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Review: Avalon Café + Bakery takes the upper crust



Downtown workers are thrilled, judging by the crush at lunchtime, that the Avalon Bakery empire has expanded to a spot just north of Campus Martius. Twenty years after opening a pioneering organic bakery in the Cass Corridor, co-founder Jackie Victor now oversees two full-service restaurants with liquor licenses — one here, one in Ann Arbor.

The bright new space has well-spaced tables, a big pastry and bread counter stocked with Avalon classics, and lots of sandwiches and drinks ready to quickly grab and go. It's informal: Both to-go customers and sit-downers place orders at the cashier; utensils, napkins, and condiments sit ready on the tables.

The breakfast menu is served until 11 a.m., and a joint lunch-dinner list after that. Avalon breads are of course prominent on both, such as a breakfast frittata on challah, or sausage and cheddar on a layered biscuit, or avocado toast made from Avalon's signature Farnsworth Family Farm bread, in all its chewy sourdough glory. Sandwiches are served on ciabatta, pumpernickel, Italian bread, a hoagie, or a simple baguette. Generous amounts of farm bread, grilled and buttery with an extra dollop of cultured butter on the side, are frequent accompaniments to other dishes. It would be hard to forget that "Bakery" is part of the restaurant's heritage and name.

It's the first time Avalon has offered pizza, though the company has been making dough for other customers for a while. "It was a natural transition," Victor said. "It's just a looser dough, yeastier."

Pizza ingredients are high-end. I loved the Deluxe, which incorporates both steak and lardons, as well as olives and grated garlic. Chef Maggie Long's crust is tender and just the right degree of chewy. The Pepperoni is so far from the usual boring versions that it uses both pickled chilis and a drizzle of honey. The Mushroom employs shiitakes and maitakes (hen-of-the-woods), for double the umami. Even the simple Margarita uses charred tomato sauce.

Sandwiches, like the rest of the dishes, are sized to fill you up. Luscious pork shoulder, for instance, is piled high on ciabatta with a grainy-mustard aioli and some roasted broccolini. I loved the juicy pork that soaked the bun, and a good-sized pile of greens in a mustardy dressing came with. A friend liked her Trout Reuben despite the fact that the delicate trout flavor was pretty well-disguised by the multitude of ingredients a Reuben is obliged to include: slaw, Swiss, Russian dressing, and, in this case, pumpernickel.

You and your friend could split a sandwich to make room for sides, like a luscious, buttery cheddar soup or a serving of deluxe warmed olives: Kalamata, Amfissa ,and green Greek from R. Hirt. Or save your space for desserts that range from the familiar brownie or chocolate chip cookie to peach-apricot babka and a supremely crumbly date bar.

A celiac sufferer is not SOL at Avalon; there are four big salads, crouton-free, two of them with meat. My Brassicus (Brassica is the genus of cruciferous vegetables) could have served three. It was beautifully composed, with rounds of hard-boiled egg, hummus along one side, and big slices of avocado atop a huge mound of shaved Brussels sprouts and kale, with a mustard vinaigrette. Chewy, yes, and worth the effort. (And the vegetables are hardy enough that it's still good the next day.)

As at the Ann Arbor cafe opened late last year, the Detroit store serves two beers created by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales specifically for Avalon and sold nowhere else. North Peak Perk rye ale is made with Mighty Good Coffee — breakfast beer! And the company riffs on Avalon's strong suit to make a tart, malty ale, Eye of Horus, based on an ancient Egyptian recipe. It starts by soaking bread in oak barrels and incorporates dates, honey, coriander, and ginger. Beer and wine are half off, as are appetizers, during Monday through Friday happy hour from 4-6 p.m.

Avalon has never been shy about charging what it deems its goods are worth. A glass of refreshing "agua fresca" — water infused with cucumbers-ginger-mint-lime — will set you back $2. Grits with fruit are $7, as is soup. But note that those grits have been soaked overnight in heavy cream. Servings of everything are uniformly large. Hot chocolate, for example, comes in a cup larger than many bowls I've known.

On weekends a brunch menu is added, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.: potato tacos with mashed spuds, lemon ricotta pancakes, buttermilk biscuits, and shakshuka (eggs with tomato sauce and goat cheese).

When it warms up, the cafe will put tables outside. What better place to butter the staff of life and wash it down with a breakfast beer?

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