We head to five must-try taquerias and wine bars for some of Northern Michigan’s most creative flavor fusions. First stop: Alliance.
144 Hall Street #7, Traverse City | 231.642.5545
With a clanging open kitchen, polished concrete floors and arty incandescent fixtures, Alliance has all the aesthetic trappings of on-trend eateries in Chicago, New York and Detroit. The edge, however, is embedded in the name. Fearless young culinarian James Bloomfield and his team craft within the microcosm of each plate a surprising and masterful alliance of flavors, textures, colors and dimension that is wholly fusionistic.
With an obvious fetish for the flavor chemistry of Southeast Asian cooking, Bloomfield laces umami-rich fish sauce, juiced cucumber and peanuts with local apples and raw kohlrabi in his texturally perfect Thai Salad. High quality raw ingredients are likewise a driving force on the menu, with offerings such as chilled octopus with grapefruit, mint leaves, red cabbage and crispy potato chips. Relying on top quality seafood as well as a local supply chain driven by Leelanau County’s Loma Farm, Alliance harnesses a spectrum of product from sunchokes to sea bass in its expressions of seasonal cuisine.
A small but dynamic wine program offers options from local bubbly to Grand Cru Burgundy, while Alliance’s bar embraces the cocktail zeitgeist with signatures like The Alliterate, an elixir of pink peppercorn-infused Pisco, mint and broiled grapefruit.
Alliance Executive Chef: James Bloomfield
Lake City native James Bloomfield’s food fetish was born at the family dinner table eating what he calls “Michelin-grade Grandma cooking.” After stints at Central Michigan University and the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, Bloomfield interned at Cape Cod’s Hyannisport Club, ate his way through Boston’s Chinatown and then went to work for Top Chef and James Beard Award winner Paul Qi, in Austin. James teamed up with Pete Peterson to launch Traverse City’s Alliance last spring, and we sat down to talk food philosophy, flavor fusion and spring pea soup.
Your menu has flavor combinations we’ve never seen in the North.
I pull a lot of my influence from Southeast Asian cooking and that universe of bright, fragrant, spicy, intensely salty and aromatic ingredients. Along the way I’ve worked with Jamaican cooks and Spanish cooks and all those experiences make their way into the food.
Give us a peek into the creative process of designing a new dish.
The real base of every dish is the quality of its ingredients. Nick, from Loma Farm, will bring me something from his garden, and we’ll play around with it. I’m always looking for that salty, sweet, sour, umami combination. This could play out in the sauce, or by pickling some ingredients. For texture we want the contrast between fat and crunch, and I really like to play with hot and cold temperatures on the same plate.
In spring, do your techniques change to accommodate the new set of ingredients?
Once we’re back to dealing with fresh produce like micro-greens it’s generally less prep work and more finesse on the plate. We want to make sure we don’t overpower the bright flavors of ingredients and that usually means less cooking manipulation and more attention to texture and knife work.
How can we amateurs harness spring flavor in our own kitchens?
One of my favorite spring dishes is a simple chilled pea soup topped with sautéed morels. You want to take fresh English peas, blanche them in boiling water for about a minute, then shock them in ice water. While the peas are cooling, sauté some onion and garlic in butter and olive oil until soft and then let it cool. Transfer everything to a food processor with a little salt and a splash of cream, purée until smooth, and then garnish with sautéed morels.
On the Road:
113 East State Street, Traverse City | 231.486.6037
Scarf up sublime street food fusions like Kung Pao Brussels sprouts, chorizo hash burritos and Vietnamese-style pho.
149 East Front Street, Traverse City | 231.943.2793
Mama Lu’s nails the nouveau taco craze with proprietary flavor grenades like the Panza with crispy pork belly, pickled apple and jicama slaw and salsa negra.
Pour Public House
422 East Mitchell, Petoskey | 231.881.9800
Petoskey’s hip wine bar spins comfort food fusions like poutine with Chianti gravy, pinot gris and Gruyère cheesy bread and a kale salad with roasted squash and candied pumpkin seeds.
129 East Bay Street, Harbor Springs | 231.242.4810
Chef Wendy Wagner practices spicy Southwest and pan-Latin fusion with chili-braised short-rib hash, chimichurri crab cakes and craft cocktails like the Indian Summer. (Check out this Q&A with Chef Wandy Wagner for her favorite breakfast potatoes recipe!)
Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey. [email protected]