Jefferson Market and Cakery: Second act
Ann Arbor Observer, September 2008
The old Jefferson Market was a tough act to follow. It was so crammed full of stuff, and the food was marvelous--a wondrous sort of mash-up of Peaceable Kingdom and a New Age deli. I remember picking up carryout there and going over to a nearby friend’s house to watch George Bush’s victory speech in 2000; the Jeff’s amazing french fries helped ease the sting. By the time the old Jefferson Market closed in 2007, it had become a repository of memories for me, and for a lot of other people, too. It’s more than the food--the times you’ve shared over a meal get lost when a restaurant closes.
So I was almost afraid to get my heart broken again when the Jefferson Market reopened in April under new owner Mary Rasmussen, a pastry chef who rechristened it Jefferson Market and Cakery. Rasmussen’s Jefferson Market is more subdued and perhaps even more neighborhoody, a cheerful corner store with staples like fresh local eggs, bread, and dairy products, combined with Grandma’s kitchen with its long, narrow table at which everybody’s welcome to pull up a chair.
The emphasis has definitely shifted to the sweet side of eating, but there is still sustenance food. Although not of the caliber of the previous incarnation, the simple, sensible foods the Jeff now offers are light and healthy--soups aren’t made with heavy cream, salads have the dressings on the side, and nothing is drowning in mayo or overburdened with cheese.
Sandwiches are made each day and kept in the cooler; from 11 to 2, the kitchen will grill the sandwich for you, if you wish. Each is named for some aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s life, so you can make a parlor game of the meal by quizzing your lunch mates on the TJ tie. In the homey "Virginia,” the flavors were there in full force--who could complain with goat cheese, fresh basil, and smoked red peppers?--but it was weighed down by too much bread, which had got too hard on the grill. I wanted to explore the “Sacagawea”--tuna salad on a fresh croissant--but I was told that the outsourced croissant dough had not been baking well. Instead, the staff made a Sacagawea for me on Parmesan-pepper bread that had gone slightly stale. In the end I favored the “Sally Hemming” (their spelling)--grilled chicken, dill Havarti cheese, and sliced apples wrapped in a sun-dried tomato flat bread, which I had with homemade chips in a Chinese-takeaway-style box on the side.
The soups and salads in the cold case are the work of Melissa Reid, a longtime server at Zingerman’s Roadhouse who decided to put her passion for cooking to work in her own business, Soups from Scratch by Melissa. Her soups are available at the Jeff warm at lunchtime, or from the cooler case to take home. Salads include creations like a fresh corn slaw with crisp cabbage and kernels just sheared from the cob and very lightly dressed. Another summery delight was the spicy sesame noodle salad with fresh ginger, cilantro, and jalapeño swirling around vermicelli. A reheatable wedge of polenta covered with mixed sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese was commendable. And I thought the Yukon Gold potato salad was fantastic--until I bit into a Band-Aid. Reid seemed devastated when I called to tell her about it, and owner Mary Rasmussen later phoned to say that Reid is meticulous about food safety. I like Reid a lot, and her food could be a high point of the new Jeff, so I’m betting it was a one-in-a-million fluke--and that now that she knows about it, it will never happen again.
In contrast to the levelheaded soups and sandwiches, Rasmussen’s sweets are extravagant--like the dense yellow cake with layers of buttercream and raspberry puree, or the rich carrot cupcakes with nuts and a swirl of sweet creamy frosting. The cookies are exceptional too--like the shortbread with a layer of soft butterscotch and a cover of hard dark chocolate, or the Czech kolacky, hamantaschen-like triangles of crumbly dough wound around apricot jam and sprinkled with poppy seeds. Perfect alongside are the coffees and teas, both of which come from Michigan companies, Mighty Good Coffee and Great Lakes Tea and Spice.
All those beautifully decorated cakes give the place an air of celebration. And even on my first visit, I learned that Jefferson Market is still capable of making more good memories. It was the day the Dalai Lama came to Ann Arbor. A friend and I went to the morning teaching in cavernous, stuffy Crisler Arena, but when we emerged at lunch it was a perfect spring day, the kind of day you just have to play hooky. So we skipped out on His Holiness’s afternoon class and cruised over to sit in the sun and eat cake at one of the little tables outside the market. Somehow I think he’d approve.
Jefferson Market and Cakery
609 West Jefferson / 734-665-6666
Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 7:30 a.m.-
7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Sandwiches $6.50-$8, soups $3.50, salads $5-$7, desserts $1.25-$3.50 (whole cakes and pies also available)
Steps at entry; not easily accessible to the disabled