Thursday, October 19, 2006

Searching For Deliciousness

My trip to Michigan a couple of weeks ago had two things in common with my trip to Thunder Bay a year ago: One was the opportunity to be awed by the beauty and power of Lake Superior.

The other was the fact that I was less than awed by the food on each trip.

It’s mostly my fault, not only for expecting the fare in Ontario, Minnesota, and Michigan to be some exotic manna that melted on my tongue with the savory taste the Japanese call umami, but for making some dumb choices along the way.

For instance, on my 2005 trip from Duluth to Thunder Bay, I passed countless smalltown inns, diners, restaurants, taverns despite getting hungrier by the minute. Why didn’t I pick one at random and stop? I don’t know, but I think it had something to with thinking I’d find something better in the next town. Of course, without actually stopping to try them out, I had no way of knowing. I think I was looking for a restaurant called “Perfectly Cooked Steak Served By Kate Winslet.”

In any event, I ended up at an extremely mediocre rib place in Thunder Bay. The next day there was some good lasagna at Karen’s Kountry Kitchen, but the day after that I had a couple of run-of-the-mill meals in Grand Marais. Expectations were high, but the reality fell short.

Same thing this year. Driving north on US 51 through Wisconsin, I passed about the same number of little hometown eating establishments as I did the year before. Some of them I just didn’t see until I was past them—and even though I could have turned around and drove a block south to visit any one of them, I pressed on. Kate Winslet’s Steakhouse was surely just around the next curve. So to speak.

As I approached the town of Woodruff, I noticed signs for Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty, which sounded promising if for no other reason than the logging-camp breakfast, which, I hoped, would be available at lunchtime. I made up my mind to drive slow enough through Woodruff that I could see Paul Bunyan’s in time to make a turn.

That’s what I did. I stopped and went inside, and found the inside of the building fairly confusing. There was a gift shop, a lobby, and what seemed to be a couple of entrances to the restaurant. I looked for a sign that said “Hostess will seat you,” but if one existed it was obscured by the thirteen busloads of senior citizens milling around everywhere. I didn’t want to wait, so I kept driving north and wound up at the only Monical’s Pizza franchise in Wisconsin.

Rescued by a central Illinois classic. The lunch pizza-and-salad special at Monical’s rated an A-minus.

When I arrived in Copper Harbor that evening, I realized that the town wasn’t jam-packed with restaurants. Basically, I had my choice of the Tamarack Inn, The Pines Bar and Grill, The Mariner North, and the Harbor Haus. I chose the Tamarack and had the Upper Peninsula specialty known as a pasty. (I learned by dating a girl from Sault Ste Marie 25 years ago that pronouncing pasty with a long A would mark you as a clueless outsider.) A pasty consists of ground beef and pork, potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabagas, all cooked in a flaky pastry crust. Pasties are good. This one was good. That’s about all I can say about it. It was good. I gave it a B.

On Sunday I drove down to Eagle Harbor on one of my picture-taking jaunts and wound up at the Eagle Harbor Inn, where I made an adventurous food selection, the pesto burger, despite being fully aware that pesto dislikes me as much as I like it. Put this in the “dumb choice” category, because pesto, to put it as delicately as possible, makes a very good high colonic. To top it off, the burger was overcooked and most of the pesto fell out of the bun. Not enough of it, as it turned out.

The saving grace of that meal was the onion rings, the best I’ve had. The onion rings got an A-plus, but the pesto burger and its raging aftereffects dragged the average down to a C-minus. There might be blogs that go into greater detail about such things; this is not one of them.

Sunday night brought a trip to the Mariner North, whose sign offered country-style ribs for $13.95. The Mariner is proud of its salad bar and rightly so, but the ribs weren’t that exciting: B. I was back there for lunch the next day because they had free wireless access, so I grabbed a booth, ordered a fish sandwich with fries and slaw, and tried to check my email. Alas, the wireless wasn’t working that day because there was some sort of regional fiber-optic outage. The waiter forgot to bring me my slaw, possibly for the same reason. I had finished my sandwich and fries and had pushed my tray to the other side of the booth before the slaw arrived. “I bet you thought I’d forgotten this,” said the waiter.

I wanted to say I assumed he wasn’t withholding it from me as a demonstration of his all-powerful waitering abilities, but instead I said “Yeah, kinda.” He offered to adjust the bill accordingly, which I thought was nice until I got the bill and found he’d knocked a quarter off the tab. A-minus for the sandwich, B-minus for the experience.

Monday night I went back to the Eagle Harbor Inn, 14 miles away, ready to put the pesto fiasco behind me and sample some other Upper Peninsula fare. How I ended up with the taco pizza I don’t know, but it wasn’t the least bit inspiring. An objective B-minus for the food, lowered to a C for my baffling selection.

On Tuesday I tried the Pines for lunch, because they were another place with free wireless access (which, in this case, actually worked). The menu was fairly standard bar and grill fare, so I wasn’t expecting anything ambrosialicious. Still, I would have liked something a step above high school cafeteria food, and my pizza burger rose just to that level and stopped. It took me right back to 1974, which was an experience pleasant enough to warrant a generous B-minus for the meal.

But I wasn’t looking for vacation food that evoked old memories. I wanted it to create new ones. I wanted an A-plus meal, and I was hoping the Harbor Haus would be the place to find it.

