I always loved my mama's biscuits. The fact that I was called on to help sometimes made them even better. I remember the thrill of cracking the Pillsbury canister sharply against the counter to break it open, then separating the pre-separated rounds and placing them on the dark and aged baking sheet. They'd go in the oven just before supper and at a given point, my mother was sure to exclaim, "Oh! The rolls!" and hopefully they'd be removed in time.
Even though I still love store-bought biscuits, I love Avalon's biscuits even more. Biscuits are just damn good, whatever. I'm not familiar with the new generation of canister biscuits, but I read that Pillsbury is now offering a "Flaky Layers Butter-Tastin'" biscuit with soybean and palm oil, a bunch of chemicals and 2 percent or less of butter. And I'll bet it's good anyway.
That said, Pillsbury won't keep anyone away from Avalon's year-old Biscuit Bar, where one rectangular breakfast biscuit that looked not overly large left me fully sated and even offering bites to my companion. That's partly because it was stuffed with eight pieces of bacon, New York white cheddar, and a perfect semi-scrambled egg. And also because its buttery flakiness was so plush.
Anne Weertz, Avalon's sweets manager (what a great title; it encompasses biscuits, scones, and croissants) says her biscuits get their height and layering from lamination. That essentially means folding, akin to the process used to create layers in croissants. The biscuit-maker hand-chops high-fat unsalted butter into cubes and refrigerates it, along with organic flour and other dry Ingredients. Those then go into a "buffalo chopper" until the butter is reduced to pea size. Buttermilk is added in a 120-quart mixer, and the dough is cooled again.
Then the special part: Instead of immediately rolling and cutting, the biscuit-maker folds the dough, 100 pounds of it at a time, three times. It's then cooled, sheeted, hand cut, brushed with heavy cream, and sprinkled with flaky Maldon sea salt. And baked.
I was shocked to learn that Avalon produces just 200 biscuits a day for its five stores. Wake up, Detroiters and Ann Arbor-ites!
A lunch biscuit is filled with smoked turkey, Gouda, and Gus & Grey Teacher's Pet apple butter, and it is fabulous in a different, sweeter way, what with the cinnamony butter. I couldn't taste the mild cheese but thought it added texture. Another choice is a BLT with herb mayo. You can also design your own with a list of ingredients such as fruit compote, a house-made version of Nutella, Swiss, avocado, ham or pickles.
Avalon's sandwiches are also fine, if not reaching the commanding heights of the biscuits. The fabled Avalon sourdough bread is a main attraction, not overshadowed by the innards.
One friend got smashed avocado on dill scallion toast, and it was garnished with more scallions and light though piled high. I was glad that my tall club with smoked turkey, ham, and bacon on Avalon's signature, Farnsworth Family Farm, did not commit the error of using three slices of bread, which makes a club too awkward and heavy.
Other sandwiches are avocado-lettuce-tomato or tuna with white cheddar, each on a different bread, or again, build your own on FFF, Russell Street Rustic Italian, Motown Multigrain, or Mack Avenue Marble Rye. Building your own is noticeably more expensive unless you are good at restraining yourself. Avalon was not created for restraint.
Both breakfast and lunch are served all day. A daily soup is on offer; I liked a rich Italian vegetable, full of greens and tomatoes, though it's not made in-house. Salads such as garden and chicken are made at Avalon's Willis location and boxed in the fridge for take-out. I got sesame-tasting buckwheat soba with red and Napa cabbage and lots of scallions, with a tamari-tahini-lime vinaigrette. Coffee is Mighty Good from Ann Arbor and there's a good fresh-squeezed-from-a-bottle OJ.
The weekday lunch special between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. is a half-sandwich and half a soup for just $7.
The café is light and spacious rather than intimate. It's large enough that you don't feel guilty hanging out for a while, with all different kinds of seating: at tables, a banquette, a sofa, a coffee table, or on bright yellow stools at the counter. I found it surprisingly full at mid-afternoon on a Monday. There's a side meeting room for 10 and patio tables outside.
An old safe protrudes from one wall, a vestige of a previous tenant, and there's a romanticized mural of the original Avalon location on Willis, painted by artist Clint Snider on wooden chair seats.
A main reason to visit the cafe is to take home a loaf of always excellent Avalon bread. On Friday and Saturday, the list includes challah and brioche. More butter!