It's not a good sign when you see both a Sysco truck and a US Foods truck double-parked outside a downtown restaurant, as I did recently. Mass-produced food, anyone? (Actually, Sysco calls itself the global leader in distributing "food products," not food.)
Jackie Victor's new Avalon Hearth and Soul Café goes the other direction, of course, with a commitment to "organic ingredients when possible, local ingredients whenever feasible, and environmentally friendly practices at every opportunity." Ann Arbor is a "hotbed of farms and young farmers," chef Maggie Long says. "Jackie took everything she does in Detroit and just moved it here. Except that now she has a restaurant."
The off-shoot from the popular Willis Street bakery and cafe opened mid-December with a full liquor license and a seven-day breakfast-lunch-and-dinner menu that draws heavily on the organic-flour breads that have made Avalon a mainstay in Detroit. All breads and pastries are prepared in the company's eastside bakehouse and trucked west in the small hours.
As at Willis Street, you won't go here for post-holiday asceticism. Portion sizes of all dishes, soups to salads, are more than generous. Sandwiches are can't-stretch-your-mouth-around-it height. Even the cocktails say, "Go for it," with ingredient lists like this one for Cold Booze: Maker's Mark, coffee, Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, Frangelico, cinnamon syrup, and whipped cream.
The breakfast list hits all the usual destinations — quiche, eggs, pancakes (blueberry quinoa) — and then adds potato tacos (!) with goat cheese and ranchero sauce. There's an emphasis on fancy toasts: with avocado or ricotta, or Avalon's famous cherry-walnut with a house-made version of Nutella. Breakfast-type sandwiches are gussied up with spreads like aioli and red onion jam.
Breakfast and lunch are one menu, both served Monday-Friday till 3 p.m. The weekend brunch menu adds a few items: French toast, hash and eggs, and Bloody Marys garnished with items like smoked blue cheese olives, deviled egg, or a skewer of roasted beets. Sandwiches show off Avalon's breads, of course. A burger is served on challah, a frittata on ciabatta.
I tried a Trout Reuben with cornmeal-crusted fish on pumpernickel. The Swiss cheese was tough rather than melted, and I decided I prefer a traditional Reuben, with more flavor from the corned beef than any trout can offer, but the carrot-apple slaw that added to the sandwich's altitude was decidedly worthwhile. The Reuben came with a big heap of simple greens in a good buttermilk dressing.
My companion's fried-egg-bacon-avocado on Farnsworth Family Farm (Avalon's house bread) was as rich as could be, aided by a dollop of aioli. A colossal tangle of impossibly skinny shoestring fries proved what we know about fries and chips: The more surface area there is, the more fat can adhere thereto, and the tastier the result. More skinny equals more fat. Good decision.
A potato-leek soup was thick and buttery. It's served with grilled bread and butter that's cultured for a little extra tang.
The dinner menu is big on bread for starters (no free bread here). We tried a salt-roasted sweet potato, which was tender inside but leathery in its outer slices. Some roasted dates and a particularly tangy yogurt helped to make up for that.
I found my two giant pieces of fried chicken also a bit tough, as if left on the heat too long. Their sides were fantastic, however: a big oblong of multi-layered buttermilk biscuit with kale and a mellow gravy. When Long describes how she produced that gravy, it is obvious why this woman has made a career in the kitchen. "I use dried anchovies," she says. "They go into the chicken stock while it's reducing, and it makes a sweet heat that kind of hits you at the back."
One companion thumbs-downed his skirt steak: "Basically a piece of lukewarm beef plopped on a pile of fries. Seemed pan-fried rather than grilled as described. Probably not the best thing to order at a restaurant like Avalon." But the one bite he allowed me was plenty tasty to me, if chewy.
Another fellow diner liked a tall cheeseburger with red onion jam, bacon, and rosemary aioli. Still another praised to the skies her pork shoulder with farro risotto — "tender as a mother's love" — and liked the slight bite from a shallot vinaigrette.
Predictably and deliciously, Long does not hold back on desserts. A blondie with honeycomb ice cream was scrumptious if a tad dry; gotta watch those oven settings. A dark chocolate bread pudding avoided the unevenness that often plagues bread puddings — it was moist all the way through, served with whipped cream and strawberries. From the retail area, I copped a satisfying whoopie pie, with a bready chocolate exterior and a peppermint filling.
The spacious retail area is no afterthought: It showcases most of the loaves and pastries available in Detroit, next to a living-room-like space for eating same with a cup of coffee. It seems destined to attract both grab-and-goers and those looking for a relaxing carbs-and-caffeine recharge.
Avalon's next project, also a full restaurant, is set to open at State and Woodward in the spring. Can't wait.