I have some family out in Michigan who I don’t get to see nearly enough. So Justin and I planned a road trip out to the Great Lakes’ state for our summer vacation. And of course, this trip revolved mainly around family and food.
BTW – a complete side note: I think I’ve confused enough people in my real life, and at this time have decided to put an end to that. Justin’s real name is Jason. When this whole thing started, we both were uncomfortable with having our personal lives so public, but now we’re at a point where people in the real world (the ones who know who we are) are actually confused about his real name and are calling him Justin. I’m going to remain anonymous though, to those of you who haven’t yet figured me out… Baconboozer is way cooler than my real name, anyways.
Back to the point: I’ve already featured a lot of these photos on my instagram @bacon_boozer, as the trip progressed. But I thought instead of only focusing on the one or two standout restaurants with specific reviews, I will be writing about the trip, beginning to end.
And this is how it started out, Day 1:
Jason and I left our house on Sunday morning, ready for the drive, and for the numerous stops we had planned. But we were unready for the deadlands that were in between those stops. We left the house at about 8:30 am, and were well into Pennsylvania by lunch time, when we realized we were stranded. The only restaurants we could find on GoogleMaps were… scary. So we opted for McDonalds – something I haven’t eaten for at least two years. First of all, I saw a cockroach as I walked to the bathroom before we even ordered. I don’t know how or why this did not send me running away, but I had to pee and I was starving. Next, I choked on a chicken nugget – this should have been another sure sign. As I loudly hacked up the chunk of unchewed “meat,” I should have known that the Big Mac was a terrible idea. But I pressed on; as I said, I was really hungry. As we re-entered the car for the rest of our trip, I felt my body and organs begin to hate me. I started to sweat, and fall into unconsciousness. Ok, I am exaggerating a little bit. But I really did feel like shit. It just made me wonder what the hell is in that crap that I could so instantly feel a difference in my entire body?
Anyways, we managed to drive the remainder of our trip and made it to Cleveland, Ohio by about 5:30pm. We had a hotel reservation at the Westin, and a 9:00 reservation at the restaurant inside of the hotel – Urban Farmer. Obviously we had found the restaurant first, and then were delighted to find a hotel so conveniently attached.
Cleveland was… interesting. And by interesting I mean an absolute shit hole. First we should have known something was amiss when we initially tried making reservations at six other restaurants, and none of them were open on Sundays. So that scratched Michael Symon’s restaurants Lola and Lolita off the list. When we arrived and tried to check in (at about 6:00 pm), the hotel informed us that our room was not ready. When we asked when it would be ready, they, “could not tell us that.” So that was annoying. We don’t exactly own luggage, so Jason and I sat in the lobby for about a half an hour with our (literally) eight duffle/tote bags. The hotel was going to call us when the room was ready, but after a little time had passed, I started to get furious – check in was supposed to be available at 3:00, so this was ridiculous. I was even more pissed when I went up to the desk to ask again when our room would be ready, and the woman replied, “Oh, it’s ready! You didn’t get a phone call?” No bitch, I’ve been sitting in your lobby 15 feet away from you, irritated and staring at the phone; I definitely did not get a call. Deep breaths…
So we checked in, and the room was actually very nice and spacious. I started to feel better. Since we had a few hours to kill, we thought we should go explore the exciting city of Cleveland. You’ll notice there are no photos of this city, whatsoever. That’s because I was too afraid to take my phone out.
The end message: Don’t go to Cleveland. It does not “rock” as the Drew Carey show’s theme song misled me to believe. And that crowd of people running down the street with him? They don’t exist. It’s all a lie. We walked around for about an hour, me clutching my purse and sweating profusely, Jason trying desperately to locate any bar or restaurant that was actually open. We walked past countless abandoned buildings. In fact, we could smell the musty moldiness of those buildings as we walked through the streets. The only people we encountered were ones that asked us for spare change or were talking to themselves. We actually watched a man pick up a random drink from the sidewalk, smell it, and then drink it. That sight made me feel awful – homelessness is a real problem, and I wanted to help him. I would have offered to buy him a water or snack, but there was nowhere open to do so, and taking out my wallet to give him cash seemed dangerous; I’m sorry, homeless guy.
