Ann Arbor has always been a town where you could find delicious baked goods, from the elegant pastries of Café Japon (which plans to be back at the Farmers Market this month) to the south-side juggernaut that is Zingerman’s Bakehouse.
But lately, the north side of Ann Arbor has become a baking hub. Two newcomers have joined four veteran bakers to provide an astounding variety of choices along Plymouth Rd. Hours and menus are subject to change, so check with each establishment for availability.
Pastry chef Annemarie Maldonado has a different impression of Ann Arbor from almost anyone else in town. Since moving here from San Francisco in July 2020, she’s never seen it full of Michigan students, visiting parents, or football fans.
Coming from the west coast, she thought this might be “like a country town,” says Maldonado. Instead, she’s learned, “Ann Arbor is really pretty busy” even in pandemic mode.
Not that she’s had much time to explore: “I still have to GPS my way around, and I know how to get from home to work,” she says.
Maldonado is responsible for all the pastries sold by restaurants in the Pulpo Group, previously SavCo Hospitality, the company overseen by Sava’s restaurant founder Sava Farah.
After starting with desserts at Sava’s, Maldonado’s sweets are now on sale at The Boro To Go, the inaugural part of Farah’s multimillion dollar Dixboro Project (Marketplace Changes, December 2020).
Maldonado’s husband Louis is chef-partner of Pulpo, whose name is Spanish for octopus. The former Top Chef contestant will run the company’s Dixboro House when it opens this summer and is overseeing menus across the Pulpo restaurants, which also include Aventura, currently on hiatus.
Meanwhile, Maldonado is leveraging her previous experience overseeing the production kitchen at the highly regarded Tartine Bakery group.
The pastry lineup at the Boro To Go is led by Maldonado’s standout croissants. She launched with plain and chocolate and added almond by popular demand.
Her croissants have a crisp, flaky exterior and fluffy interior, rivaling those that used to be sold by the Pastry Peddler Bakery & Café, which closed in late 2018.
Cookies at $3.50 are big and dense, studded with chocolate chips or fat raisins, while her airy coffee cake, also $3.50, brings to mind the kind your grandmother made, if your grandmother was a pastry chef.
Maldonado says she expects to change her offerings regularly, so if you spot something in the small glass case or online, you should order it while it’s available. The Boro To Go also has a food menu ranging from breakfast items to pizza and entrées.
Business has been brisk since opening, she says. On weekends, the seven tables on the deck outside are often full.
Once Covid restrictions are lifted, the Boro will be able to seat 160 to 180 people indoors. At that point, Maldonado hopes to expand the dessert lineup. She would love to offer her own ice cream and is thinking of launching a line of breads.
The Boro To Go, 5400 Plymouth Rd., theborotogo.com
There is already a skilled bread baker right in Maldonado’s neighborhood. About half a mile away, at a private residence, Ann Arbor newcomer Liron Egozi is overseeing The Bread Project Bakery, with products sold exclusively via email preorders.
Egozi also has a sterling resume. She was sous chef at The Musket Room, a one-star Michelin restaurant in New York City. But her heart was in the baking she did at home for her friends, so she changed careers. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” she says. “I wanted to be a baker.”
Last summer, after Covid-19 shut down indoor service in Big Apple restaurants, she and her wife, photographer Nitzan Keynan, traveled to Ann Arbor to visit friends and discovered how much they liked it here.
“There’s so much sense of community in Ann Arbor,” Egozi says. “You don’t see it as much in New York.”
They decided to stay and, in November, launched their own home business, with Egozi baking and Keynan handling photos and marketing.
The menu, listed on the Bread Project Bakery’s Facebook page, includes five types of sourdough loaves, starting at $8, including traditional, whole wheat, and pecan raisin, and eight varieties of challah, the braided egg bread, starting at $6.
Egozi also sells pita bread, Jerusalem bagels, and chocolate babka, which comes in a full-size loaf or in a miniature version called babushka, which means “grandmother” in Russian (and also a Russian grandmother’s signature head scarf).
The pitas, fat and chewy, and bagels, long sesame seed–studded ovals that can fit in a toaster without being sliced in two, are modeled after Israeli street food. (Though Egozi and Keynan met at New York’s JFK Airport, both were born in Israel.)
Egozi says they’re averaging about 100 customers per week and are beginning to look for commercial baking space.
Ultimately, she says, “I want a bakery and a small restaurant, and I want to bring my storytelling to a place where I can be unique.”
The Bread Project Bakery, firstname.lastname@example.org, orders for pickup on Tuesdays (limited delivery area)
Maldonado and Egozi are expanding an already impressively diverse collection of north-side bakers. Recently, Yoon’s Bakery in the Plymouth Road Mall added two types of garlic-studded pastries to its array of scones, sticky buns, and dozens of traditional Korean sweets.
Though the new pastries may seem like a departure from Yoon’s original offerings, South Koreans rank among the highest consumers of garlic in the world, eating eighteen pounds per person in 2019, according to Statista. Americans, by comparison, eat about two pounds per person, according to a survey by Michigan State.
Yoon’s garlic baguettes have garlic cream inserted into eight slashes along their length. The garlic bread is a round loaf topped with a blob of garlic cream. Each costs $5.99.
In its refrigerated bakery case, you’ll now find a trendy “smoked” or “burnt” version of a familiar dessert, Basque Cheesecake, at $5.50 a piece.
This style of cheesecake, which has appeared all over food blogs and Instagram sites, is credited to a Spanish chef, who popularized it in the 1990s. Yoon’s version is gluten-free, and includes cream cheese, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and whipped cream.
The smoke refers to the darkened surface of the cheesecake, which gets its appearance from being baked at a high temperature. It doesn’t taste burned but more like a caramel cheesecake.
