Traverse City transcends resort food

The movie "Chef" was showing at the historical State Theatre as Jay Kott sat on the front porch of the nearby Cooks' House. He was licking his plate.

Kott may have been showing off for friends Eric Patterson and Jen Blakeslee, who own the upscale restaurant, but his raves about the food were sincere.

"It's very simple, understated but perfect," he crowed.

Seating just 28, the tiny eatery is among the dozens of bakeries, breweries and restaurants that make Traverse City a dining destination. Despite its modest population of 15,000, this northern Michigan town is in the big leagues when it comes to food.

Livability.com, a relocation website, includes Traverse City among America's Top 10 Foodie Cities for 2014, alongside heavy hitters such as Boston and Washington. This is the second year the resort community made the list.

"We were looking for places where the communities support the food culture," Livability.com editor Matt Carmichael explained. "By that I mean they tend to spend more than average eating out. They tend to eat at nonchain, nonfast-food restaurants."

Locals say they could use all their fingers and toes and still not have counted all the great places to eat. The number of restaurants has mushroomed in recent years, sharing a symbiotic relationship with the growing number of local farms that supply the fresh ingredients.

"Asparagus is in right now. I get that from Empire. These heirloom tomatoes are from TLC in Suttons Bay," executive chef Myles Anton said of the ever-changing menu at Trattoria Stella. "If I feel like doing lamb, I'll call the farm for lamb."

When the Italian eatery opened 10 years ago in the basement of a former mental hospital, the chef was sourcing produce from five local growers. That number has soared to nearly 50.

Anton, however, credits The Cooks' House for using even more local food than he does. The competition among Traverse City's chefs clearly is collegial instead of cutthroat.

"Our clientele, for the most part, is pretty worldly," Patterson said. Diners are sometimes surprised by the laid-back atmosphere.

"We don't take ourselves overly seriously," he said as Blakeslee nodded agreement. "When somebody calls and asks us what our dress code is, it's 'clothes.' That's our dress code. You've got to wear clothes."

Kott wore shorts and a T-shirt as he and girlfriend Michelle Lambert, both musicians from Nashville, Tenn., enjoyed the seven-course tasting menu. It included a chilled tomato soup made from roasted tomatoes and marinated hanger steak with bone marrow potato puree.

"They'll take even the simplest and most humble cut of meat and make it amazing," Kott pointed out between bites. "One of the courses tonight was a braised pig's tail. … Most people would throw that away, but these guys make it something that you would never expect."

In a town nicknamed Cherry Capital of the World, it's no surprise that the crimson-colored fruit pops up in a variety of dishes.

"Probably our biggest seller is our cherry chicken salad. We make our own cherry vinaigrette here in-house," said Dylan Cole, executive chef at North Peak Brewing Co., one of Traverse City's several microbreweries.

"We do a cherry porter barbecue sauce. We put that on our ribs and our fresh Atlantic salmon," he said. "I get all the fruit locally from Graceland farms down in Frankfort."

Farther west along Front Street, the main drag, cherries keep the bakers humming at Grand Traverse Pie Co. Though the bakery has evolved into a restaurant, it's often the pie that draws repeat customers.

Owner Mike Busley, who founded the business 18 years ago with wife Denise, calls it the "power of pie."

"Pie is family. Pie is tradition," he said. "If it's done well, it can resonate. 'Hey, that's what Grandma used to make.'"