So we returned to our Hotel/restaurant and just opted to eat dinner a few hours earlier than planned. Somehow, in this despondent city, we managed to still find a pretty cool (albeit, the only one) restaurant: Urban Farmer. Our meal:
- complimentary corn bread – the best moment of my life – it came out of a warm canister and was glorious
- charcuterie: excellent – a highlight of the meal
- charred octopus: pretty good
- Caesar salad: ok
- crispy sweetbreads: overcooked, dry, and unbearably over-salted – possibly a mistake in the kitchen?
- NY steak tasting: we liked the corn-fed and the dry-aged selections, but found the grass-fed very chewy and tough
- Dessert was the s’more, which we easily could have done without – it was boring
To drink I first did the Murray Hill (because it had prosciutto in it) and it was good but super sweet, and next I did a basic Old Fashioned with Knob Creek bourbon – delish, but still a little sweeter than we prefer. Jason did the American Gothic (apricot infused), also very sweet, and then the Vieux Carre – yum.
Since we were done with our meal by 9:00, and terrified to try to do anything else, we headed to bed super early and were up first thing in the morning to finish our drive out to Michigan.
We purchased some safe and relatively healthy breakfast options from Starbucks (also safely nestled inside of our hotel), and hit the road. We made it to Ludington by about 3:30, and were happy to find this picturesque building as our bed and breakfast: The Inn at Ludington. It was definitely very old, with a lot of “original” features inside, but it was clean, well kept, and really beautiful. The staff was absolutely lovely too – that seemed to be the case with most people we met in Michigan.
Our time in Ludington was essentially family based. I have a cousin – Brian – who is newly married with a beautiful baby boy who lives in and owns a few bars in the town. And then his father and brother live about 45 minutes away, as well as my other cousin and her beautiful daughter and family. After checking into the bed and breakfast, we walked over to my cousin’s bar – The Mitten – a few blocks away. I may have some bias with this place, but it really is a cool concept: all Michigan products, mainly beers, and some pretty cool Michigan booze, too. We did a quick flight of beer, and embraced the education Brian happily shared with us on the different varieties he’d chosen for us. Then we headed to visit his wife who was finishing up at work, and then walked out onto the pier, to a lighthouse right off of their beach. Ludington, I found, was a tiny, tiny town, but gorgeous and full of friendly, happy people.
For dinner, that night, we headed to Bluefish, a few miles away in Manistee, Michigan. The meal there was great:
- dirty gin martinis (yum)
- pork belly – delicious
- smoked whitefish dip – really, really good (reminds me of childhood)
- entrees – we each did our own – I did the scallops, and they were great
It was a really fun meal, and so nice to spend some time with Brian and his awesome wife, Megan. Not to mention their perfect son, who did an amazing job of being adorable and quiet during our meal – I was impressed. After dinner, Brian dropped Megan and the baby off home, and took us on a little tour of the town, which became slightly a blur: I know it involved his other bar – Barley and Rye – which has a pretty impressive selection of bourbons that we were able to taste. Then I know there was a beautiful and wonderful Nascar themed dive bar, where Jason and I had a few bud lights and ended our night. We walked back to the bed and breakfast and got a great night’s sleep.
At about 8:00 am I heard the rustling of Jason maniacally “getting ready” for breakfast (downstairs), as he was panicked that we would miss it – just another reason why I really love him.
Breakfast started at 9:00, but he simply could not wait (“I’ve been smelling sausage since 7:00 am!”) so we went down at 8:30, and I was so impressed and surprised by the quality and variety of food coming out of the tiny little bed and breakfast kitchen. Our meal included: juices, coffees, teas, fresh made bread with a variety of spreads, homemade oatmeal, a sausage breakfast burrito, french toast, cereals, fruit salad, yogurt, bacon, eggs, sausage, sausage hash with sunny side eggs on top, quiches, and probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting. It was the best homemade breakfast I think I’ve ever had. So if you’re ever in Ludington, make this bed and breakfast your choice.
