My friend and I had low expectations for City Bakery, which we assumed was basically a coffee shop. We settled on a geezer-hour visit, an early supper that would give us time to get to the Main Library's geezer-hour jazz series (third Tuesdays — not to be missed if you think jazz can be enjoyed in a well-lit auditorium at 6 p.m., which it can).
So we were right about the jazz but wrong about the "coffee shop." City Bakery is much more than a bakery, and we were blown away by the sophisticated flavors of just about every dish we tried.
The place opened in late January, an offshoot of owner Maury Rubin's flagship store in Manhattan. Friends there tell me it's well-known for its pastries — chocolate chip cookies and chocolate croissants were mentioned — and for sightings of literary celebrities.
The Detroit store is a bakery, yes, but what shone for me were what the staff called "salads," mostly not greens-based but sometimes healthy enough to sneak into that category. They are uniformly elegant but hearty concoctions that explode with a cascade of flavors.
The drill, patiently explained by friendly counter staff, is that you choose a $7.50 or a $10.50 cardboard bowl, and point to which of the dishes you want it filled with — like "a lot of the Brussels sprouts, some of the chicken, and a little bit of the butternut squash."
Any fastidious eaters reading this: trigger warning. All the foods are piled into the same bowl. They touch. In my experience the different dishes kept their bodily integrity, however, and didn't run into each other.
Let me say that both bowls are incredible bargains, especially compared to the baked goods. If Fisher Building workers are eating a whole $10.50 bowl, they will be fighting off a nap at their desks that afternoon.
Here are some of the fabulous dishes I tried on a couple of visits: butternut squash with hazelnuts and Asian pears. Quinoa and wild rice with dill. Napa cabbage with feta and deep-fried chickpeas in a coriander dressing, somewhat limp by the end of the day but still excellent. Rice noodles with julienne of smoked tofu, sesame oil, and peanuts. Roasted Brussels sprouts with big pieces of chewy bacon, and dates. Cauliflower with mild ginger. "Pot roast chicken" with fennel, carrots, and celery. Beets with kale and olive oil. A turkey meatloaf sandwich on scallion dill bread from Avalon (this did not go in the bowl).
If I had to choose among these, I'd say the butternut (such a better choice than sweet potatoes) and the sprouts were the standouts, each dish deep with their flavors of sweet and nutty in different proportions. The caramelization of the sprouts next to the salty umami of the bacon, and then the surprise of the sugary dates: Yes, it's good for foods, like humans, to touch each other.
A flaw was the huge chunks of "pot-roast chicken" that were not super-moist, as the pot roast label implies. Perhaps that was a factor of my coming at the end of the day. But the vegetables in the mix were imbued with each other's flavors and something chickeny, so they made it worthwhile.
The Bakery serves a slew of hot sandwiches, a snack-size slice of pizza and two soups a week, such as cream of cauliflower, chicken with wild rice, curry eggplant, or curry carrot. It makes its own cassava root chips, which have an unusual vegetable flavor.
Besides drip coffee, espresso, and tea, there are options like Reed's ginger beer, which is high on ginger.
Oddly, I wasn't as entranced with the bakery items as with everything else, although putting pizza toppings on puff pastry is an inspired touch. An oatmeal cookie was dry, an attribute that hasn't been in style for decades (people used to demand their cookies crisp, back in the olden days). And a multi-berry scone (always be skeptical of multi-berries, a variety not found in nature) was also dry, though, to be fair, that is the nature of scones.
A honey-walnut rugelach was certainly all it should be: In the dark filling, which includes cream cheese, the nuts were not overly chopped. The buttery dough for these treats is shipped in from New York HQ.
Other choices are muffins and "brownie bottoms," the latter being a dark chocolate brownie topped with cheesecake.
What the New York store is known for is a pretzel croissant, which sounds impossible. This is one weird baked good, but decidedly worth a try. It's just what it sounds like: soft, flaky, buttery, sweetish croissant on the inside and salty pretzel flavor on the outside, with sesame seeds, and not at all hard like a soft pretzel is.
I guess you could call it another model of foods touching.
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