Eating and art converge at Blu


By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

It’s Devil’s Night, 2010. Great puffs of pink-edged clouds slide south over the backlit dunes across Sleeping Bear Bay, and the sky still shines with the scrubbed look the “storm of the century” gave it a couple of days ago. (There were 75 mile-per-hour wind gusts, and the buoy out between North Manitou and Washington Island registered 21-foot waves!) Mimi and I have come to Blu to celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary, and as we tuck into the corner table looking out, we hear Billie Holliday singing about “ … that moment.”

Proprietors Randy and Mari Chamberlain like to emphasize local sources of everything for the quality that brings to the experience of dining, and our waitress Toni establishes the theme right away. She recommends a Woodland Red from Chateau Fontaine on French Road here in The County, and it is a hearty, full wine perfect for the variety of flavors we are about to sample. With the first pour she brings a nibble snack of Halpin Farm goat cheese with Sweeter Song Farm beets on a tiny square of toast, and we gaze out at the spectacular panorama that surrounds us at Blu. We reminisce about our wedding day all those many years ago in Denmark, the little white church on the hill beside the great oak tree, the all-day feast full of toasts and laughter, the evening banquet of venison at the local Inn, and we notice how the music in the cozy room synchronizes with our memories as Chet Baker croons “There Will Never Be Another You.” (You know how sometimes the music matches up perfectly with the flow of conversation and the unfolding of a meal in a trippy synchronicity, as if you’re in a movie in which even the sound track is scripted to amplify the arc of the evening? This is one of those nights!)

Out comes the bread pulled fresh from the oven daily at 5 a.m., and then Mimi spoons up a taste of the roasted turnip soup with the exclamation “Oh Yummy!” The just-dug local turnips blended with a shellfish stock are garnished with shrimp and smoked pork belly lardon. It is creamy and complex, and we realize that Randy takes no short cuts here — the presentation of each dish, the rich and creative combinations of flavors — everything bespeaks his heightened sensitivity to the artistic crafting of each meal.

Pate’ is my favorite appetizer, so as I turn to Pate’ Maison with mustard and tiny house-pickled carrots, leaks and cornishons, Chet Baker is singing “Time After Time.” This terrine from pork raised in Benzie County is smoky, coarse and earthy, with a brawny rawness to it. As I taste it I hear the blast of a hunting horn from the Song of Roland and smell the loamy floor of the Black Forest as I gallop on a chestnut steed after a wild boar. Such great food is transformative, and we are here to get carried away, aren’t we!

We rest from the appetizers as last light lingers over the bay. The elegant room of white wood and expansive glass, with its geodesic glass roof and corner, is made cozy by the weighty gravitas of the dark oversized leather chairs. Our waitress Toni knows the origins of all the ingredients to the meal from the local farms and vineyards, and she points out nuances of flavors we might miss as she helps with knowledgeable and confident recommendations.

My salad is a soft, airy mountain of greens, pine nuts, and ribbons of Parmesan cheese with a delicate, light, bubbly dressing. It seems to float up into my mouth. Mimi gets a mound of beets, carrots and apples on a bed of lettuce, the colors of which make it look like a still life from the painting studio of Bill Allen or Charlie Murphy. Again, this is food as art. As our salad plates are taken away the night outside has suddenly become dark, like a switch was flicked, and out there past Sleeping Bear Point a 1000-foot ore carrier slides into view, its lights a string of pearls. It looks so placid and tranquil after the violence of three days ago when Keenan May and Lindsay Simmons were surfing in the enormous waves breaking across that shoal. As Chef Randy stops by on his circuit to greet each table the song is (of course) “Someone To Watch Over Me.” We can’t find enough words to praise his artistry and craftsmanship, but our admiration must be palpable in our enthusiasm for his talent.

Then the entrees come, perfect timing. On my plate whole pecans line a perfectly golden ridge of walleye, with squash, baked cheesy potato, carrots, and red cabbage on the side. A green ribbon seals a lemon in a yellow bag. The lovely fish lies on the shoal of roasted butternut squash with the potato squares just offshore crisscrossed by two green beans and two orange carrots. You don’t want to disturb the colorful and perfectly composed presentation, but the aroma leaves you no choice. It is delectable, the walleye flaky, light, and nutty, the scary good Creole menuire sauce like a spicy curse from a dark Frenchman who knows how to make his shipmates nod and chuckle in agreement. To match our wedding day Mimi is having venison with potatoes dauphiniose. These medallions are served with cooked cherries in a fruity sauce with baked butternut squash on the side. There is a subtle edge of wildness to the venison that is a relief from the ordinary domesticity of beef, and the complementary flavors ripple across your palate as a whitetail makes concentric rings while drinking from a pond. The food is heavenly, and now Dianna Krall is singing with her sexy Canadian consonants “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

It’s hard to follow food this delicious, but dessert is necessary, isn’t it? There are amazing choices: vanilla ricotta donuts with cinnamon ice cream (that Moomers makes from Randy’s recipe), opera torte, profiteroles, dark chocolate flourless cake, crème brule. We get a turtle sundae, and it’s devilishly good in its elliptical glass bowl with its thin shingle of stripped chocolate bark. But we must taste the sorbet du jour, Toni insists, so here come two funnel-shaped glass globes, each with two shortbreads and two scoops of homemade burgundy plum or vanilla key lime sorbet, the best fruit sorbet we’ve ever had! It has all been perfect!

People, don’t miss the chance to eat at Blu. There are specials for the frugal: a pris fixe three-course meal for the 5 and 5:15 p.m. seatings consists of a salad, entre and dessert — a nice substantial meal for $26. And on Friday nights you can get two dinners with a paired bottle of wine for $55. (There is also a special Thanksgiving Dinner coming up.) Check out or call for a reservation: (231) 334-2530. You’ll be ecstatic when you do!