After the feast, we needed a food coma/nap, so we did that. Then we decided to take some time to explore Ludington on our own. It turns out that we pretty much saw all of it the day before, with Brian, but it was nice to just walk in and out of some shops. We discovered Kilwin’s chocolate shop and tasted a chocolate peanut butter blob and cashew turtle (glorious). And then walked back out to the pier to relax for a bit.
At about 3:00, Brian was finishing up with his work for the day, so we met him and headed over to Blu Moon Bistro for “a light snack”…
Jason and I ordered the chicken livers and lobster nachos. Neither of which were light, at all. In fact – they were both the heaviest things to eat, ever. The nachos were a little over-doused in sour creaminess, and the lobster flavor got lost, but the gluttony felt so simultaneously awful and good. After our “snack” we headed to Brian’s house, where the rest of my family in the area would be meeting us for dinner. Brian had been playing with his new sous-vide (Justin already ordered his on the drive home), and made us some 72-hour sous-vide short ribs and pastrami – omg amazing. But more importantly I got to spend time with my Uncle, cousins, and the kids. Of course beer, wine, and bourbon were all invited and present, too, but it was just a perfect night of catching up and laughs.
We hung out at Brian and Megan’s for a while after everyone else left, and eventually headed back to the bed and breakfast for our last night in Ludington.
Of course, we did not miss the bed and breakfast feast on Wednesday morning, and then we hit the road to head for Grand Rapids, what we referred to as the selfish/gluttonous portion of our trip. I had psychotically researched restaurants and things to do in the area, and had mapped out the entire stay there. We were surprised and happy that when we arrived at our hotel – CitiFlats – at about 11:00, they had our room ready for us. I had asked for an early check-in, but knew that 11:00 was really early, so we were prepared to leave our bags in the car and have to wait a while. What a difference from Cleveland. The hotel was beautiful. Clean, neat, and “green,” there were some cool and unusual features throughout, and the bed was exceptionally comfy. Plus, I wasn’t prepared for the awesome bar/lounge area, called “CitySen,” in the hotel’s first floor – way cooler than I expected. So we checked in and headed out into the city to explore.
First: we did lunch at Bistro Bella Vita. I was curious to see how a “great Italian” restaurant in Michigan would compare to the billions of them in NY. Honestly, I had low expectations, but it really was a surprisingly good meal. It was a nice mix of some traditional, simple dishes (bruschetta and pizzas) and some more unusual stuff (what we like to see).
We went with:
- we each drank a glass of pinot noir
- wagyu beef carpaccio: the beef itself was okay but the cheesey puff balls that came with the dish were incredible
- Caesar salad with anchovies: delicious
- duck ravioli (photo below): highlight of the meal, for sure: the brown butter, sage, and honey flavors were a weirdly sweet balance with the generous portion of duck in each bite – great
- dessert: we each did a scoop of their brown butter gelato, one with pistachio cinnamon caramel, and one with maple caramel – amazing. Such a perfect dessert.
Believe it or not we were proud of this lunch as being one of our “lighter, healthier” meals of the trip.
After lunch, we walked around Grand Rapids for a bit, into some fun shops. It’s a small city, but clean and busy and very cute. We now officially compare all cities to Cleveland, so we were relieved to simply see people in each other place we visited. Plus, there was another glorious Kilwin’s chocolate shop here! Thank God. Souvenirs for our families (and ourselves) checked off the to do list.
We had 3:45 reservations for massages and facials at the JW Marriot Hotel, a few blocks away. We each did an 80-minute deep tissue massage which was absolute perfection – so relaxing. The facial was ok. I hadn’t had a facial in probably 15 years, and Jason had never had one. I didn’t really notice a difference in my skin at all afterwards, and it was just weird having someone massage a thousand creams onto your face and wipe them off. Next time I’ll stick with just the massage. As we paid the bill, I was pleased to be given a minty chocolate: JW Marriot, you got me with that. I did order a dead sea mud mask from amazon to do my own facials, going forward, since I’ll probably never pay for another professional one.
