Joe Balsamo’s Café a feast for the eyes

TRAVERSE CITY – One-fifteen East Front Street in downtown Traverse City has a long, varied history. Built in 1930, it has housed such well-known businesses as Potter’s Bakery, Walter’s Shoe Store, a shoe repair shop, a sub shop (with shoe repair still in the back), the Garden Café, Stone Soup, Stone Soup II, and Mars Café. Now, its identity has changed one more time to Joe Balsamo’s Café, a 48-seat restaurant featuring fare from the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Owner Keith Carleton, 44, purchased the restaurant in early November and has been working at a restaurateur’s pace since then to make his vision reality. When we went to press in late December, he hoped to open on Jan. 5.

Carleton is in the process of securing a liquor license so he can serve beer, wine, and cordials. There are no more licenses for his area, but the Downtown Development Authority has successfully petitioned the City Commission. Now the Commission will request a special license from the state.

License or not, Joe Balsamo’s Café will open.

“We have too much invested not to. Not just financially–emotionally, too,” Carleton said. And he’s invested a lot of time painting the textured walls and ceiling and trim, uncovering the skylight, and removing a floor-to-ceiling partition to give the space an open, airy feel. The floors are wood, “with black dye (from the shoe repair business) that won’t come off, but that’s part of the charm,” said Carleton.

There are less charming aspects to the renovation: fixing leaky plumbing, electrical work, sandblasting many years of paint off and repainting heat registers, and dismantling, cleaning, and replacing equipment.

“I’m not going to waste a thing. I’m using everything that was here,” he said.

Seating arrangements are varied. Diners can choose booths, bistro-style seating, or tables covered with linen cloths and butcher paper for those who want to doodle or conduct business. (Carleton himself once sketched out a multi-million dollar deal on a restaurant table when he worked for Little Caesars.)

Carleton also plans to cover the walls with artwork. “I’m putting up a continuous rail for pictures; people have already submitted work to display. Track lighting will be directed toward the artwork, toward the wall. It will glow without the glare.”

Artwork will include Carleton’s own photographs, snapped during his travels around the world. Opening restaurants for Little Caesars and Domino’s have taken him to Spain, Australia, The Netherlands, and Paris. He also opened many restaurants around the United States for the Mountain Jack’s chain and has had good training in all aspects of the food business.

He credits, in part, the language barriers he faced while living abroad for his appreciation of basic foods and preparations.

“I didn’t eat a lot of meat while I was away,” he said. “If I’d bought meat, I’d have had to tell the butcher how to prepare it. I got used to the flavors inherent in good quality food and simple preparations. Like a spinach leaf,” he added, with a laugh.

To us novices, his menu doesn’t sound so simple. Items will change often, from tapas of marinated mushrooms, hummus, and tabouli, to Genoa salami, albondigas al ajillo (meatballs with garlic and hot pepper), and grilled polenta with Italian sausage. Then there’s an olive salad with capers, chick peas, and seasonings or a tortellini salad with bacon, feta, tomato, red onion, and cucumber. The café will also prepare specialty sandwiches, simple pasta dishes, and desserts.

Presentation will be on par with the food’s flavor and quality. According to Carleton, “It’s all about color. People eat with their eyes.”

The café is at 995-9514. BIZNEWS