November 16, 2018

Charlevoix’s French Quarter

By Janice Binkert | June 23, 2018

You’ve no doubt heard the old adage “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” Well, at the New Orleans-inspired French Quarter bistro in Charlevoix, there is a strong case for taking that philosophy to heart, because the lunch and dinner specialties there are so intriguing, you might find yourself indulging to the point where you have no room left for sweet endings. And you’d be forfeiting more than just calories to have to pass them up.

Here’s the unexpected twist: There are only two items on the dessert menu, and two of the three ingredients in them are exactly the same: Murdick’s vanilla ice cream and a bourbon caramel glaze. Nevertheless, like many before you, you will probably find yourself going back and forth trying to decide what to order – the pecan and chocolate chip cookie or the seasonal bread pudding.  And in the end, unless you are dining alone, you will probably order both. Why? Did I mention that these decadent delights come out with all of their goodness sizzling in a hot skillet? ’Nuff said.

Here’s the unexpected twist: There are only two items on the dessert menu, and two of the three ingredients in them are exactly the same: Murdick’s vanilla ice cream and a bourbon caramel glaze. Nevertheless, like many before you, you will probably find yourself going back and forth trying to decide what to order: the pecan and chocolate chip cookie or the seasonal bread pudding. And in the end, unless you are dining alone, you will probably order both. Why? Did I mention that these decadent delights come out with all of their goodness sizzling in a hot skillet? ’Nuff said.

SPICE IS NICE (BUT NOT A MUST)
Enticement comes in many forms at the French Quarter, including the many “irresistibles” on its Cajun- and Creole-inspired lunch and dinner menu, as well as the restaurant’s enviable location overlooking picturesque Round Lake harbor and the historic drawbridge over Pine Ridge Channel, just steps from Charlevoix’s charming downtown shopping district. Think this kind of cuisine might be more than your palate can handle? Chef Matthew Weeber is quick to dispel a couple of common misconceptions: It’s not all spicy, and it’s not all made with “exotic” (for northern Michigan) ingredients like alligator, crawfish, okra and collard greens, though they of course do show up in some dishes on the menu.

“First and foremost, I am a local foods-focused chef,” he explained.  Like the French Quarter’s owners — Petoskey natives and longtime friends Eric Hoshield (a restaurant veteran who serves as general manager), Justin Manthei (a lifetime foodie) and Paul Lefevre (a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon) — Weeber is committed to using local products, supporting the communities in this area, and providing the freshest ingredients possible.  “Our first choice is always Michigan products if we can get them,” he said, “but we also source nationally and internationally — things that make sense, like our gator and crawfish from Louisiana, for example. There too, we seek out wild-caught and sustainably grown or raised products.”

Said Hoshield, “Now that we’ve been working with local farmers for a while, we’re gradually building up our own network of people who will grow or make things especially for us. It’s good for them, because they know they will have a regular buyer, and it’s good for us, because we know we will be able to get enough of a certain product from a supplier we trust. Even our Bulgarian style feta is a Michigan-made.” 

NOLA CLASSICS
If you’ve visited New Orleans, or even if you’ve only read about it, you probably know that certain dishes are ubiquitous to the city. You’ll find those and more here, too — sometimes with a local spin. Ever try étouffée made with lake trout (pictured)? John Cross Fisheries and Chef Weeber make that a possibility. The French Quarter’s gumbo, which starts with a flavor-packed darkened roux that cooks for nearly an hour, is available in a cup, a bowl or as a main course. “We add okra, our house-smoked and pulled Ebel’s pork, and a top-of-the-line andouille, and serve it over rice — it really comes together beautifully,” said Hoshield. One of the French Quarter’s most popular appetizer staples is shrimp and grits.

“The grits are a coarse-ground Italian polenta, so they really hold their body well,” said Hoshield. “We stir in smoked cheddar and top it all with Beeler’s bacon – a high-quality, sustainable, farm-raised product from Iowa with great flavor. The dish is finished with sautéed sweet freshwater Gulf shrimp from Texas and a New Orleans-style barbecue sauce, which has a vinegar base and is a little thinner than traditional barbecue sauce. It’s a very well-balanced dish.” Another appetizer hit with customers is gator balls – kind of like croquettes. The alligator is marinated to soften it, then minced and mixed together with risotto, rolled into a ball, coated in cornmeal, fried and served with our house remoulade sauce.”  The iconic po’boy and muffuletta sandwiches get their due here, too, the latter with all of the classic elements plus the addition of artichoke hearts and chickpeas.

Vegetarians take note: While the French Quarter menu may at first glance seem animal-protein heavy, it also features several meat- and seafood-free options, and some other dishes can be adapted to be vegetarian upon request. Three-mushroom ravioli with garlic and parmesan, baked feta with spinach and tomato on house-made herbed focaccia, and red beans and rice (the collard greens are cooked without pork) are just some of the available choices, as well as various salads and soups, and two pizza variations.

WAIT ­— PIZZA?
Hoshield, Manthei, and Lefevre acquired a pizza oven as part of the deal when they bought the restaurant (formerly the Drawbridge Bistro, owned by Stafford’s Hospitality) in 2017, so they decided to put it to work. Keeping with their chosen New Orleans theme, they created unconventional pizzas like jambalaya (andouille sausage, shrimp, game hen, Tasso ham, onion, bell pepper, garlic, Creole marinara), house-smoked BBQ pulled pork (Cajun BBQ sauce, roasted garlic, spinach, onion, cheddar, mozzarella), and Bayou (andouille sausage, crawfish, Tasso ham, alligator, shrimp, Creole marinara) — which have all turned out to be popular — in addition to perhaps more approachable (and yes, vegetarian) choices like Margherita and pesto. A couple of burger options on the menu incorporate similar Cajun or Creole ingredients (although there is also an All-American burger).

This spring, the French Quarter also added a breakfast menu, which will be available every day starting at 7am. “I also just changed over our whole coffee program,” said Weeber. “We’re now working with Big Medicine out of Eastport, just south of here. They procure the best grade of organic beans through direct trade with coffee growers around the world and roast them in small batches. We also get roast chicory from them, and we’re making café au lait out of it, so our customers will be able to enjoy that with beignets – which we plan to start making soon — just like they could if they were at the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans.”

Hoshield worked for several years in various front and back of the house positions at Stafford’s Perry Hotel in Petoskey, did stints at the Bay Harbor Golf Club and the Charlevoix Country Club, and later helped a colleague open a New Orleans-style bistro in California before returning to Michigan a few years ago with the idea of opening that same type of restaurant in Northern Michigan.

“I felt there was a definite need for something culturally different from the traditional places that were already here, and that seems to have been true, because we have had a really good response,” he said. He joined forces with his hometown colleagues to make it happen. “But we didn’t want to disregard the agricultural bounty we have in this area, or turn our backs on what both locals and visitors enjoy about it, so we planned our menu accordingly.”

The French Quarter owners are planning to add a multi-level outdoor patio by next summer. “We’ll also have our own entrance,” said Hoshield (it’s now through the Edgewater Inn). “Both of those things have been missing, and they will add a lot. People sometimes think the restaurant is part of the Inn, and they aren’t sure if we’re open to the public. We want to change that perception. We are a completely separate operation, and our new entrance will help clarify that. We enjoy what we do, and we really like to cater to giving people the special experience we offer.”

The French Quarter is located at 100 Michigan Avenue in Charlevoix, (231) 758-3801. For more information, visit them on Facebook (@FrenchQuartercharlevoix). $$

 

 

 

 

 

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