We took quick showers and got dressed for the rest of our night. Our hotel had lured us into the bar with a “half off any bottle of wine under $90 on Wednesdays” tactic. Obviously, we couldn’t miss that opportunity and chose a local wine.
After our wine, we headed to Cygnus 27, a restaurant on the 27th floor of the Amway Grand Hotel a few blocks away. I had heard and read mixed reviews of the food, but was so excited when we arrived coincidentally, just minutes before sunset. The view of that, plus of the whole city for the rest of our meal, was amazing.
As usual, we were overwhelmed and panicked by the menu, ordered way too much, and then proceeded to eat every single bite:
- drinks were the aperitivo de Jalisco martini and the 27th floor Manhattan martini
- albondigas (chicken meatballs): delicious – Indian flavors throughout and tender meat
- lamb empanadas: unusual and good
- halibut ceviche: not something we were too excited about, but the waiter convinced us and we were happy he did
- duck flauta: pretty good
- manchego fritters: great
- goat stew: least favorite: we were most excited about this and most disappointed
- crab pazole: eh, underwhelming
- grilled octopus: very good – different touch with the smoked almond crunch
- dessert: chocolate sphere – possibly the best dessert I have ever, ever had.
Overall it was a very good meal. Not the best I’ve ever had, but after reading some negative reviews I had pretty low expectations of the food, and was pleasantly surprised. Three stars, here, Cygnus 27.
We slept off that meal, and the effects of its beverages and woke up the next morning in desperate need of coffee. We found a tiny local coffee place, and shared a croissant, but wanted to save room for the lunch ahead of us. We had 12:00 reservations at Leo’s Restaurant – a seafood place that had been highly recommended by several people. So we headed there, and had yet another very good meal.
- To drink, we stepped out of our norm and went with a glass of white wine each (that’s what you’re supposed to drink with seafood, right?)
- seafood cake duet: great – the two different styles were each paired with a different sauce, and were equally tasty
- Caesar salad (as usual) – a great one though, heavy on the anchovy and a little bit of an unusual dressing
- wild mushroom escargot: this was raved about by the waiter, and we were a little disappointed; we thought the mushroom and the escargot should have been the stars of this dish, but they were way overpowered by the heavy goat cheese flavor – we thought something a little milder would have been a better cheese choice
- seared sea scallops: cooked perfectly, a great dish
- salmon and corn chowder: great; even though I could see the celery in it, the other flavors were yummy enough to make me not mind it
We took some more time to explore Grand Rapids, and were excited to find the Old World Olive Oil Co., where we picked up some mushroom sage oil and lavender vinegar, and a couple other fun things that Jason is pumped to get cooking with. We spent a few hours in the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which was a fun way to break up our day without focusing on feasting. And we picked up cappuccinos from MadCap, a cute little coffee shop in the center of the city.
After our coffees, we showered and got ready for the next adventure: a wine tasting at Reserve Wine & Food. This is something, if you are ever in the vicinity, you should set aside some time to do. First of all, the place was a lot more impressive than I expected. We arrived a few minutes early, and sat at the bar for a drink, where the bartender was super knowledgable and excited to give us a great sparkling wine to start out our tasting. We moved upstairs, and I expected a few glasses of wine and the option of a few small bites on the menu. But the charcuterie list was outstanding – so even though Jason and I had a big dinner planned for after the tasting, we had to try a few things, including speck, head cheese, and some highly recommended cheeses.
The sommelier, Peter, was extremely knowledgable and happy to help us move through our tasting a little bit faster, as we had a 9:00 dinner reservation. The tasting itself cost $20 per person, and was well, well worth it. He filled our glasses with each wine, and offered refills throughout the event. The charcuterie board was delicious, and the other menu items sounded pretty awesome, too. It was my first ever taste of head cheese which, as gross as it may sound, is glorious and I am in love with (it’s the slice of meat in the center of the charcuterie board above). I was upset that we hadn’t set aside time to have a full meal in this place. We left with four bottles of wine that we purchased, and are excited to use for a special occasion, and Uber-ed to Grove, a place just a little out of walking distance. The Uber cost $4.55, what a difference from New York!
