I am indefatigable in my search for places to eat outdoors in the summertime. Every indoor experience between Memorial Day and Labor Day I view as a minor defeat (this cold summer, make that between Fourth of July and Labor Day). It's a Matter of Taste, I learned, has not just a terrace but a terrace on a lake, so it had to be visited.
Everything I ate there was at least good if not better, but the food didn't transport me to heaven. That was the job of Union Lake itself, which laps right up against the terrace. As the evening light changes from gold to purple, the swans lift up their ruffled butts to feed, and a lone water-skier curves around the inlet where the restaurant sits, you can nurse a cold drink and revel in our long Michigan evenings at the western end of the time zone. It's easy to see why the place is booked up, inside and out, by well-heeled exurbanites; reservations are recommended.
The room is one big high-ceilinged crescent with garage-style roll-up doors onto the terrace; they're open from early May to early October. About a third of the space is the bar. With only a few narrow pillars to block the view, the inside feels almost as open as the terrace does. If it gets too chilly outside, gas fire pits and propane heaters are lit. The landscape is tranquil, with just one house in view that's definitively a McMansion.
Chef and co-owner Tom Traynor's menu is "Italian-influenced," a term which seems to mean "Italian plus." There are four pastas, three risottos, two steaks and six seafood entrées, and some of the non-pasta dishes are Italian, such as veal scaloppini, focaccia, osso buco and gnocchi. Sea scallops are prepared saltimbocca-style. Another Italian touch is that the walls have been painted to look as if old brick had been covered with ochre paint, with the bricks showing through in some places: Tuscany in Commerce Township. You've seen this trope in far less expensive places, I believe. It's not well-done, and it shouldn't be done — a minus.
The meal begins auspiciously with good warm rolls and an excellent green olive oil into which basil has been crumbled. A carrot-jalapeño bisque to start off was sweet and creamy with just the right amount of jolt.
Thereafter I found the sauces generally heavy-handed, both in flavor and amount. Often the sauce, though quite delicious, hid the flavor of the food underneath. Vietnamese sea scallops, for example, come with a strong, burnt-sweet nam prik phao, or roasted chili sauce, which overwhelms the delicate taste of the scallops. Nam prik phao is strong, though, so I should have intuited that this wouldn't be the most promising pairing. The fried green beans that came with held up well.
Better was what the server recommended, roasted forest mushrooms en croûte, though they weren't truly en croûte (baked inside pastry). I'm a sucker for good mushrooms and these were creamy and sweet with onions, if heavy on the manchego. (I believe it must be a restaurateurs' maxim, from Mexican to McDonald's, that you can't go wrong by piling on the cheese.)
All the other starters sound fabulous — salmon and crab cake, ahi tuna carpaccio, Thai pork and peanut triangles, calamari with roasted jalapeño tomato salsa and cilantro lime crema — but I would ask for the sauce on the side where feasible.
My grouper with artichoke hearts and a bit of spinach was served swimming in a good butter-caper sauce, but I couldn't find much fish flavor. The accompanying asparagus had just the right amount of crunch, and the buttermilk-whipped potatoes were certainly a crowd-pleaser.
Diners can choose traditional osso buco with veal ($22) or a pork version ($21). The latter is a great deal for the restaurateur, as pork shank is a cheap cut, and it looks terrific served with that impressive knob-ended bone. After hours of slow cooking, the pork was so tender that my companion didn't use his knife once. It comes with those same buttermilk-whipped potatoes and a bacony cabbage dish, a perfect accompaniment.
Summer is the season for It's a Matter of Taste, but in winter you can still get a great view of the lake through the windows, I'm told. For those who need more entertainment than a lake view, a psychic gives occasional readings; call 248-360-4150 for information.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].