Featured in the January 2020 issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe now.
It’s a frosty night near the far tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, and although the streets of Northport are as deserted as an abandoned movie set, lights are glowing inside The Tribune Ice Cream & Eatery, a Northern Michigan restaurant otherwise closed on Saturday evening, or any evening, for that matter.
A large stock pot of aromatic bouillabaisse, rich with chunks of cod, mussels, octopus and monkfish, is simmering on the stove, easing the bite of the January night and beckoning the weather-hardy for an intimate dinner at The Tribune.
Tonight’s menu is full-on French, and as the winter travelers arrive, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, they dust snow from their coats and hats. Wine bottles in tow, they jokingly utter “Bonsoir,” or maybe “Bonjour,” or some other French greeting, as they take in the cozy, lively surroundings.
The Tribune, housed in an old newspaper building, seats just 24, and is open as a breakfast and lunch spot almost every day of the year. The eatery boasts a street-front ice cream window, attracting happy hordes of boaters, day-trippers and those who call this bayside burg home. In summer, people line up out the door, sometimes waiting two hours, for a classic breakfast: items like huevos rancheros and biscuits and gravy that are not uncommon anywhere, but at The Tribune include locally sourced ingredients and the culinary attention of owner Eric Allchin.
Winter, of course, is a different beast.
“Winters in Northport are quiet,” says an apron-donned Eric, head chef for the weekly dinners, as he tends to preparations in the open kitchen. “We wanted to do something to bring people together, to create a sense of community.”
The dinners began four years ago, not too long after the 36-year-old Eric, a Suttons Bay native, opened The Tribune, looking to fill a void in the local culinary scene. The first two winters just a few dinners were held; last year the dinners became a regular event. Their success prompted Eric and his staff to extend the dinners year round and move them just up the road to a new venue called The Union. It’s housed in the former Anderson’s IGA. “What attracted us to it is the beautiful courtyard that’s attached,” says Eric. The Union acts as an art gallery and event venue, and on Saturday nights is the pop-up supper spot to be.
“At the very beginning, you couldn’t pay people to come here in winter,” Eric recalls. “It’s all worked out well, thankfully.”
Eric, a self-taught chef who honed his skills by listening, observing and surrounding himself with talented people, views the dinners as not only a way to keep winter blues at bay but also a means to retain staff in this small community of 650 in the winter months, when the height of tourist season is a surreal and faded memory.
“I wanted to find a way to keep my staff,” Eric explains. “The dinners are fun for them. They enjoy them, and they get to make money.”
Dinner themes have run the gamut: Spanish, Italian, Thai, Southern Creole, Cuban, Scandinavian and Ethiopian. Helping Eric in the kitchen are Paul Carlson, a restaurateur and chef at the former 9 Bean Rows restaurant in Suttons Bay, and his son, Noah Carlson, 29, a driving force in the creative side of menu planning. Noah is joined by Christian Yaple running The Tribune kitchen on a daily basis, and together this team of chefs dives into researching traditional ethnic dishes, and succeeds through improvisation and their impressive cooking skills.
“As time goes on, people have learned to trust us,” Eric says.
Paul, who studied culinary arts at Northern Michigan University, says serving customers family-style offers them an opportunity to interact in ways they normally would not while dining out.
“I like the fact that we take a room full of strangers, who are maybe apprehensive at first, and by the time they leave, the room is buzzing with conversations, and they have made new friends, and hopefully, experienced some new dishes,” he says.
On this particular night, about 20 people are gathered around a long table—tables of various shapes puzzled together—in the center of the dining room. Tonight’s traditional French classic, fisherman’s stew, comes at the request of Brian Tennis, a regular customer at The Tribune who owns a nearby hops farm and gathered friends for the dinner.
“We’ve gone to a million of these dinners,” says Brian. “In the winter, our population really shrinks—you end up seeing the same eight or 10 people everywhere. The dinners are a good way to meet new people in the area,” he adds. “The fact that you’re all sitting at the same table invites conversation. And the food is so good.
“There are going to be things you’ve never tried before—you have to be adventurous.”
Crispy-fried duck tongue has been a recurring sleeper hit as an appetizer. Eric says it’s a popular bar snack around the world. Duck tongue preparation includes skinning, brining for 12 hours, rinsing and then slow cooking for eight hours. It’s then dusted with flour and flash-fried.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he notes.
Rounding out tonight’s menu: escargot baked in a puff pastry, baguettes baked by Paul and paired with brie cheese, a leaf salad with shaved fennel and slices of blood oranges.Dessert is Meyer lemon tarts dusted with sugar. Coffee is poured with dessert, and Brian passes around a bottle of absinthe, an anise-flavored spirit often associated with Paris. Friends, new and old, take a tipple.
The dinners are a chance for the culinary team to play, stretch their skills. “We draw inspiration from many cultures and the seasonal offerings of the country,” Paul says. “I have an unquenchable thirst for learning about food and food history. We always have the goal of hopefully feeding people something they may not have had before, and some old favorites with a twist.”
Adds Eric, “There are no restrictions. We still source locally, even if the menu is foreign. Sometimes you can’t get a certain product or spice, so we have to adapt and use local ingredients. We like to play with food a lot.”
Part of Eric’s restaurant plan was to create a menu from locally sourced food and products. Eric buys local vegetables, fruits and meats from nearby farms and sources other food and products from some 70 Michigan companies.
“Buying local helps us control the quality,” he notes. “There are so many good farms around here.”
The dinners will continue, stopping only briefly when Eric closes the restaurant for a few weeks before spring.
“It was time for us to start pushing people a bit and see what happens,” he reflects. The results are just what a snowy, stir-crazy Saturday night calls for.
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer and works part time at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula. // Dan Stewart is a documentary photographer, capturing wedding and lifestyle portraits in Northern Michigan.
Book Your Spot
Want in on these outrageously delicious Saturday suppers? This winter they are held weekly on the main floor of The Union at 107 Nagonaba Street in the formerly vacant Anderson IGA building in the heart of downtown Northport. Follow The Union Gathering Space on Instagram. To book a table, email Chef Eric Allchin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheers to Recipes From The Tribune
This Egyptian nut, seed and spice condiment is irresistibly served with warm bread and oil.
- 1⁄2 cup walnuts
- 1⁄3 cup almonds or hazelnuts
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Pinch of freshly cracked pepper
Add nuts to a hot pan and toast until golden, about 5–7 minutes. Add remaining spices and toast for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool and transfer to a food processor. Pulse for about 10–15 seconds until nuts are broken into sand-like texture (don’t overdo it). Transfer to a bowl for serving or keep in an airtight bowl for up to 2 weeks.
Pure and simple comfort for your next dinner gathering.
- 3–4 fennel bulbs, trimmed and halved
- 2 tablespoons butter, cubed
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
- 1 small white onion, julienned
- Coarse salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1⁄2 cups chicken stock, heated
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 1⁄2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange fennel in a 10-inch baking dish, and scatter butter, garlic and onion around fennel. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add hot chicken stock and bake until tender and browned, about 1 hour.
Preheat broiler. Pour cream over fennel. Sprinkle nutmeg over cream, and then sprinkle fennel mixture with parmigiano-reggiano. Broil until golden.