Grove had come highly recommended by both Yelp and many other local people, and it wasn’t hard to see why after just a few minutes there. The manager, Jill, and our waiter were both super welcoming and warm, and excited to explain their menu and the chef and restaurant’s concepts. It’s an earth to table style restaurant, and as per their website, they consider, “the best dining a celebration of honest food and the local people who are passionate about growing, raising, preparing, and savoring the bounty of the earth’s harvest.” This proved to be the case.
For our meal we did:
- amuse bouche of baby octopus confit: a perfect small bite to start out the meal – different from a lot of other octopus dishes I’ve tried, flavorful and tender, and plated beautifully
- chicken liver pate: delicious, can’t really ever go wrong with that, in my opinion
- coconut dumplings: super tender, great flavor, and very unusual, these were like beautiful and perfect little baby coconut gnocchis – this was a definite favorite of ours!
- buttermilk grits: a little spicy which we were surprised by, but in a good way; nice barbecue flavor
- calabrian chili spaghetti: also a nice little kick to it, but so delicious – a nice mix of house made ricotta, some delicious lamb, and I’m pretty sure they said cocoa cauliflower? – amazing… pasta/noodles turned out to be a theme of this meal, and we were not disappointed by this dish
- house made ramen: this dish we were slightly underwhelmed by; it was tasty, but not at all a typical noodle-packed ramen – our waiter described it as “more of a pho,” which rang true – it just fell sort of short; it was an absolutely beautiful dish, however, and I’m obsessed with the photo I took with it’s glistening yolk
- desserts our waiter chose perfectly for us: salted dark chocolate fudge and dilly’s favorite butterscotch pudding
Dessert was definitely another highlight, and we were informed that while the overall menu changes often, those two items are constants and favorites at the restaurant, so be sure to give them a try. The salted dark chocolate fudge was pretty killer.
On Friday morning, we checked out of the CitiFlats hotel in Grand Rapids, and made one final stop, which had come highly recommended by pretty much every we met: Marie Catrib’s. While it looked like a great spot for any meal, we got particularly exciting reviews about their breakfast, so that’s what we did. I must say, I was a little disappointed. The food was delicious and beautiful, and portions were generous. But I had been told fairy tales of these exotic and exciting breakfast options, which seemed to be missing when we arrived. Jason went with the corned beef hash, and I went with the stuffed French toast (caramelized bananas, peanut butter, and cream cheese). Don’t get me wrong – these were extremely and perfectly yummy dishes. But they were the “craziest” things we could find on the menu, and unfortunately, they weren’t really that crazy. Delicious though – we left fully satisfied, and ready to hit the road on our way to our final night in Pittsburg.
corned beef hash at Marie Catrib’s, grand rapids
We arrived to the Omni William Penn Hotel at about 5:00 and check-in went smoothly – yet another indication that any city in the entire world is better than Cleveland. As per usual we had planned this overnight stay entirely around a restaurant: The Butcher and the Rye. We had 8:30 reservations, so after check-in, we freshened up and took some time to explore Pittsburg. The exploration was ok; there seemed to be some decent bars/restaurants around. But by about 7:30 we hadn’t found anything too exciting, and just decided to make our way to The Butcher and the Rye a little early.
Out of all of the restaurants we had planned to visit on this trip, The Butcher and the Rye was the one I was most excited about. Their menu seemed interesting enough, but their instagram (@butcher_rye) was full of wacky and mouth watering dishes. They seemed to be a very Brooklyn-esque sort of place – hipster vibe with an excellent bourbon/rye selections, and food that pushes some limits.