Now, Harbor Haus is the spendiest of the four restaurants in Copper Harbor, and as the name suggests, it has numerous fish-based entrees on the menu. I have no doubt that if I’d ordered a fish-based entrĂ©e, I’d have been thoroughly pleased. However, when I’m in a spendy restaurant, I’m going to order steak. Most people know this about me, especially those who have ever seen me dining on an expense account.

I believe there were only two steaks on the menu, and I ordered the big one. The Cowboy Ribeye, at $27.95. Eighteen ounces of heaven right there, with scalloped potatoes and steamed veggies for my sides. Yes sir, bring me that Cowboy Ribeye—how could I go wrong?

How indeed?

Maybe ribeye steaks are just naturally served thick in the spendier places, and maybe I don’t eat in enough such establishments for that to be fresh in my mind. But as much as I like steak, I find the thicker cuts less tasty, less fun to eat, less worthy of my $28.

So, thanks to my skewed expectations, I was disappointed in a steak that most carnivores would have loved. I’ll give it a B, because, well, it was still steak.

Two meals left in Copper Harbor. For Wednesday’s lunch, I returned to the Tamarack—and found it so crowded the overworked waitress/hostess didn’t have time to seat me. I should have been more patient. I went back to the Mariner, but instead of ordering the tasty fish sandwich I’d enjoyed on Monday, I went with the Italian Galleon—which had Italian sausage, mozzarella, peppers, and marinara.

I’ve never in my life been impressed with marinara on a sandwich. I’ve never finished such a sandwich and said “Wow, the marinara made that a taste sensation.” What’s more, I still know how to read. I’m well aware that m-a-r-i-n-a-r-a spells marinara.

But I choked as bad as I did when I ordered the taco pizza. I just made the wrong call.

D-plus on the Italian Galleon. And then I skipped dinner that night and munched on a bag of those caramel corn pops.

So except for the marinara deal, I can’t say I had bad food anywhere on the trip. What I can say is that I need to stop hoping that I’ll find the holy grail of deliciousness at every little smalltown restaurant.

On the way home the next day I played it safe: Perkins and White Castle.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beauty, Solitude, and the Irish Whistle

Musings From Copper Harbor, October 1

Beauty and solitude.

Those were the two reasons I gave when people asked me why I was going on vacation, by myself, to a remote town called Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

I’m looking for beauty and solitude, I told them.

It isn’t like I don’t get plenty of solitude. I live alone, and I have plenty of time to myself—to write, read, watch baseball, surf the net, and so on. But there’s a lot of time, too, that just feels like cooped-up time: stuck in an apartment with no human contact but a lovely view of the tennis court. Weekend nights, when other people are out with friends, dining, going to movies, and getting laid, I’m still there in the apartment, where, to be fair, I do dine.

So in seeking out even more solitude on vacation, I figure it’s mitigated by the search for beauty. Fortunately the U.P. specializes in beauty. Today I hiked along Hunters Point Trail to a red rocky beach where Lake Superior was crashing and cool breezes were blowing—I found a person-shaped nook in a stack of big rocks and made myself comfortable with a book. Later I drove south on M-26 and found a beach with a 200-yard stretch of rock, 200 yards long, 10 feet high in places, that looks as if it had once been part of a cliff. I got the impression it was a big rock shelf that had fallen from a mountain a million years ago: You can see the various strata in places, at about a 45-degree angle from the beach itself. There are little pools in this stretch of rock where the waves crash over the first layer and then have no way out.

From there I drove south and got a glimpse of Great Sand Bay (didn’t stop because I was getting ready for lunch). This bay is unusual for Lake Superior: Instead of the usual red rocks on the beach, it has what looked to be golden sand. I’m going back for pictures tomorrow when I’m not so hungry.

Tonight I was back at the beach with the big rock shelf, watching the sunset. I read until the light got too dim, then sat there on a high rock improvising Superior-influenced themes on Irish whistle as a freighter slowly crossed the northern horizon.

So yeah, there’s been beauty to go with the solitude.

But there’s been soul-searching, too. I don’t think you can play Irish whistle on a rock in Lake Superior while the sun goes down without proscribing some sense of mystery to the whole thing. I was sitting there thinking “It’s very cool to be sitting on a rock playing the Irish whistle, 700 miles from home.”

My next thought would invariably be “Why am I the sort of person who thinks this is cool?”

And “Why am I the sort of person who would do it in the first place?”

I put the Irish whistle in the backpack this morning, knowing that at some point on this vacation I would use it to serenade the world’s largest freshwater lake. Why? And to what end?

Perhaps it’s because it was so far removed from what I usually do. Usually I sit at my desk and write advertising copy for clients who think they can do it better. Usually I write fiction (when I have some fiction going) that the publishing world has made quite clear they have no interest in reading. Usually I play the piano and write songs no one will ever hear. Usually I sift through online dating profiles searching for someone who might not exist.

Those are my usuallys.

And somewhere among them there must be an explanation of why I felt compelled to stand on a stretch of rock that’s been there for millions of years and ad lib some tunes to a lake that’s been beating on those same rocks for the same amount of time.

Maybe there is no reason other than the fact that I thought it was cool.

And if that’s the case, then there’s another question nagging at me: Why weren’t there more people doing the same thing?