High on Fine Food

At Aerie, the Grand Traverse Resort’s renamed and revamped gem, the cuisine is as good as the view.

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

Dining Room at Aerie

ACME–The fanfare had reached its crescendo after more than 3,000 people submitted entries to rename Trillium restaurant, which had been closed since May. On the eve of the mid-June opening, at a VIP ceremony that included the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Robert Kewaygoshkum and a host of food and beverage bigwigs, the winning name was revealed.

Trillium, which occupied the glass-walled16th floor of Acme’s soaring resort and spa for 26 years, is now Aerie, a nod to the tribe’s symbolic eagle and its nest, built on a cliff or other high place. And here in Acme, another word for “at the top,” Ted Cizma, the new executive chef, knows he has his work cut out for him, keeping the fine-dining momentum going with fresh, seasonal food and a similarly seasonal workforce.

So often, after the initial blitz (and students return to college), restaurants fall flat in the north. But the 45-year-old chef, whose credo is simple yet sophisticated food, is pumped for the challenge and comes with some dazzling credentials. He was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs” in 2000 after creating two critically acclaimed restaurants, Grace and Elaine, in Chicago. After that, he served as an independent corporate event planner, caterer and educator, worked for Disney World, the ESPN Winter X Games and oversaw the food and beverage operations of Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium.

Cizma also was a founder of Chicago’s all-sustainable Green City Market in Lincoln Park. As the son and grandson of two butchers, Cizma learned to savor the intricacies of cheeks, brains and tongue–“underutilized pieces cooked with love,” he says, in dishes such as daube Provencal, a la French-modernist chef Alain Ducasse, one of his culinary heroes.

Judging an after-Labor Day feast, when my friend and I dropped in without a reservation, Aerie is sitting pretty–beautiful, in fact. We were ushered into a quiet, soft-gray half-moon banquette looking out at the sunset over a sparkling Grand Traverse Bay. The dining room’s dramatic two-story windows, columns and black ceiling with tiny spotlights play well with the understated Asian-inspired décor–white tablecloths, simple tableware, lamps behind each booth, and a black-and-white mural with abstract ginko leaves that reflects on the windows after the sun goes down.

Chef Cizma’s a wine enthusiast and Level Two Master Sommelier, and his current list of 261 bottles includes locals and deals on what he calls “ethereal wines” from the south of France and Spain. Choose from categories cleverly spelled out, such as “everyday,” “special occasions,” “cute little half bottles,” “exotic,” “red wines with an attitude,” and so on. Per-glass prices start at an affordable $6, and bottles at $25. We ordered a “crisp and clean” Tangley Oaks Chardonnay ($32) and it set off the night. Our server, Mike, helped us decide on one of many delectable-sounding appetizers, among them ripe roasted figs with local goat cheese on a toasted baguette, sautéed wild mushrooms over polenta, or bourbon and thyme-glazed veal cheeks with quinoa and local apples. It was tough choosing, but we were mighty happy with our bowl of tender day-boat scallops with creamy lobster oil and basil—rich, plump, perfectly seared in a cast-iron skillet. Drool.

We split a leafy salad of baby spinach, green apple, smoked bacon and Gorgonzola cheese topped with a nice, light mustard vinaigrette, then dove into our entrees—a creamy risotto with house-smoked dark chicken meat and aged white cheddar, whose hearty flavors would warm the coldest toes, and a delicious spin on surf and turf, a juicy petite filet mignon paired with a crisp Maine lobster cake. Other tempting items on Chef Cizma’s ever-changing regional/American menu included venison, roasted organic chicken, veal chop, bass, duck, lamb shank, salmon and beef tenderloin with Yukon Gold potato puree. Even after splitting our dishes, despite so many mouthwatering descriptions, dessert seemed too much. But if you have an extra stomach stashed somewhere, fill it with “The Bear,” a gooey caramel and cashew base topped with bittersweet chocolate and caramel creams.

Then waddle away to your room, and promise to do 20 laps in the pool tomorrow.

This article appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Michigan BLUE. Click the link below to view this entire article in PDF format.

Click to download: BlueAerie0108.pdf