As usual, deciding what to order was painstaking, but we worked our way through:
- to drink: first we did “if I could turn back thyme” and “victory dance” (right and left, respectively in the photo below), followed by a gin martini for myself and an Old Fashioned for Jason, followed by a Manhattan with the bartender’s recommendation for rye for myself and an ounce of Whistle Pig Boss Hog for Jason
- charcuterie board: great, always a winner in my opinion
- pig candy: tasty, but not what I expected or what the waitress described
- dry aged tartare: absolutely delicious, definitely a highlight of the meal, it turned into a creamy meat bomb when we broke the egg yolk over it
- Sunday gravy (with lamb neck): must, must, must do, if you ever go – a cool take on the typical Italian’s Sunday sauce, where you’d sneak into the kitchen with a nice piece of bread to dip into the sauce while you gave it a good stir, but holy crap that flavor of the neck was to die for
- dirty pasta: yummy, creamy, cheesy, sagey – lots of things that I like
- pig face and beef heart ragu over grits (special of the day): outrageous – I had seen this as a potential special on the restaurant’s instagram, and prayed and prayed for it to be on the menu, and my dreams all came true. This was amazing and perfect.
- dessert was pot de creme – it was great, but not the most exciting part of the meal, for me
While the food really did speak for itself as excellent, I have to say, I did not love the experience at this place.
I’ve been trying out a new approach at restaurants: I have been calling a few hours ahead to confirm our reservations and to let them know that Jason and I are pretty adventurous and passionate eaters and would love to meet the chef, get a chance to peek into the kitchen, or have anything off the menu that the chef recommends… just to kind of give these places an inkling that they have some major foodies on hand who really, truly appreciate great service and restaurant experiences. I have learned that some chefs keep certain items off the menu either just for fun, or because most people are uninterested in some of the crazier stuff. I’ve also learned that chefs tend to be really passionate about their craft, and enjoy meeting and interacting with people who can recognize and appreciate that. So that’s the theory behind the new approach.
So I had said all of that to the hostess a few hours prior, when I called to confirm our reservation. I mentioned it again to our waitress, saying that we are from New York, super adventurous, and would really love to try anything different or exciting from the chef. She kind of instantly dismissed that and told me the only things that change are daily specials. When we asked for her advice on what to order, she was less than helpful. Her vibe throughout was just not warm. At the end of our meal, when we said we wouldn’t be able to take any leftovers home because we’d be driving back home the next day, she seemed surprised, and asked where we were from, obviously not having listened to my introductory spiel (“We’re really excited, we’re pretty big foodies from New York…”), at all. The whole time, I just felt like I was inconveniencing her by asking questions. She described the pig candy as a “small bite,” that turned out to be a pretty big hunk of meat, I think because she just wanted us to order more. On top of that, while the whiskey selection was absolutely incredible, their cocktails were too sweet and too weak for me. After three cocktails, I should have been pretty buzzed, and I felt absolutely fine. I don’t know, maybe I should have stayed with simple/basic bourbon drinks, but I just wasn’t thrilled.
So, while the food at Butcher and the Rye was probably the most innovative that we had had the whole trip, my favorite experiences were those that we had at both Reserve Food and Wine, and Grove restaurant in Grand Rapids. The food and drinks at both of them were absolutely delicious and exciting. But more importantly (to me, at least), the staff of those two places were excited and passionate about their product. They understood our passion, and because of that, spent a little extra time explaining things or asking questions about us. Of course, restaurants are about food. But the people who are making and presenting that food are the first and last impressions. Unfortunately, the bitch at the Butcher and the Rye left a pretty awful taste in my mouth. Jill and Nick (Grove), and Peter (Reserve) were beautiful, informative, and passionate people who left me wishing that Michigan wasn’t a 12-hour drive away; I’d love to revisit both of those spots!
The next morning we were just excited to get home. We packed up our totes and duffles and got the buffet breakfast in our hotel, which was pretty impressive I must say. However, after feeling like a giant vat of animal lard for a whole week, I just went with some organic cereal and soy milk. We hit the road, and made it home by about 3:30 pm.
And now, here we are, back to our real lives. I’ve been squeezing in writing this epic post between home cares and errands for the last four days.
Also, I am in a wedding this coming Saturday. Upon returning from vacation I picked up my bridesmaid dress which is now awfully snug. So meals have been comprised of yogurt, homemade smoothies, Freshdirect salads, and human sized dinners at home. I wish every day could be vacation…