Those of you in the Detroit area have probably already heard about Mercury Coffee Bar, the new coffee shop/ restaurant on Michigan Avenue at 14th Street. Like its across-the-street neighbor, Slow’s (whose owner Phil Cooley is a co-owner), it has quickly garnered a ton of positive press, word-of-mouth buzz, and even controversy for being an oasis of quality food and drink in an area where many buildings are boarded up- like Detroit’s Central Station, which looms large as you look out Mercury’s west windows. I used to live in this neighborhood several years ago, a block from the coffee shop, and back then there was next to nothing going on apart from the occasional prostitution activity. Ever since Slow’s opened, however, the blocks between Trumbull and 14th Street are a destination (thanks also to the recently spruced-up Lager House and to a certain extent, LJ’s Lounge) for people from all over the metro area. With the addition of MCB, this stretch of Michigan has cemented its status not just as a nighttime destination, but somewhere to hang out before the sun goes down as well.
MCB has been open for a few months now, but I hadn’t had a chance to check it out yet … Usually if I venture in that direction, it’s not until after 10PM, when they’re already closed. But my friend Jim had offered to take me out for a birthday lunch, so right away I thought it would be a good excuse to make the trip during daylight hours. I headed down a bit early with my laptop to scope it out and have a chance to take a few photos prior to his arrival. Right away, I was charmed by the über-friendly staff, the cool “electroclash” décor (echoing the turquoise and magenta of their neon sign), and the bright, sunny interior. The only drawback of the layout is that there aren’t many seats available upstairs- only three or four tables for two and then counter seating along another wall. They have a basement with additional tables, but I wasn’t too into sitting down there when the day was so lovely. Luckily I was able to nab a table upstairs about ten minutes after my arrival, although with the free WiFi, people with laptops tend to camp out and you may have to wait a while to get a good seat.
So how was the coffee? In addition to regular brewed coffee and the requisite espresso-based drinks, Mercury offers what they call “Slow Coffee”. This is basically drip coffee that is prepared when you order it, by pouring hot water over the grounds and letting it drip through a filter into your cup. I ordered the Ethiopian, and while it was very good, I’m not sure the extra expense ($3.25-$3.75 a mug) is justified taste-wise. I think you would have to be a hardcore coffee connoisseur to notice an appreciable difference. However, I suppose it’s nice to have that option, and there is evidence that coffee consumed within 20 minutes of brewing has higher levels of antioxidants.
What really impressed me at MCB was the food. The menu is small but focused, and everyone but the pickiest eaters should be able to find something they’ll like. The offerings include two types of soup, several sandwiches (including panini), a few salads and sides, some breakfast items, and a variety of sweet and savory pastry items. The menu changes occasionally, so check the website. I ordered a ham panino with cheddar and peach relish and an arugula salad that had bacon, parmesan and almonds with a lemon dressing. The peach relish was delicious; it contained rosemary that is grown in-house in window boxes, and also had a licorice note that may have been fennel seed or star anise. My salad was made with very fresh arugula (no wilty/slimy surprises like you get some places) and had the perfect balance of dressing to salad to toppings. Jim had a turkey sandwich that I did not taste, but he seemed to be a satisfied customer. It’s worth noting that Mercury owner Todd Wickstrom (formerly a partner at Zingerman’s) is committed to using local ingredients whenever possible (read this article); that gives me even more reason to support them, and helps explain the food prices being on the high-ish end (some panini are priced over $9).
I ended up lingering long after lunch drinking my refill, working on some photo editing for my previous blog post and just enjoying the sunshine streaming through the windows and the colorful view across the street (see below). It was an indulgence to be able to spend the afternoon that way- alone but not alone; in a new yet already familiar and comfortable place. I greatly look forward to the next time I’m able to return to try some more of the wonderful food and spend some quality time with myself or a friend.
Update: I am sad to report that as of 2/9/09, after only a few months in business, Mercury has closed its doors. I’m really surprised by this news, as I had heard almost exclusively positive feedback on it, and there were always customers in there when I drove past. Apparently they’re going to regroup and reopen; let’s hope they don’t keep us waiting too long.
Update # 2: I read yesterday that they are already reopening this Friday, 2/13/09. That was fast! I’m hoping they didn’t make too drastic a change to their menu, or decide to sacrifice their ideals of having fresh local ingredients. We shall see.