Meanwhile, on Yoon’s baked goods table, you’ll find the new Castella, a high, puffy confection for $3.25 that looks like a miniature pound cake. It contains honey, eggs, and sugar, and is flavored with lemon extract.
Only two customers at a time are allowed inside Yoon’s, and the store prefers that customers place orders a day in advance. It is offering delivery on DoorDash.com.
Yoon’s Bakery, 2775 Plymouth Rd., yoonsbakery.com
A few doors down in the mall, Jenny Song, the owner of Songbird Café, is tapping into the home baking craze with one of her most popular items.
Packages of Matcha Green Tea Muffin Mix, with candied ginger and walnuts, are on sale for $10.95.
“Especially in the pandemic, people weren’t really coming out” to her cafés, Song explains (she has a second location on Jackson Rd.). “Now, they can just grab the mix and make it at home.”
In March, she was in the midst of shifting her bakery menu from wintery items to more summery ones.
Song hopes customers will enjoy her new riff on a blondie, featuring cardamom, rose, white chocolate chips, and candied ginger on top. “The cardamom has been really nice in our lattes, as well,” Song says.
Her gluten-free lemon-lavender bars, which have a tangy, floral flavor, are always a warm-weather favorite. “I think they’re even more refreshing because of the lavender element,” she says.
At press time, Song was keeping her indoor seating at 25 percent, even though the state allows more customers.
She has blocked off the north section of her Plymouth Rd. location and no longer allows customers at the front counter. Her west-side café has three tables open but stresses carryout.
The pandemic has taught her a lot about her customer base. In the first two months of last year’s shutdown, Song says, her business dropped 70 percent. “The school year, for sure, was always busy for us, but I never realized how many students came in here” until they disappeared, she says. “It has made a huge difference” in her sales.
Ann Arborites’ generally conscientious adherence to Covid restrictions probably kept some customers from coming in, too. Her 2020 sales wound up down about 50 percent, but she never considered closing one of her shops.
“I always felt confident” that customers would return, Song says. “In that way, I think we were one of the lucky ones.”
Songbird Café, 2707 Plymouth Rd., thesongbirdcafeannarbor.com
Down the road in the Courtyard Shops, two other bakers are putting new twists on their pastry lineups.
Tamara El-khatib Briggs at Exotic Cuisine & Bakeries says she’s touched by the loyalty that customers have shown during the past year.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she had to let employees go and launched a GoFundMe account to support the business launched in 1991 by her mother and father, Jinan and Monib Elkhatib. By press time, it had collected $11,549, exceeding her $10,000 goal.
But Briggs is now working alone at the shop, and that means some changes to her once-vast menu. Before Covid, Exotic Cuisine had sixty-eight menu items, including both sweet and savory pastries. The lineup, which she updates regularly on Facebook, has since been culled to a couple of dozen.
“I rotate my items every week to give my customer base what they want,” Briggs says.
She always has six Middle Eastern pastries available, including different types of baklawa, and ma’amoul, a semolina cookie with fillings such as dates, nuts, or figs.
She adds other treats to the lineup, such as mousse bars, which may come in flavors like peanut butter, strawberry shortcake, or mocha, and fruit bars, depending on what she feels like baking or according to customer demand.
“If I have a special order, I make extra of it, and it’s on the menu for a week,” Briggs says.
Individual desserts cost $4.99, and Briggs is also selling a dessert box with a variety of ten items for $20.
The interior of her shop is closed, so Briggs asks customers to call ahead to place their orders.
Although they can order in person, she has no tables and chairs available for them to wait, so they must stay in their cars or stroll the Courtyard Shops until their items are packaged. Delivery is available on DoorDash and Snackpass.
But Briggs urges customers not to forget that she and the other tenants are there. “The students aren’t venturing out, professors are at home,” she says. “The whole mall has been affected.”
Exotic Cuisine & Bakeries, 1721 Upland Dr., exoticbakeries.com
When she expanded Cakes by Rubina at the back of the Courtyard Shops last summer, owner Rubina Sadiq was hoping that her new French pastries and Italian baked goods would find an audience. (See Marketplace Changes, August 2020.)
To her delight, they have, and the eye-catching concoctions now star in their own refrigerator case. The most amazing is a round raspberry cheesecake, about the size of a tennis ball, that’s meant to evoke a giant berry, complete with a green fondant stem.
Another round dessert, which Sadiq calls a “mocha latte,” has rich layers of chocolate, coffee mousse, and round circles of cream on top that mimic the surface of a coffee drink.
Pear cheesecake is a half-round ball of creamy looking filling, sitting on top of a multicolored base. A long, narrow trapezoid, covered with rich dark chocolate glaze and decorated with edible gold, is called “Little Death By Chocolate.”
Pastries classified as “Taste of Paris” cost $7.99, lemon tartlettes are $5.99, and Italian pastries also are $5.99.
In another case, Sadiq is selling individual slices of cheesecake in plastic boxes. Although they look less glamorous than the French and Italian offerings, she says customers appreciate the convenience of grab-and-go sweets.
Meanwhile, her custom cake business is thriving, as evidenced by colorful photos of unique designs on her Instagram page. Even though campus is largely empty, she still is getting orders for University of Michigan–themed cakes.
Although she hoped to allow indoor seating at high-topped tables, Sadiq says she had to dispense with them during social distancing. She tried offering outdoor seating across the parking lot last year, but it took too much work, so it won’t be back this year.
But she says she doesn’t regret taking the risk to expand and offer new items during the health emergency. “We are so grateful to our customers,” Sadiq says.
Cakes by Rubina, 1689 Plymouth Rd., cakesbyrubina.com
This article has been edited since it was published in the April 2021 Ann Arbor Observer. Nitzan Keynan’s last name has been corrected.