The story: At Black Star Farms’ Suttons Bay and Old Mission tasting rooms, the wines commandeer customers’ attention. But wines take on a supporting role alongside the real star of the show — raclette cheese — during Matterhorn Grill Dinners at TASTES of Black Star Farms.
The self-guided Swiss-style meals feature raclette drizzled (or ladled — you choose) over vegetables, fruit, meat and bread, grilled on the spot. A trio of Black Star Farms wines complements the food.
It all takes place in the southerly section of TASTES, a combination tasting room/eatery located within the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The now-defunct state mental institution is being transformed into a hub of commercial and residential activity as part of the largest historical restoration project going on in North America right now, said Kevin Culloty, TASTES’ tasting room manager.
The turreted, cream-bricked structure’s labyrinthine lower corridors are now occupied by a variety of businesses. TASTES is situated alongside coffeeshops, bakeries, and the renowned Trattoria Stella restaurant. Day spas, offices and condominiums occupy the levels above. On Saturdays, a farmers’ market sets up shop in the hallway. Across the street is urban winery Left Foot Charley, the Underground Cheesecake Co. and other outlots once associated with the hospital.
TASTES’ four dining areas are nestled within tiny nooks off of a main tasting room, delineated by the brick arches that are abundant throughout the former asylum. Each section is equipped with a round table, formed from a giant barrel, with a small, flat-topped grill at the center that accommodates up to six people.
For $50 per couple, patrons receive a platter covered in sliced apples, colored peppers, onions, zucchini and potatoes; asparagus spears; hunks of sausage, ham and bread; and, of course, thick squares of raclette, a mild, nutty white cheese produced at Leelanau Cheese, based on Black Star’s Suttons Bay site. A small bowl of miniature pickles and pickled pearl onions and garlic cloves, a palate-cleansing touch of the authentic Swiss dinners, comes on the side.
Perched on stools around the circular tabletop, diners grill the veggies, meat, fruit and bread at their leisure, arranging and rotating the food with plastic tongs. The raclette goes into pie piece-shaped devices that fit beneath the grill, melting the cheese for easy pouring. All of the meat is pre-cooked and most of the vegetables pre-blanched, so there’s little chance you’ll be giving yourself food poisoning if your grilling skills leave something to be desired.
Each patron receives a series of three wines alongside dinner. While the staff recommends the “classic” flight of dry white wines (Arcturos Dry Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sur Lie Chardonnay) to complement the meal, per Swiss tradition, there are alternatives for lovers of reds (Isidor’s Choice Pinot Noir, Isidor’s Choice Terrace Red and Red House Red) and sweeter wines (Artisan Red, Arcturos Late Harvest Riesling and Red House Red).
For an additional charge, TASTES’ dessert selection includes brownies and truffles; fruit tarts made by Underground Cheesecake Co.; or a shortbread cookie from Silvertree Deli, also within the Commons. Each comes with a sample of dessert wine. Diners can choose from a number of varieties, including A Cappella ice wine (which retails for more than $90 a bottle) and Sirius maple, cherry, raspberry and pear wines. There’s also French press coffee available from Higher Grounds, a coffee bar and roastery located in the complex.
The scoop: Shannon and I were already huge fans of raclette cheese from our previous visits to Black Star’s Suttons Bay location, so it’s little surprise that we loved the thought of anything smothered in bubbling hot versions of it.
If you’re a fan of fondue, you’ll likely enjoy the laidback feel of grilling at your own pace, dousing your creations with as little or as much of the cheese as you like, and delighting in the shifting tastes of the wines as the meal progresses.
We both opted for the “classic” dry white trio of wines, as recommended, though I — being the sweet tooth of the pair — toyed with the idea of the sweet flight. Kevin and fellow staffer Caren Field, who guided us through the process, warned that the patrons who choose the classic wine pairing typically felt pleasantly satiated at the end of the dinner, while those who picked the sweets generally felt more stuffed due to the heightened sugar/caloric content.
Though the platter didn’t look like much for two, we soon discovered it was more than adequate as we slowly worked our way through the meal the way it’s meant to be enjoyed.
An interesting side note: According to Caren, Anne and John Hoyt of Leelanau Cheese, who met while studying the process in the Swiss Alps, are considered the only “artisan” raclette cheese-makers in North America. Anne often is visible, diligently working, through a wall of windows in the cavernous Suttons Bay tasting room.
For dessert, Shannon and I decided to each get something different and sample each others’ picks. An admitted chocoholic, I gravitated toward the dish that included two truffles and two brownies, while Shannon immediately jumped on the peach-cranberry tart. We followed Caren’s advice on the appropriate accompanying dessert wines: Shannon got the Sirius maple; myself, the Sirius cherry.
Amusingly enough, we ended up swapping desserts halfway through, though I did manage to devour the truffles before he ever had a chance to even glance sideways at them. Both dishes were excellent, though I ultimately preferred the tart and Shannon enjoyed the brownies. While I wasn’t crazy about the dessert wines — I’m generally not a fan of fortified wines — Shannon sipped them with gusto and polished off both.
"Everybody loves cheese. Everybody loves wine," said Kevin. "It's just a great venue for us and ... a great opportunity for us to have our wine paired with food."
For more information on TASTES of Black Star Farms’ Matterhorn Grill Dinners, visit www.blackstarfarms.com or call (231) 944-1349.
Thanks to Black Star Farms for offering us the chance to try the Matterhorn Grill Dinner at no charge so we could film our video feature. We never tout anything we don't like, regardless of whether we received it free, discounted or at full price. For more information about our sponsorship/sample policy, please click here.