Lobdell’s: Part of the Traverse City, Michigan Area Culinary Movement
The Traverse City, Michigan area has increased its reputation as a vacation destination by nurturing culinary excellence. At the roots of this movement are the local farmers. Agriculture is long-established in the surrounding area and it produces superb ingredients, including not only the ubiquitous tart cherries but also other stone fruit such as apricots, peaches, and plums. There are local apples, corn, tomatoes, squash, berries, grapes, pork, cheese and other dairy products, plus preserves, pies, cider, beer, and wine, as well as many other foods produced in lesser quantities.
The Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Campus on Grand Traverse Bay is also part of this successful movement as many of the school’s graduates and current students are employed at local restaurants. They practice their technique in the kitchens and dining room of Lobdell’s, the culinary institute’s teaching restaurant. While visiting Traverse City, I had the pleasure of eating at Lobdell’s on the first day it was opened to the public during the fall 2010 academic semester. The experience set a high bar for the many excellent meals that followed during the rest of the vacation.
Lobdell’s Location and View
The restaurant is located in a 2004 building that is a modern interpretation of the regionally-popular Arts and Crafts style, designed by a local firm, Cornerstone Architects. The entrance to the second-floor restaurant is by an open staircase in a generous two-story atrium full of sunlight, maritime artifacts, and art. There is a large and well-equipped kitchen area visible behind high windows just before entering the restaurant. I couldn’t help but think that it might be the largest kitchen most of the student chefs will ever work in–restaurant kitchens are usually tiny in comparison.
The dining area, with about ninety seats, has a high ceiling with decorative wood beams. There is an open food preparation area behind a counter where the meals are plated but we paid that little attention because of the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. All of the tables overlook the small harbor where the fleet of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy is anchored and then down the length of the west arm of the beautiful Grand Traverse Bay.
Yes, interestingly enough, the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and Lobdell’s restaurant share the building with the only freshwater-based maritime academy in the U.S. We watched the uniformed cadets maneuvering the tug boat The Anchor Bay while eating and afterwards enjoyed walking around the piers and getting a closer look at the 224 foot training ship State of Michigan, a former U.S. Navy submarine surveillance vessel decommissioned after the end of the Cold War.
Lobdell’s: Seriously Good Food
Lobdell’s primarily serves lunch with some special-event dinners and has limited hours and days of service so reservations are suggested. I was informed that the restaurant may expand service into the summer months as the culinary program grows so summertime visitors to Traverse City may also be able to enjoy eating there in the future.
The menu is created each year by the graduating class to be executed by the subsequent graduating class. It emphasizes seasonal, locally-produced food and has a relatively limited number of well-chosen items that display a wide range of ingredients and preparation techniques. There were two soups; three each of appetizers, salads, and sandwiches; and five main dishes offered at my visit.
For an appetizer, it was difficult to choose between a traditional liver paté and a creamy, cheesy crab dip but I was pleased with my choice of the latter. It was followed by a plate of soup with three varieties of mushrooms then a mildly spicy and sweet grilled ancho chile pork chop with apple salsa and a crustless potato timbale. A very respectable Riesling from one of the wineries up on the Old Mission Peninsula that separates the two arms of the Grand Traverse Bay went very well with the meal.
My friend’s wild halibut was cooked perfectly and served with a delicious braised mushroom vinaigrette. Other dishes on the menu were mussels and linguine, hanger steak, and a spinach, mushroom and feta strudel. The salads we saw on other tables also looked delicious.
Superb Baked Goods at Lobdell’s
The baked goods deserve special mention, both breads and pastries. We were served two breads, one with halved black olives and the other with cheese, both excellent. Even the croutons served with the appetizer were very good. Based on the quality of the bread, I imagine that the sandwiches offered–chicken, turkey breast, and Italian salami and cheese–are able to hold their own against the more traditional main courses. There was fresh, tasty, well-textured bread at other restaurants around town and each time I wondered if this culinary institute had trained the people who baked it.
After the meal, there was an impressive apple-rum dessert, then coffee from a local roaster and house-made chocolates–a nice treat. My only regret was not having room for ice cream.
Even after such an extensive lunch, it would have been a mistake not to indulge in the display case of sweets at the entrance to the restaurant. The pastries may be purchased to take home and it was very difficult to make a decision about which ones to try. Both the classic pear-frangipane and chocolate tarts were were perfectly prepared and would not have been out of place in any reputable Parisian pastry shop.
However, the coconut macaroons were, by far, the best I’ve ever had. Very lightly browned and slightly crispy on the outside but dense, chewy, and moist inside, with the base dipped in good-quality chocolate, they hid a surprise burst of flavor in the middle, of orange zest: a perfect combination of flavors, scents, and textures.
Lobdell’s: A Worthwhile Traverse City, Michigan Restaurant
Overall, lunch at Lobdell’s at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute was the meal I enjoyed the most in Traverse City, despite a deliberate effort to experience all of the top restaurants, almost all of which served top-quality food. It was also an unusual value as the prices did not reflect the cost of the student labor or profit. The beautiful dining room and panoramic view of the bay provided an appropriate setting to enjoy the meal. Most all of the dishes were indeed phenomenal, as the student chef serving as our waiter had declared. However, the quality of what we ate resulted from the enthusiasm and pride of the students who selected, prepared and served it–obviously under expert guidance by the faculty–and it was these students’ palpable excitement that made the whole experience so remarkable.