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Restaurants & Bars

Tapawingo - Ellsworth, MI

Tammy Coxen | Jun 25, 200308:19 AM

Someone was just asking about Tapawingo in another thread, so I thought I'd post my review from the weekend.

Saturday night my husband Eric and I went to Tapawingo in Ellsworth, MI. Any SF readers in the crowd will be familar with the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe." Well, Saturday we had dinner at the "Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere." To get to Tapawingo from Charlevoix (a resort town where we'd spent the afternoon), you take the main highway out of town, then turn onto a country road. Travel 10 miles until you reach the stop sign with blinking light, and turn left. Travel a few more miles, and you reach a sign welcoming you the Village of Ellsworth, and a few scattered buildings. Turn left at the stop sign and you'll see a sign on your right that says Tapawingo. So far as we could tell, this would be your only reason for coming to Ellsworth (not quite true, there's supposedly another good restaurant there too, the Rowe Inn). And come they did - the parking lot was almost full at our 7 pm arrival time, and when we left there were cars parked on the grass as well.

Tapawingo has been around for over 10 years, and has gone through a couple of chef changes. Their current chef, Stuart Brioza, was just named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine Magazine.

When I made the reservation, I told them it was our anniversary, and our menus had "Happy Anniversary Tammy and Eric" printed on top - a nice touch. The restaurant is pretty - very open and airy. A little too open, in some ways - our table was on the other side of a half wall from a larger table, and we were less than a foot away from our neighbors. But we had a lovely view of the patio and the lake out of the big windows.

The menu is five courses - two set hors d'oeuvres, and then your choice of a first dish, a principal dish and dessert. The price of your meal is based on your choice of principal dish, and ranged from $50-$58 the night we were there. The complete menu from Saturday is currently posted on the website, but they change it pretty frequently, so it might not be the same depending when you read this (in fact, looking at it closer now, it appears that there are a few subtle differences from what we had Saturday).

We started off with a glass of champagne, it being our anniversary afterall. It was just that night's house champagne (and at $15/glass, not a cheapie) - I can't remember what exactly it was, and it's not on the wine list from the website.

The first hors d'oeuvres was Tomato and Basil "Salad." The quotation marks were a tip off that that this would be something unusual, and it was - a round of tomato gelee on top of basil olive oil, with fresh shaved parmesan and crushed black pepper on the side. All the flavors of tomato basil salad, but with a twist. I thought it was tasty and fun, but Eric found it too frou-frou for his tastes.

The second hors d'ouvres was Chilled Golden Beet Soup. This was served in a tiny little cup, and tasted pretty much just like beets. Which was, of course, the point. Eric, not being a fan of beets, wasn't thrilled with this one either. I thought it was fine - fairly simple and one-dimensional, and not something to write home about, but good.

For our first dishes, we ordered two, ate half, and then swapped. I started with the Seared Spice Cured Salmon - Fresh Hearts of Palm, Avocado, Figs & Fava Beans with Moroccan Broth. This was quite good. The Moroccan broth was intensly flavorful, and the salmon perfectly seared on the outside and still raw in the middle. All of the accompaniments meant that there was quite a lot going on in the dish, but the variety of tastes and textures worked well.

Meanwhile, Eric got the Morel & Toasted Rye Soup - Brie Cheese Custard. The soup was a beautiful dark brown, with lovely tender morels floating in it. In the center there was a little cheesy custard, and the whole thing was garnished with some tiny strips of toasted rye bread. Wow. The soup was very rich and earthy and flavorful, and the morels were, as I've said, lovely and tender. The custard was sort of pointless, however, as the soup overwhelmed any brie-ness to be found. But this was not a dissapointment, as the soup itself was just delightful.

After some discussion with the sommelier (Ron Edwards, formerly of Five Lakes Grill in Milford, who was great), we settled on a half bottle of the 2000 Terrabianca Scassino Chianti Classico for our main courses. At $25 this was an amazing deal. Really excellent wine, with good cherry fruit and plenty of structure and depth.

