Blue Tractor owners Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell grew up together on the Old Mission Peninsula, not far from where the young Ernest Hemingway learned to hunt and fish. I don't know why exactly, but I always slot Carlson-Lobdell restaurants into Hemingway eras. Their first local venture, Grizzly Peak, could be perched beside Walloon Lake, waiting for Nick Adams. Vinology (in which they are no longer involved) boasts a Gallic terroir fetish worthy of the Moveable Feast days. The old man might dream about heading to Cafe Habana for a drink after a long day at sea. Now Blue Tractor takes us back up north, not so much lakeside but inland, down some Emmet County back road, where tourists don't rent, so prices stay low. No single dish at Blue Tractor is more than $20, and most hover around $10.
These are simple plates and huge portions. There is more than a passing nod to the southern food canon; chef Heath Barbato spent six years in North Carolina, and frying, smoking, and barbecuing are his preferred methods of handling ingredients that are largely meaty, starchy, and spicy. For me, the kitchen staff proved their mettle early with an appetizer of onion rings that wrapped an excellent crunchy batter around a sweet toothsome fresh onion slice, a deep-fried feat pulled off with fairly-low-grease aplomb. An appetizer of warm potato chips featured mandolined spuds deep fried with a similarly perfect texture, but coated with too much of a sweet-spicy powder and accompanied by a wretched blue cheese "fondue" that tasted mainly like the starch used to thicken it. Less might be more here-I'd love to try those chips with just sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.