By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — The first time we had raclette, I thought it was a charming French tradition, like the long meals with wine and conversation, or the anise-flavored apéritif pastis.
So when we visited friends in Germany, I was surprised when they, too, served raclette — and not just with potatoes and bread, as we'd had the dish in France, but with all manner of grilled vegetables and meats with unpronounceable names.
"You can do anything you want," our former exchange daughter, Paulina Zulawski, assured us as we gathered around her family's long table set with antique Polish pottery. In the center was the raclette machine, a two-tier electric appliance with a flat surface on top for grilling and a recessed area below for melting cheese.
Raclette has a long tradition in France and Switzerland, where it's a staple of wintertime. But the tabletop dish (and the cheese it was named for) are beloved in many countries, where — like fondue — it's as much an experience as it is a meal.
Slices of the cheese are melted in individual handled trays, poured over bite-sized grilled foods and seasoned with ground pepper and, in some countries, paprika or nutmeg. The raclette is served with gherkins, mini corn or garlic, and pearl onions.
In France and Germany, raclette was a great interactive meal to enjoy with friends who don't all speak the same language. Bumping elbows while staking territory on the grill, melting the cheese just so, then transferring all from machine to plate at the optimum moment makes for both comedy and camaraderie.
So when I learned that a local tasting room/bistro offers European-style raclette right here in Traverse City, I thought it would be a fun way to catch up with foodie friends we hadn't seen in a while. They were visiting from St. Louis and thrilled to be treated to a "mystery" dinner.
Served four evenings a week at TASTES of Black Star Farms, the Matterhorn Grill Dinner features the Leelanau Cheese Co.'s raclette cheese paired with samples of Black Star Farms wine. Made with milk from local cows in the Suttons Bay creamery, the award-winning cheese is brushed with brine and turned daily during the three-month to two-year aging process.
It's a cheese our friend, Rachel Peine, fell in love with when she came to Traverse City one summer to work as an intern at the Record-Eagle. After she returned home, we sent some to her and her now-husband, Jeff, for Christmas. But they'd never tasted raclette, the dish, before.
Arriving at TASTES, we were greeted by manager Kevin Culloty, who seated us at a barrel table in a cozy alcove. With its brick walls, high ceilings and arched doorways, it could have been anywhere in Europe.
Seating for groups of two to six is limited, lending a private feel to the dinner.
"If you have four or six people, it's like a party atmosphere," said hostess Caren Field. "If there's two of you, it's intimate. I think it's the best thing for a first date."
Indeed, when she brought our wine — three tastes from our choice of red, classic white or sweet classes — she passed the first glass to Rachel, saying, 'This is for your boyfriend.'"
"He's my husband," Rachel corrected.
"He's your boyfriend, because you're on a date," Caren replied.
After warming up the machine, she brought colorful plates of sliced apples, bread, ham and sausage, and a variety of vegetables from sweet bell pepper and onion, to zucchini and asparagus. Then she explained how to grill the food and melt the cheese to pour over the top.
"There's a very small window. The aim is to get it when it's just right," she said. "Ideally when it's just right it'll tilt right out of that dish nice and creamy, like fondue."
Even more of a trick was getting the hang of the small Teflon tongs. One of my potato slices shot across the table à la Julia Roberts' escargot in "Pretty Woman" and landed on the floor; another plopped in the grill, where it sizzled until it finally burned out.
Rachel's advice? "Ditch the tongs and use your fork."
While the vegetables were blanched so we didn't have to wait forever to eat, it's not the kind of meal that can or should be hurried, Caren emphasized.
"The whole idea of this meal is to have a nice leisurely conversation," she said.
Part of the fun was sampling the wines and comparing their tastes throughout the evening. Our favorites before the raclette weren't necessarily our favorites with it, and vice versa.
Classic white wines are recommended by the cheesemakers, John and Anne Hoyt, but selections are according to personal taste, Caren explained.
"For drinking, I like the Dry Riesling, for eating, the Pinot Gris," pronounced Rachel, whose favorite food to eat with the raclette was bread and potatoes.
Jeff, the family cook, preferred the apples with the raclette and was the first to try cracked pepper over the melted cheese.
"The black pepper accentuates the taste," he said. "It makes the flavors pop."
He also was the first to fill up, despite his large frame. Though the simple fare appears light, Caren said a common refrain among diners is that looks can be deceiving.
How raclette got it's name is an interesting story, and one you'll likely hear on your own visit to TASTES. The Matterhorn Grill Dinner is served from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The cost is $50 a couple, including liberal wine samples.
For reservations, call 944-1349.