BOYNE CITY — New restaurant Morel's Bistro between Boyne City and Walloon Lake is the wish-fulfillment of executive chef and owner Brett Cuper.
Cuper worked for two decades as a pharmacist, but became dissatisfied with corporate life. What didn't change is his love for "Up North" life with its wintertime skiing and summertime attractions, he said.
"We decided it was time to make a change," he said.
Cuper knew the area well, as did his wife, Jennifer, and their sons, Alexander, 21, and Matt, 15. They were long-time vacationers here.
"We just fell in love with Boyne City and decided to buy a house here," he said.
Cuper earned a culinary degree at Ashworth College in Pennsylvania and the family moved from Ann Arbor to the Boyne Valley to realize his long-cherished dream of being a restaurateur.
"I wanted to create a casual, fine-dining experience, so I designed my idea of an American bistro. We hope it will become a venue for anniversaries and birthdays, a place for family gatherings and celebrations, a place where people feel comfortable and will want to come back to. My love of cooking is my creative outlet," Cuper said. "I'm not really artistic. I can't paint or draw but I can create great food. I've had a lot of fun creating new dishes. Cooking is my passion. Our menu lists salmon, steak, walleye, pork chops ... pretty standard fare, nothing too exotic."
But that's where the chef's fervor for feeding people kicks in as he infuses each dish with interesting flavors and culinary originality. His morel-encrusted short ribs atop a Parmesan and blue cheese polenta, peach marmalade-glazed ancho pork chops and field greens salad with leeks, pine nuts and dried cherries exemplify his tasty repertoire.
"Our risotto is authentic. A lot of restaurants add cream, not really used in European recipes. Ours is made with 100-percent quality cheeses — no cream — to achieve the right texture," Cuper said.
Additionally, accompaniments vary depending on what fresh produce is locally available. Locally grown red skinned potatoes, corn and spices are prepared in the restaurant's kitchen. Gluten-free and vegan dishes are available upon request and the bistro offers a children's menu.
Along with 17 beers both imported and domestic, Morel's Bistro's eclectic wine list features American wines — chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and a couple of pinot wines available by the glass.
"I want to really promote American wines, so we'll continue to feature local wines that are still too inconsistent to list permanently just yet," Cuper said.
The offerings by the bottle vary in price from a modest $28 for a nice, respectable chardonnay, or $72 for a mid-range Napa Valley merlot with an excellent reputation. On the more expensive end, a $150 signature cabernet sauvignon also is available, each label carefully and personally selected by Cuper and his wife. The wines are young by oenophilic standards but represent some of the best of America's vintners, he said.
Morel's Bistro's easy ambience comes after major renovations, including an exterior face lift, a spot-light-studded tray ceiling and new kitchen fixtures and appliances. The key feature, though, is the stunning, U-shaped, copper-topped bar. The atmosphere of pristine elegance is softened by the bar's golden glow.
The dining room also features spare, clean lines, muted green walls, hardwood floors and numerous undraped picture windows that let natural light inside.
"We really wanted the decor to fit well with the lot, to reflect the setting. We tried to make it comfortable enough for people coming in off the lake or from playing golf to just slide right in and be able to relax and enjoy. That's what my version of casual, fine dining is — really great food in comfortable surroundings," Cuper said.