incorporate cider into the food and call it good. I’m impressed that he’s participating so much in the process, and we both share the same opinion of other pairing attempts. Chef Luke’s diced tuna, cured in citrus and mimicked in form with cubes of jicama, served on a crisp house-made cracker with slivers of jalapeno and sun-dried tomato, then dusted with lime salt...well, it's incredibly light and flavorful. But paired with the Belgian-like yeasty Michigan Wit, both are propelled beyond their limits. It’s a marriage of food and drink that is not often achieved. I wish I could eat this every day!

Second course is orange-braised pork belly topped with crème fraîche, on a spicy polenta cake. At first, I find the fatty cut of the pig to be off-putting and richer than I’d like. Once I get a mouthful of the Apple Raspberry cider, though, it all makes sense. The sweetness of the cider helps my taste buds transition and, oddly, amplifies both the butter and the jalapeno in the polenta. Delicious!

I need to take the next course slowly, because of my recent mishaps with duck. On a heap of cubed pumpkin and carrot hash, chunks of duck confit repose. Duck chicharones and thick coconut slivers adorn the dish. I would have liked a more crisp to the pumpkin and carrot (who doesn’t love a sweetly caramelized carrot?), the coconut is an inspired addition, bringing some dry mouthfeel to the otherwise moist components. The Ginger Peach cider plays nicely with both the dark meat and the pumpkin, adding just the right amount of spicy sweetness.

Apple Blueberry cider accompanies a palate cleansing fourth course of Banana Sorbet. It’s the only pairing I’m not in love with, unfortunately. I’m not a huge proponent of sweet ciders, preferring the dry versions, and the sorbet is just kind of strange. Not bad, just a weird mouthfeel and doesn’t complement the cider. No matter...the true dessert course is next.

There is some discussion about whether it should be called Goat Cheese Cheesecake (as it appears on the menu) or if the extra “cheese” should be stricken, so Goat Cheesecake? We all agree that could connote a meat pie and the debate is dropped. The miniature cheesecake has a graham cracker crust and is topped with bitter chocolate sauce, balsamic, and black pepper candied almonds. It’s a delicate dessert that walks the line between sweet and savory, spicy and nutty, with perfect posture. The heavy Essence of Raspberry cider acts much like a wine port, enhancing the almonds and goat cheese as it passes over tongue into the gullet.

Afterward, we are given a short tour of the production facility in back. Vander Mill makes the best cider in Michigan, hands-down, and with this first successful pairing dinner, they’ve raised the bar for local foodies. We cannot wait until the next one!
She Fed:

While I’m typically a wine drinker, I love cider once in awhile. Vander Mill’s offerings are a favorite because they’re not overly sweet or cloying. So when Jeremy suggests this cider dinner, limited to just 20 people, it’s a no brainer in my opinion. And, even better—we’re joining four other foodie friends! We’re the last of our group to arrive, but our pals have saved us a seat at the long table, already set for 20. There are several bowls of homemade crackers, intended as palate cleansers between courses, for us to all share. I’m so hungry I keep nibbling at them, finding them slightly citrusy and more than a little addictive.

After a brief welcome from the owners, a husband and wife team, and an introduction to their new chef, the first course is served. The chef has fashioned little serving spoons out of the palate cleansing cracker dough. Too cute! The spoons hold perfect cubes of tuna ceviche with jicama, jalapeno and sun-dried tomatoes. The plate is garnished with lime salt, a mixture of lime zest and kosher salt. I’m finicky when it comes to ceviche, but this one is quite tasty. The crunchy jicama, spice of the jalapeno, smoke from the tomato, and bright lime salt all combine with the firm tuna to yield a balanced bite. The “cracker spoons” work perfectly and taste even better with the ceviche than they did solo. The ceviche is complemented by a citrus-rich Michigan Wit cider.

I’ve been looking forward to the second course from the moment we arrived—spicy grilled polenta cake with seared orange braised pork belly. When the cakes arrive, three little ones on each plate, there’s a dollop of homemade sour cream with julienned mint on each. The sour cream is slightly grainy and tastes very much like ricotta. I don’t find much spice in the polenta cakes, but the dish is wonderful. The pork is deeply flavored with the orange braising liquid and of course it’s fatty and rich. Just perfect with the simple polenta. The mint gives each bite a nice little kick. The dish is paired with a slightly (only very slightly) sweet Apple Raspberry cider, which cuts through the unctuous pork belly.

The third course is lime marinated duck confit over carrot and pumpkin hash. I’m not keen on pumpkin (I might be the only person who doesn’t eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving) and I’m not a huge fan of duck, so I’ve got low expectations for this dish. I am happily proved wrong. The hash is very simple—small cubes of carrots and pumpkin, no onions or other filler. And the duck leg confit is relatively mild, not as gamey as others I’ve had. The dish is topped with thick curls of toasted coconut and crispy duck skin chicharones. The coconut curls give a toasty, nutty accent while the chicharones give it a fatty crunch. My only complaint with my plate is that I have two tiny little chicharones while my fellow diners have several large pieces. (Special thanks to Cookie for tossing a lovely crispy bit my way!) Despite my aversion to pumpkin, I find myself gobbling up the hash with the coconut curls and leaving the meat. I don’t leave any of the cider pairing behind, though. The chef chose the Ginger Peach cider and it works beautifully. The spice and slight heat of the ginger works with the rich duck and the ambrosial qualities of the peach pair with the veggies.

Our fourth course is a banana sorbet, meant to cleanse the palate. It reminds me very much of the end product from one of those “Yonana” machines, essentially blended frozen banana. I opt to cleanse my palate with the earthy Apple Blueberry cider the sorbet is paired with instead.

Dessert is a gorgeous goat cheese cheesecake topped with a bitter chocolate sauce, balsamic reduction, and black pepper candied almonds. Cheesecake is such an omnipresent dessert and so many places serve such mediocre cheesecake that I usually pass it over in favor of an actual cheese plate for dessert. This one, however, is just a flat-out fabulous end to the meal. Coupled with the very bitter chocolate, the peppery nuts and the tangy balsamic, the dense and tangy cheesecake is elevated from simple to scrumptious. It’s served with an Essence of Raspberry, which is a strong, thick, berry-filled cider.

Vander Mill intends to hold monthly cider dinners beginning in 2013. Sign me up for each please!

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