With a tagline like "local sustainable cuisine" and a reputation for deliciousness, there was no way we could pass up a visit to Traverse City's The Cooks' House.
I should tell you before I launch into this review that it's a bit out of date; since our visit the place has moved into bigger digs and is working on getting their liquor license straightened out.
The old spot was teeny weeny. I think it seated maybe 18. (What is it with TC and intsy dining establishments?) And the kitchen was right there in the back of the room, including a range hood that wasn't quite up to the task of ventilating the often smokey cooking area. The result being that every time Eric, the chef and co-owner, went and put a nice sear on something, we got an intimate faceful and would occasionally tear up.
A glass of wine goes a long way to smooth little ripples like this, but in this case we were screwed. The Cooks' House had no liquor license (legally they can't, because you have to seat at least 30 peoples), and BYOB had just been outlawed by the Traverse City powers that be because obviously the City Council had lost their minds. So we sadly had to leave the bottle of Michigan 2 Lads Pinot Noir we'd brought on the chair next to us.
Not an encouraging beginning to the evening. Luckily, things began to look up from there.
We were given a dish of locally baked bread from Bay Bread. One was an asiago garlic loaf with whole cloves of garlic baked in, and the other was an agreeably chewy multigrain. These were served with local butter and rendered pork fat.
Yes, you read that right.
We were also given a small dish of nicely seasoned pork rillettes that were a little heavy on the orange.
Having never been to The Cooks' House before, we didn't know what to expect in regards to serving sizes. Would the appetizers be small bites appropriate for 1, or large dishes that 4 could easily share?
This is my way of explaining how we ended up WAY overordering. Totally out of the norm for us.
Dishes, more dishes, after the jump.
First course: a salad of sorrel, pickled green beans, tomato, and goat feta cheese, and a soup - creamy leek with a ragout of celery and chicken of the woods mushrooms.
I liked the salad, but it was a bit of a mess - the pickled green beans were very strong, as was the goat feta. It did feel healthy eating an entire plate of sorrel, though (and yes, I am aware that it was covered in cheese. Don't wanna hear it). The soup, on the other hand, we both loved. That September evening in northern Michigan was rather cool, and this soup was soothing and velvety. The ragout of celery and mushrooms was just delicious, encompassing the sharp flavor of celery and the earthy mushrooms into a balanced condiment for the soup.
For our second course (well, third, if you count the amuse) the kitchen split our other salad order. The purslane, warm potatoes, caramelized onions and smoked whitefish salad was one of my favorites in recent memory.
I would have loved about double the amount of warm potatoes, but that's just my carb-loving little heart speaking. The potatoes and whitefish came together to form this smoky, salty, just the right amount of oily combination that was nicely balanced with the bite of the purslane.
Next, a duo of mustard-crusted duck leg confit with orca and black calypso beans and a duck and mission fig terrine with wild blueberry-merlot jam. Orca the bean, not orca the whale.
Very nicely done. The figgyness in the middle of the terrine was a great match for the slightly gamy duck, and the perfectly crisped confit rested on beans I'd never heard of. Orca? Really?
By now, I was starting to get worried...
Hand-cut pasta with parasail mushrooms, sunny-side up guinea hen egg, oregano, and cheshire cheese.
This is one man who knows his way around a mushroom. And pasta. And guinea hen eggs, apparently.
And on to the entrees! Seriously, what the eff were we thinking?
Whitefish with oyster mushrooms, pickled turnips, savoy cabbage.
This sounded a bit odd - a cream sauce with pickled turnips? and was definitely on the strange side, but somehow everything worked together really well. I'm not even sure how best to describe it. There was still the earthy sharpness of the turnip, underneath a light pickling, and the sweetness of the cabbage worked to bridge the gap between pickle and creaminess. And the fish was really good too, even if it was slightly on the blackened side. I ate SO much local whitefish while we were in that area!
White Wyandotte chicken breast and leg stuffed with sweetbreads and apples with swiss chard.
By the time I got this in front of me, I was stuffed. Not with apples and sweetbreads. The chicken was prepared well, especially the moist stuffed leg, and I felt the preparation with the apples and sweetbreads screamed FALL!
The Cooks' House served us a truly great meal, using almost entirely locally-sourced ingredients (their list of farms and purveyors was posted on the wall in the kitchen). Preparations were, for the most part, focused and simple, letting the goodness of the vegetables and meats shine through. My only complaint, besides the liquor license difficulty and the fact that my eyes kept tearing up as smoke issued from the kitchen (both of which issues are likely fixed in the new location), would be the very large serving sizes. I suppose I've just gotten used to small-plate style sharing dining.
On a positive note, we had most of our entrees to take back to our terrific Air BNB digs and eat the next day.
Dinner ended with a pot of assam tea to soothe our overindulged bellies.
The Cooks' House is newly located at 115 Wellington Street. With the larger location, perhaps reservations aren't as much of a necessity as they used to be, but I'd probably still call ahead. 231.946.8700.