May it Please the Palate

Amused in Roscommon

Roscommon is a village of just over 1,000 people in northern Michigan, just east of Higgins Lake, a pitstop on I-75. According to its official website, it was recently recognized as having the 4th best tasting municipal water in the U.S. Of its nine restaurants listed in Trip Advisor, #3 is Dairy Queen, and #5 is McDonalds.

All this is about to change. Kelly’s Restaurant opened this summer, and it’s going to turn some heads. I dined there with a client recently, and the server greeted us with an “amuse-bouche.” This French term literally means “mouth amuser,” and refers to a free, bite-sized appetizer of the chef’s selection. This may be the first time an amuse-bouche has ever been served in Roscommon.
Previous to Kelly’s, the closest thing was when truck driver Vern McDougal once unwrapped a piece of elk jerky while he was waiting for his Peanut Buster Parfait at the Dairy Queen.

More astounding, at Kelly’s, we were amused twice. The first was a miniature salad Caprese, with heirloom tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, and a vinaigrette finished with Fustini’s blueberry vinegar. The second was a morsel of a marvelous salmon croquette.

A salad of garden fresh mixed greens and homemade dried tomatoes followed, but the entrees were the main event. My salmon was grilled to perfection, finished with maple butter glaze, and served with sautéed squash and zucchini and a baked potato.

You may think that Kelly’s is some fancy-schmancy outlier in Roscommon. No, it’s a homey diner next to the bowling alley. And that salmon dinner, with two amusing appetizers, a salad, and two sides? Eleven bucks. Eleven! Heck, Vern almost spent that much at the Dairy Queen!

Co-owner and Chef Paul Kelly, a 2002 graduate of Roscommon High, has come home. After beating around at his parents’ pizza place, and “flipping burgers” at a saloon in Higgins Lake, he attended the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. It was a “whole new world” for Paul, who was learning sauces and braising. Previously he hadstints at the Iroquois on Mackinac Island, and a resort in Arizona, “Rancho de los Caballeros.” With a new menu every week, Paul kept busy as a sous chef, learning “organization and the corporate side of things” alongside cooking fresh food for the resort’s guests.

Then Dad called. Would Paul be interested in running a restaurant back home? Dad gave him one night to think, urging him, “I’ve got to sign the papers tomorrow.” Four days later, Paul and his wife Trista, a Montana girl who had worked at the ranch in Human Resources, made a home with their new daughter in Roscommon.

Paul stands by his principles. “One, never serve a frozen product. This is difficult, especially in northern Michigan, but I do it. Two, stress people skills. I purposely hired a mix of people with and without culinary experience. The ones without do great, because they don’t bring bad habits and catch on quickly.”

Ninety-five percent of Kelly’s food is homemade. Not the ketchup, and not the ranch dressing. But everything else is, from Korean short ribs with a sweet soy marinade, served with a sticky rice; to the crispy fried chicken breast strips with garlic-parmesan fries; to the Flint-style Coneys, to the house-made granola and Greek yogurt for breakfast. Local farmers supply the fresh vegetables and micro-greens. Kelly’s 1/3 lb. beef and pork burger, 2 parts beef to one part house-cured pork belly, is touted as the “juiciest burger you’ll ever have.”

So the next time you are on your way to northern Michigan, and you want an alternative to McDonald’s and Dairy Queen, get off the Roscommon exit and find Kelly’s at 406 N. Fifth St. You might not be as important as my client and rate two amuse-bouches, but you will be guaranteed a fresh, creative, delicious, and economical meal, to fill your belly for that last 100 mile stint before the Mackinac Bridge.

Paul Kelly’s Oven Dried Tomatoes

8 vine-ripened tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges
2 TBS canola oil
1 TBS granulated garlic
1 TBS onion powder
1 TBS thyme
1 TBS rosemary
salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine spices and oil with the tomatoes and toss gently in a bowl.

2. Lay tomato wedges on a sheet tray with a roasting rack. Roast at 350° for 45 – 90 minutes to desired doneness.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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