At this point in time, the idea of a restaurant trading in fare that's local, seasonal, fresh, etc., has lost a little of its meaning. It's hard to find a new spot that doesn't highlight something like "local greens," for example, but local greens with Sysco dressing is a little pointless.
And even among those who are working with top-shelf ingredients and creating their menu with goods grown or produced nearby, there's still some clumsy, bland, or boring dishes. Give a painter the best paints and brushes on the market, and there's no guarantee that the painting will move you.
Ochre Bakery — the latest from Astro Coffee owners Jessica Hicks and Dai Hughes — is what happens when the whole local, clean, and seasonal food concepts are more than marketing. Hughes, Hicks, and baker Max Leonard assemble dud-free menus that shift with the harvests and offer simple dishes largely built with whole ingredients.
Much of what's served at the small Core City bakery in Detroit is organic, and its plates range from gnocchi to frittata, though the cafe menu is mostly simple salads and sandwiches. Among them is a veggie pita. Pita is maybe the most overrated bread out there, though that could be because so much of what we're served around here is mass-produced (the Balkan lepinja, by the way, is the most underrated). But Leonard's sourdough pita is slightly chewy and a little grittier and thicker than most pitas. It's stuffed with excellent feta cheese, dukkah, garlic-yogurt, and lots of mixed greens, the latter of which is sourced from local farms like Coriander, Brother Nature, and Fisheye, among others.
There's some word-of-mouth buzz, as well as some national praise, for Leonard, and he lives up to it with the pita, as well as his spongy focaccia that's employed with the spicy braised beef sandwich. Ochre sources its beef from Ferndale's excellent butcher, Farm Field Table, and the package comes with pickled carrots, cilantro, mixed greens, and garlic yogurt. It's a busy sandwich in terms of flavors, but they work well together. However, a little less garlic-yogurt would've been nice — let that braised beef shine. Another fine sandwich comes with soppressata, provolone, dijon, and arugula, and is a slightly spicy sandwich with a bite, but it's also simple and delicious.
I heard a few people grouse about the price point, and it's true that $18 after tax and tip for a spicy braised beef sandwich is high. But consider the product — you get some of Detroit's best bread that's made 10 feet from your table. Ochre fills it with high-end, impeccably sourced produce, cheese, and meats. So, yeah, you can get a sandwich at some other respectable spots for a few bucks cheaper, but sometimes it's worth it to pay more.
The menu also holds several salad options, including what's essentially a potato salad, though that label doesn't quite do it justice. The dish arrives with a mix of big hunks of potato, lightly charred fennel, charred garlic scapes, a big dollop of creamy aioli, and a salsa verde with capers, olive oil, lemon, and fresh green herbs like dill. Another fine salad consists of roasted spring vegetables like radish asparagus and turnips aside a mix of greens. Though a chicken salad isn't anything I'm typically inspired to order, Ochre's version with hunks of chicken, greens, crunchy focaccia croutons, charred garlic scapes, and beets that's all soaked in an excellent sherry vinaigrette is indeed inspirational.
Ochre's "bread and dips" is a bright composition of a lipstick-pink dip of beets and hazelnuts; hummus topped with dried coriander; and deep yellow duqqa. The latter is an Egpytian mix of seeds, spices, and nuts that a friend once called "Egypt's jerk" and is typically made with cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, herbs, and hazelnuts.
The bakery also, of course, offers a range of pastries and sweets that are stocked in cases at the counter. The lemon pistachio cake isn't short on lemon, and that's balanced with frosting and pistachio to create a pleasant package. The rhubarb and custard danish is flaky, with layer after layer of dough. Ochre laminates its dough in-house in a temperature-controlled bake room that's visible from the other side of the counter. One of the bakers said it's one of the only laminating machines in town, and is the reason its danishes hold layer after layer of buttery dough.
The chocolate buttercream cake is intensely rich, as it's stacked with four layers composed of smooth buttercream frosting, chocolate ganache, and cake. It's rich because Ochre sources top-of-the-line chocolates from around the world, and no doubt the buttercream plays a part. There's little in Detroit that's on this level.
Astro does its coffee roasting on site, so Ochre's bean program is hard to beat, and there's a big selection of sparkling waters, kombucha, and other drinks.
The shop sits on one side of the Core City Park at the corner of Grand River and Warren. Takoi co-owner Philip Kafka owns several buildings there, and the park — which was a collaboration among Kafka, Hughes, Hicks, and "world-class" landscape architect Julie Bargmann — is bordered by the buildings and some shipping containers. The park is a geometry of over 85 young trees, concrete benches, and materials repurposed from the corner buildings' past lives. Kafka's forthcoming vegan restaurant, Magnet, is taking shape at the opposite end, and it's hard to think of a better spot in Detroit to eat outdoors.
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