Let your senses sail away at this most intimate Northern Michigan dining experience.
I feel like I am on a cruise ship. I think this as my partner and I walk through The Homestead’s Beach Club to dinner at the Cafe Manitou. It is early evening but children still splash in the warm pool. Beyond the aqua pool, the lowering sun splashes diamonds across Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay. It could be the Caribbean—only nothing bites or stings in these waters. From the pool area, a deck leads to where the mouth of the lovely Crystal River meets the Big Water. Nautical flags flap at the deck’s end. The Manitou Islands float on the horizon as a freighter moves across it. Yes, this feels like a ship.
Inside Cafe Manitou, a wall of glass lets in the watery view. In its interior, the restaurant seats less than 50 people. The slim deck that wraps around the outside of the building seats perhaps another two dozen. Michael Bublé plays softly in the background but the real soundtrack is the gentle lap of waves hitting the beach. The atmosphere is intimate, romantic, even sexy.
While the setting transports, Chef John Piombo’s cooking completes the journey. Chef Piombo varies his menu every night according to what is in season and what he can get fresh. But you can always count on a tantalizing mélange of worldly flavors, rooted in fresh vegetables and herbs gathered from the garden he grows between the cafe’s glass wall and its deck, and the best purveyors of local ingredients in Northern Michigan. Tonight’s menu includes fresh Prince Edward Island mussels drowned in tomatoes and basil from the cafe garden and locally grown and produced chardonnay from Good Harbor Vineyards, located just 10 miles north of The Homestead. There are also Chef’s signature jumbo lump crab cakes served with mango-pineapple sauce, house-made gnocchi (a nod to Chef’s Italian heritage), Alaskan halibut and 32-ounce, all-natural Midwest grain-fed tomahawk chop.
We split the mussels and crab cakes. My partner orders halibut and I have the chop. The wine list is ready to take us from Italy to California, so we let it. We sip pinot grigio from Veneto, Italy, with our appetizers, move on to pinot noir from Russian River in California for our main course and finish with riesling from Northern Michigan’s Rove Estate, located just 20 miles from where we are dining. For dessert—house-made pound cake with amaretto, macerated blueberries and whipped cream.
Lovely Neish Graham from Jamaica serves us—her lovely singsong voice accentuating the ambiance. Chef Piombo visits at our table to talk about his cuisine as we savor every last crumb of the pound cake.
Between courses, the sun has set, spreading ethereal shades of orange and pink across the water and sky between Sleeping Bear Point and South Manitou Island.
The pool is empty as we leave. A fat, mango-colored moon has risen to accompany a panoply of stars lighting the inky sky. We stop to find the Big Dipper. The tastes of John Piombo’s cooking lingers. A cruise ship, yes, this experience did indeed feel like that. But there is more. On a summer evening, Cafe Manitou just may count as one of the most enchanting places to eat—on land.
Note: The intimate Cafe Manitou is open only to members and guests of The Homestead. While the cafe is completely booked for the summer of 2021, it’s not too soon to make your accommodation reservations at The Homestead for next summer—and reserve your dining experience at Cafe Manitou.