Gut Instinct: In a Peculiar State

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


As a native Ohioan, I’m a sworn enemy of all things Michigan. For those not reared in the Midwest this may seem like a quaint hate, a petty provincial battle played out in parts of the country where people say "pop" instead of "soda."

That’s a monstrously mistaken assumption. The odium is real, and its birthplace is the college football field. Every fall, the Ohio State Buckeyes combat the University of Michigan Wolverines in a high-stakes gridiron battle. While the game can get downright nasty, it’s nothing compared to the airing of drunken, bareknuckled grievances between the respective squads’ fans. The animosity is akin to the bile that Yankees fans feel toward the Boston Red Sox, and there ain’t a olive branch big enough to effect peace.

But could grub and grog bridge the yawning divide? In recent years, I’ve found my Michigan stance softening thanks to its uprising of excellent breweries such as Bell’s, Dark Horse and Jolly Pumpkin, but on the food front, I’ve ingested little sustenance from Michigan, a state shaped like four fingers and a thumb. That changed last week at the James Beard House, when I dined on fare from Novi, Mich.’s Toasted Oak Grill & Market. It’s understandable if neither city nor restaurant dings your bell.

A primer: Novi is a western suburb of Detroit, far removed from the Motor City’s destruction porn. Toasted Oak traffics in locally sourced meats—venison, trout, chicken—vegetables and cheeses, including offerings from the world-beating Zingerman’s deli, all served under toque Steven Grostick’s "I Cook Michigan" mantra. "I’m a nut job when it comes to Michigan," says the bearded, affable chef. His is a noble, buzzword-packed endeavor, one that in lesser hands would be driven into a trendy dumpster. But with more than 15 years of cooking experience, the Michigan-bred Grostick’s got the chops, having stewarded award-winning restaurants across the state.

For the James Beard dinner, Grostick filled a van with kitchen staff and Michigan ingredients and wheeled his feast to the Big Apple. The kitchen crew had prepped for days, so when I arrived at the James Beard House—a West Village brownstone that had once housed the eponymous dean of American cooking—the appetizers were departing from the kitchen at a dizzying clip. I started with a skewered short rib braised in Faygo root beer, an indigenous Detroit beverage. The yielding meat packs a subtle sweetness, a flavor matched by a Manhattan made by infusing New Holland whiskey with tart cherries harvested in state. (Fun fact: Michigan produces most of America’s tart cherries!)

After finishing my Manhattan, feeling a boozy flush not fit for summertime heat, I switched to the light, citrus-noted Majestic wheat ale from North Peak. It’s a quenching refresher, a contrast to the smoky, house-made hot dogs painted with venison chili and mustard. It’s called a Coney, but the Michigan-born wiener has nothing to do with the island except, perhaps, a nod to the hot dog’s beachy birthplace. I had three Coneys in lieu of the chicken liver and duck pté—puréed organs are not always a party in my mouth.

Charcuterie? That I can support. For the seated dinner’s first course, we were served a Michigan-shaped cutting board topped with parchment-thin slices of Toscano salami, duck ham and a pork-andbeef hunter’s sausage snuggled up to sweetcorn chutney. Even better were the lightly pickled beets served with butter lettuce and a maple-orange vinaigrette that’s like the marriage of Florida and Vermont. It was a vegetarian breather before the coming carnivorous onslaught. First up was the Great Frickin’ Chicken: the roasted breast of a four-week-old fowl, its crispy ballotine thigh—that is, de-boned—and asparagus as green as the day is long. "The chicken was just slaughtered last week," Grostick told the crowd later, no small measure of pride in his voice.

I finished every fowl bite, a moment of avarice that haunted me with the arrival of the second main course, porchetta. Rounds of pork tenderloin were stuffed with house-hewn kielbasa, then enrobed in apple wood-smoked bacon—a swine-based rebuttal to the turducken. I valiantly ate half my meat before oinking out. Too soon, dessert came in the form of strawberryrhubarb pie and a milkshake made with vanilla bean ice cream. I could only muster several childhood-transporting bites and slurps before I bowed out, a sated blimp. Michigan, as much as it pains me to admit, had won me over. But there’s one more order of business before I could give Grostrick my approving stamp.

"Are you a Michigan fan?" I asked Grostrick, penguin-waddling to the stairwell. "Michigan State," he said, breaking into a broad, unrivaled smile. 

What’s your favorite place in NYC to find Michigan food and drink? Tell me at jbernstein@nypress.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.

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