TRAVERSE CITY — Wes Westhoven wants everyone to know: The Rowe Inn is alive and well and doing business as usual despite rumors of its demise.
The Ellsworth restaurant has been consistently open since 1972, when Westhoven established it in what was then the “culinary wasteland” of northern Michigan, bringing with him dining innovations that were previously unknown in the region.
“When I came up, fine dining in northern Michigan was whitefish and prime rib,” said Westhoven, whose French country cuisine insisted on fine wines; fresh flowers; and fresh, local ingredients, including baby vegetables. “People thought I was crazy because you’re supposed to grow vegetables big.”
Over the next decades, the restaurant earned a mouth-watering reputation among foodies from as far away as Detroit and beyond, as well as accolades from the likes of Gourmet, Food & Wine and Wine Spectator. While a typical menu might include Lavender Honey Glazed Duck Breast or Sea Bass Sautéed in Meyer Lemon-Tarragon Butter with Caramelized Fennel, The Rowe is as prized by its regulars for its intimate, casual atmosphere as for its seasonal menu and extensive fine wine collection.
“I love, love, love the Rowe and Wes,” said Matt Sutherland of Traverse City, co-author of “Savor Michigan Cookbook: Michigan’s Finest Restaurants, Their Recipes & Their Histories.” “His wine cellar in the basement is my favorite place in northern Michigan.”
Westhoven credits good business sense — he was born into a restaurant family and has an MBA in hotel and restaurant management while wife Laurel is a CPA; innovations — including cigar, Madrigal and wine sampling dinners; and consistency — from quality, to chefs, to hours — for the restaurant’s longevity.
“You have to be consistent, even when there are just two people (dining),” said the restaurateur, who put in 16 hours a day in the beginning and still makes regular appearances despite a broken arm and recent heart bypass surgery. “I found that out early in my career. When people say, ‘Why do you stay open for two people?’ I say, ‘How much do you make with your doors closed?’”
Still, after defying the odds to survive 41 years so far (the average life of a new restaurant is three years), Westhoven said business has shrunk, thanks to the economy, increasing competition and new laws regarding smoking and drunk driving. It didn’t help that Tapawingo, Ellsworth’s other fine dining establishment, closed in 2009.
“I knew it was going to hurt us,” said Westhoven, who went from 20 employees at the restaurant’s peak to 10 now. “When they closed, people thought it was us. Or they thought the restaurants were connected, so if (Tapawingo) closed, we closed.”
To compensate, The Rowe expanded its retail wine business, whose inventory includes varieties as pricey as $1,000 a bottle. On a recent slow night, when diners stayed home to watch the quarterfinals of college basketball, the restaurant made up for it by selling $9,000 in wine to a retail customer.
Westhoven, Chef Tom Webb and Laurel, who handles the wine end of the business, also plan to roll out a new series of theme dinners like Russian Czar and Cajun Fat Tuesday that focus on the history, culture, wine and cuisine of certain regions, with live music to match.
“I’m excited about the whole concept,” said Westhoven, who has a few more tricks up his sleeve. “I’m 72. I’m not done yet. A lot of artists do their best work later in life.
“We’ve always been on the cutting edge and we’ll continue to be on the cutting edge. We’re going to be around even after I’m gone.”
For reservations or more information, call 588-7351 or visit roweinn.com.
Roasted Veal Tenderloin with Madeira-Morel Jus
1 lb. veal tenderloin, trimmed and tied (ask your butcher to do this for you)
Olive oil, as needed
3 garlic cloves, minced
Large sprig fresh thyme, minced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
6 oz. fresh morel mushrooms (or ½ oz. dried morels, reconstituted in warm water)
3 oz. Madeira
1 c. rich veal stock (or chicken stock)
2 T. butter
In a heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the veal in a little olive oil until golden brown on all sides. Transfer to an oven-proof tray and let cool. Combine the minced garlic and thyme with just enough olive oil to make a rough paste. Smear the paste all over the veal. Place the veal in a 350° oven and roast until 125° in the center, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven when done and let rest in a warm spot for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add the shallots to the pan the veal was seared in and stir to loosen any brown bits clinging to the pan. Sauté shallots until soft and lightly browned. Add the Madeira and cook until almost dry. Add the veal stock and cook until reduced by half. Add the butter and any juices from the veal and swirl to incorporate the butter into a smooth sauce. Slice the veal and serve with the sauce. Serves 2.
Soft Poached Willow Farm Goose Egg with Polenta and Asparagus
6 c. water
½ stick butter
1 T. salt
1 c. coarse grain polenta or cornmeal
3 oz. fresh goat’s milk cheese
2 goose eggs
3 quarts water
1 T. white wine vinegar
½ lb. asparagus, trimmed, peeled (if desired) and blanched
Freshly ground black pepper
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
In a heavy saucepan, bring the water, butter and salt to a boil. While stirring constantly with a whisk, slowly add the polenta in a thin stream. Reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring often until polenta thickens and grains are softened, about 30 minutes. Add the goat’s milk cheese and stir well to combine. Keep warm (this recipe makes more polenta than you will likely need but is wonderful reheated in a skillet or the oven for another meal). Meanwhile, in a saucepan, bring 3 quarts water and the vinegar to a simmer. Crack the goose eggs one at a time into a small bowl and slide into the simmering water. Cook until the whites are completely set but the yolks are still soft. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a folded towel to drain. Meanwhile, place the asparagus on an oven proof tray, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 350° oven until warm. Stir the polenta, adding a little warm water if it has thickened, and spoon into warm serving bowls. Set a few spears of asparagus alongside, and top with a goose egg. Drizzle with good olive oil and garnish generously with the reggiano cheese. Serves 2.
Pickled Beet Salad with Orange, Feta, Pistachios and Mint
2 large beets
2 c. apple cider vinegar
2 c. water
1 c. sugar
1 T. salt
1 bay leaf
1 T. each: whole allspice, whole cloves, whole coriander, black peppercorns
½ red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 oranges, skin and pith removed with a knife, each cut into 4 large wedges
4 oz. feta cheese, cut into large dice
2 oz. pistachios, toasted
Few sprigs fresh mint, leaves plucked
Extra virgin olive oil
Wash the beets but do not peel or trim. Place beets in a heavy sauce pan and cover with cold water. Add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook beets until a small knife slides in easily, about 40 minutes. Drain the beets, and run under cold water until cool enough to handle. Trim and peel the beets, and cut each into four large wedges. In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, the bay leaf, spices, onion and garlic and bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and add the beets. Let beets pickle at least overnight (they will keep, refrigerated for a few weeks and improve with age so it’s a good idea to make extra). Arrange the beets on salad plates along with the orange, feta, pistachios and mint. Spoon a little of the beet pickling liquid on the plates and drizzle everything with a generous amount of the olive oil. Serves 4.
—The Rowe Inn