I finally read our summer copy of Edible Grand Traverse recently and found this great article about one of our customers. Enjoy!
|FARM TO TABLE
Martha and Susi’s Excellent AdventureBy Patty Lanoue Stearns
It’s a busy Friday afternoon in downtown Suttons Bay, and high season is almost here—boats are bobbing offshore in cerulean waters, tourists are wandering in and out of the shops, and the patio’s brand-new overhead sails are officially unfurled at Martha’s Leelanau Table.
Let the summer begin.
Almost from the day the doors of this formerly dilapidated house opened as a cafe in 2008, the buzz about Martha’s menu of fresh, seasonal, made-from-scratch cuisine has been building: glowing mentions in Esquire from chef/restaurateur and part-time Northport resident Mario Batali, raves in the Associated Press and Huffington Post, word of mouth from locals, and visitors’ comments on epicurean and travel websites.
In this particularly brutal economy, a year-round restaurant in a village as seasonal as the menu has to be pretty spectacular to survive, let alone thrive.
Pass through the curvaceous, ivy-wrapped gateway that frames Martha’s and sit on the patio near the newly planted herb garden, or step inside the siren-red farmhouse with the crisp white windows and relax in one of the cozy dining areas. Francophiles feel right at home here, where Provençal style rules—golden-mustardy walls with tapestry-upholstered banquettes, spice-colored linens with an olive motif, soft lighting, and roosters everywhere—collected from decades of excursions to France, Italy and Spain. The atmosphere is friendly and the luscious three-meal-a-day menu comes from a growing number of local farms, wineries, apiaries and breweries. With 50 seats inside and 30 outdoors, it’s the quintessential European café, nestled under a canopy of cedars in tiny Suttons Bay, MI, population 580.
Clad in her signature beret and chef’s apron, Martha Ryan, the cafe’s namesake, joins a table of four friends who are just saying their goodbyes after a long ladies’ lunch. As they leave, Ryan flags down Susi McConnell, the restaurant’s pastry chef, who takes a break from tonight’s dessert-making duties to talk about how their long friendship and philosophy about food makes this restaurant tick.
First off, they note, they’re both Virgos, and their personalities fit the bill for this astrological sign (born between August 23 and September 22)—detail-oriented perfectionists, superlative traits for culinarians, though also a curse, both agree.
“I do like things my way,” Ryan says of her management style. McConnell laughs: “I’m very particular about how I cut things,” admitting she borders on the obsessive. “I measure with a ruler and can’t stand it when someone else makes biscuits and they’re not square.”
On the plus side, they can look at each other when something needs doing in the kitchen or dining room, say one or two words and know instantly what to do.
Ryan, who grew up in Rochester, MI, favors the savory side of cooking: the entrees, the protein, the soups and salads. McConnell, a native of Chesaning, near Saginaw, MI, is the chemist who makes magic with leavening and butter: pastries, breads, sweets and vegetarian fare. Both had traveled to Europe during their college years in the early 1970s and fell in love with the entire culinary aesthetic. McConnell cooked in Switzerland to finance one of her trips. The two met in 1976 while working at the now-defunct Sugar Loaf Resort near Cedar in Leelanau County.
“I worked the front of the house and Susan worked the back,” Ryan recalls. By then, she and McConnell were married and mothers, and their love of travel and good food made for an instant bond. On their one day off during the winter holidays, McConnell hosted Christmas dinner, and it was Ryan’s job to haul over her boxes of Spode china for the perfect holiday table.
As passionate yet practical home cooks, their principles about food still stand today: Never waste anything. Always use what you have on hand, and make everything from scratch. “We always made pizza and macaroni and cheese from scratch,” says Ryan. McConnell, who grows her own produce, makes everything she can herself: currant jam from her currant bushes, candied violets and lemon peel. Batches of almond paste are staples in her freezer.
Over the decades, they’ve worked in all the top Leelanau County restaurants, all long gone: Windows, Hattie’s, Key to the County. Ryan spent 20 years as director of food services for Leland Public Schools, forging relationships with farmers along the way. When she retired, Ryan ran Stone House Café, the sit-down expansion of Stone House Bread in Leland, for six years, did catering on the side and led foodie tours to Europe, all the while dreaming of owning her own restaurant, patterned after her favorite haunts in Europe. It would not be a burgers-and-fries joint, so ubiquitous in the north. Hers would be smallish, stylish, cozy and cool, with fresh food as the focus.
Ryan bid on a wreck of a foreclosed house after consulting with her mentor, former Hattie’s owner Jim Milliman, and architect Judy Balas, a good friend and catering client. Ryan won the bid, Balas and her husband Bruce executed her vision, and a restaurant was born. The core staff expands from five hardy souls through the winter to more than 20 currently—many of them college kids that Ryan knew as babies, and that includes her son, Matt Ryan, another Virgo, the day manager. He also cooks one night a week.
“He’s real precise,” notes McConnell. Her husband Tom does the photographic work for the restaurant’s website and their son Dylan, who grew up with Matt, built and maintains the website.
Despite all the accolades, it would not be like Ryan to rest on her laurels. “I set a very high bar for myself,” she says. She travels twice a year to France for inspiration. Like the cafés she visits there, her menu is simple but sublime, presented texturally and colorfully. “The focus is on simple food, prepared well. We use what we have in Michigan—not something off the truck just because you can buy it.”
Ryan’s beverage list includes high-end soft drinks, local craft beers, wines, hard cider—even tasty bottles of Acoustic Mead made in Lake Ann, plus a handpicked array of international wines.
Today’s lunch, culled from the shoulder season prior to the explosion of fruits and vegetables that will come in a month or so, still sounds appealing: soup du jour and small plates like melted raclette from Leelanau Cheese over potatoes with bread and cornichons; salads like spinach and bacon with French lentils and blue cheese with McConnell’s poufy buttermilk biscuits; sandwiches—maybe a hot turkey, bacon, pesto and Swiss panini on seven-grain bread, or a crusty croque monsieur. Among the desserts, which change daily, today’s hit is a custardy rhubarb dream bar, which seems to be walking out the door with every smiling customer.
The dinner menu features succulent starters such as blue lump crab cakes or prosciutto, Parmesan and savoy cabbage and enticing entrees like herb-roasted pork tenderloin with rhubarb cherry chutney or pan-seared salmon with basil aioli. McConnell’s ever-changing list of pastries by the piece or platter regularly includes a gluten-free offering like tonight’s triple-chocolate mousse torte. After years of working with wheat, McConnell has developed an allergy to gluten, the protein binder in flour, barley and rye. Because of this, she is retiring at the end of the year, if Ryan can finda replacement for her. Perhaps another Virgo?
In any event, it’s pretty clear that Susi McConnell will always be around to shoot her friend that look and give her the word, just to make sure everything’s humming along as it should—perfectly.
• Martha’s Leelanau Table, 413 N. Saint Joseph St., Suttons Bay, 231-271-2344, MarthasLeelanauTable.com. Breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Wednesdays–Sundays, call for hours and specials.
• Martha’s Cook and Dine Summer Series runs July 11 through August 15. The $95 classes for up to ten people include a glass of local wine and a multi-course meal that participants prepare themselves.
Patty LaNoue Stearns is the former restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press and after moving north, the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Visit her website at PattyWrites.com.