Imagine that, whenever you were feeling a bit peckish, you could drop in to your neighbor’s place. Plates of cookies and muffins would be waiting, and it wouldn’t be too much to ask for a sandwich and a cup of coffee and, well, okay, a slice of that chocolate cake they’d just finished frosting.
The folks living on the Old West Side near Bach Elementary School have that ideal neighbor in the Jefferson Market. Last spring, Dave Myers and his wife Nic Sims of Mighty Good Coffee became the third owners since the tiny store sprouted a cafe in 2000. They’ve painted and cleaned a bit, revealing previously blocked windows and opening it for more seating, and they’ve revitalized a small patio in back. With the coffee part already down pat, Sims has concentrated on the kitchen, crafting a small but fun–and frequently changing–menu for lunch and weekend brunch.
During our late summer visits, the counter staff still tended to be green but eager, while a whole battalion of young people worked the stoves and cutting boards behind the kitchen’s half-wall. Sims, chef de cuisine Dugan Walser, and other staffers turn out the cookies, scones, and muffins; self-taught baker Moriah Elkins is responsible for the attractively decorated layer cakes. My questions about a poufy Neapolitan cake (strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate) prompted a nearby customer to pull out his cell phone and eagerly show me a photo of what Elkins had produced for him–a birthday cake wonderfully disguised as a battered briefcase and boot.
But you have to eat lunch before you can have dessert. Preceding our attack on the Neapolitan cake, my husband and I polished off a tasty shrimp roll–shrimp and egg salad in a split bun–and spicy lentil tacos, with legumes subbing for meat and partnering with avocado and pickled onions in soft corn tortillas. Both came with a nice side of dressed greens, and neither was so large we couldn’t enjoy dessert. The cake was beautiful, but the three layers were rather sturdy and dense–probably overbeaten and/or underbaked–rather than light and airy. The ample buttercream was the real deal, though, and each of its three flavors tasted unique.
A chocolate caramel cake we tried on another visit had a better texture and was incredibly rich. Fortunately, we had ordered two salads, available at both lunch and brunch, as our entrees. The Vietnamese noodle salad featured fresh spinach tossed with an exceptionally delicious sweet chili-lime vinaigrette and topped with seared tofu, rice noodles, and assorted raw and marinated vegetables. The adobo chicken salad was less flavorful but still agreeable–chopped romaine in a creamy cilantro dressing and slices of adobo-marinated chicken breast, corn relish, avocado, and pickled jicama.
The brunch list has a few items from the lunch menu but few hot choices; perhaps this will change as the weather grows cooler. One weekend I ordered salmon hash and, not having read the description closely, was surprised by what was actually a cold salmon and potato salad, offset by crisp Belgian endive and sweet cantaloupe–pleasant enough, if not the hot breakfast I had imagined. My husband’s huevos rancheros, on the other hand, were hot out of the pan–two fried eggs on crispy corn tortillas, sloshed with a warm tomato-tomatillo sauce and accompanied by black beans, avocado, and a handful of greens, everything in desperate need of salt but tasty once we applied seasoning. A bready apricot-cardamom scone finished us off.
Agreeable as the food was, it was the scene we particularly enjoyed: Kids scribbling chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk, their parents chatting over the remains of their brunch. The screen door slamming shut a bit too hard, just like at home. The black walnuts falling with a heavy thud on the gravel patio. Friends greeting latecomers to lunch. The convivial bantering between the workers and the customers. Jefferson Market is your neighbor’s house–welcoming, friendly, with a cup of coffee and a bite to eat always on hand.
609 W. Jefferson
Tues.-Fri. 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m., lunch served 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat.-Sun.: 8 a.m.-2 p.m., brunch served 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Mon.
No handicapped access
This article has been edited since it was published in the October 2017 Ann Arbor Observer to credit all of the market’s bakers.