On to the main courses. Eric ordered the "Tagliata" of Corn Fed Beef Sirloin-Arugula Jus, Lemon Rind & Parmesan Flan, Trumpet Royal Mushrooms & Virgin Olive Oil. Cooked medium-rare, as the chef suggested, we both thought it would have been better rare (but that's how we like our steak, so we're biased). The meat was nicely flavorful, and the accompaniments worked well. The arugula jus was a bright green paste of pureed arugula and was awesome with the beef - I love arugula, and the peppery bite came through wonderfully in the jus. Another cheese custard, but this time it worked perfectly, with the parmesan really front and center.

But I was the big winner in the main course selection. Shrimp Crusted Black Sea Bass - Turnips & their Greens, Shitake Mushrooms, Soy Beans, Vidalia Onion-Soy Black Truffle Oil Vinaigrette. Beautiful presentation: there were two stacked pieces of sea bass, with turnip greens between them. The top piece was crusted with shrimp and sesame seeds. This sat in a pool of the vinaigrette, with four separate garnishes - baby turnips sliced in half to the left, soy beans (edamame) at the bottom, carmelized onions to the right, and mushrooms at the top (both shitake and at least one other kind, maybe enoke?). I just can't say enough about the sauce - light but complex, perfectly seasoned, with sweet from the vidalias, salt from the soy, and depth and earthiness from the truffle. The sauce was very similar to something I'd had at Tribute last year, but much better executed, with a more subtle and less overpowering combination of similar flavors. Awesome. Maybe the best dish I've ever had, in fact.

And then, it was time for dessert. The sommelier came by to see how we'd liked the Chianti, and mentioned some of the dessert wine pairings. Eric and I talked and agreed that he was willing to drive back to camp, so if I wanted to indulge I should, and he'd get a cappucino. The most interesting thing on the dessert menu had to be the Strawberries n' Cream Tart - Pink and Black Peppercorn Cookie Crust, Basil Ice Cream & Strawberry Rhubarb Salad. I seriously regret not ordering it, but I'd been seduced by the siren's song of the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse - Passion Fruit Sauce, Pecan Meringue Cake and Caramelized Bananas. This was a fine dessert, although the mousse was layered between pieces of bittersweet chocolate, so eating it was a bit of a challenge - I ended up striking the chocolate pieces sharply with the tines of my fork to break them up. With it I had the suggested wine, a Banyuls from Domaine de Mas Blanc - there are three on the wine list, and I don't know which I had, unfortunately. As promised, this is a wine that goes very well with chocolate - the nose on it is quite chocolatey, actually, with some hints of cloves and spice as well. A red dessert wine, this is similar to Port, but without the addition of Brandy that gives Port its high alcohol content, and less sweet than many ports I've tried. I like my dessert wines on the less sweet side, so this worked well for me.

Eric had the Tasting of Creme Brulee - Tahitian Vanilla Bean, Raspberry and Chocolate Mint. All three were good, although the just plain vanilla was his favorite.

And then, of course, there were the petit fours. A candied almond for each of us, and a sugared passion fruit gelee and peanut butter-chocolate truffle that we split. The truffle was awesome. We lingered for a bit as Eric finished up his cappucino and I my wine, and then we headed out into the twilight for the drive back to the campground (we were combining my anniversary wish for a fancy dinner with his anniversary wish for a camping outing with friends).

Little bits: Much attention to cutlery - Eric and I got different cutlery from each other for our main courses - I assume that the 3 tined fork and funny shaped knife are considered appropriate for fish.... And how could I forget to mention the bread? The baguette in particular was spectacular, with a perfect crust. Eric was annoyed by the cup his cappucino was served in - it was a fancy painted cup, but the handle was an artsy little thing that you couldn't actually put your finger through, making drinking the cappucino without burning yourself a challenge. He ordered a second cappucino, and they were able to accomodate his request for a different cup. And lastly, Just a little before we left, a four-top was seated across the way from us. The sommelier knew them, and informed them that they wouldn't need menus, as the chef would be cooking for them, and he'd be choosing their wines. Nifty.

We had a really great time, and the quality: price ratio is really excellent - especially if you don't drink wine, or don't drink very much wine. I'd definitely go back - too bad it's just so far away. It's 4 hours away from where I live - in that time I can drive to Chicago, which has good restaurants _and_ other things to do...


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