The Coy and the Tarts

A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop
4200 28th Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 729-6898
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 6:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Sunday

All right, here's the deal: I'll tell you about a little, sort of dumpy-looking bakery that has dazzling little pecan tartlets and is run by a former pastry chef from the Plaza Hotel in New York. But before I tell you about it, each and every one of you has to agree to meet somewhere, draw numbers, and visit the bakery only in small, small groups. Really small groups.

Actually, not even groups.

Maybe one of you can go, every day. Okay, maybe two on Saturdays.

"This is why I try to stay away from critics," moaned Gary Tolle, the owner of A Baker's Wife's, when I talked to him on the phone for this story. "I've seen too many places get attention from newspapers, then you get smothered, then you can't keep up, and then people come in and they're like: [Tolle makes a funny puppet-voice] Ohhhhh, what's this? What's she writing about anyway? This place isn't any good."

But don't most small-business owners like positive publicity? Heck, no! "Yeah, some people would say it's important that people know we're here," concedes Tolle, "but it's not our prime concern. I'd rather have the people that really like good places come and find us, and other than that--how about I send you a cake, and then you write about Sweetski's? They could really benefit from a nice article."

I tell you, you think you've seen it all, and then people start trying to bribe you not to write positive reviews of their bakeries.

Briefly, I considered keeping A Baker's Wife's under wraps, so publicity-averse is Tolle. ("Lots of places have grand openings," says Tolle, "I'd never do that. When we first opened, we'd talk for 30 or 40 minutes to every person who walked through the door. We didn't have anything else to do. Those were the days.") But as soon as you try one of his pastries, you'll see why I couldn't. Just consider lemon bars. I mean, lemon bars. Lemon bars are, as often as not, the vehicle for all kinds of atrocities: lemon pudding mix made without enough water, baked on a sugar cookie; or frozen lemonade concentrate and cream cheese smeared on a pie crust. I'll bet half the dry-cleaning emergencies in this state have to do with bad lemon bars escaping a wad of napkin and oozing all over the inside of your pocket. And then there is the French lemon tart. The crust made with only flour, sugar, and butter, the filling made with only fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, butter, eggs, and a pinch of salt. A real lemon tart is so full of butter it has a certain luminescence; the filling melts on the tongue, spreading sweet-sour pleasure as it goes; and the crisp crust provides a crunch of backbone to the rich filling. A good lemon tart is, to my taste, one of the perfect dishes known to humanity. This is such a tart. And it's priced like a bar: $1.19 for a piece big enough for two. When you order this bit of delirious sunshine, the high school girl behind the counter picks it up with waxed paper and unceremoniously chucks it into a paper bag.

Request a perfect little pear tart ($1.69), made with homemade buttery puff pastry cut into a circle, filled with vanilla-scented creamy, buttery homemade custard and topped with poached pears, and she'll chuck that in the bag, too. An exquisite little five-inch pecan tart with elegant fluted edges runs $1.99 and boasts a crust nicer than any I've seen in local restaurants, a lid of crisp-toasted pecan meats, and a pecan pie filling of incredible purity. When you see the counter girl's little hand lifting the brown beauty from its tray and preparing to fling it into the sack, it's enough to make you leap across the counter: Stop chucking the perfection! No chucking of fine pastry! Would you chuck the Mona Lisa?

But then you must remember, yes, they would. For you are at A Baker's Wife's, and they're relentlessly unpretentious, aggressively unfancy. It's clear they could buy a box of doilies and some pastry boxes, halve their portions, charge four times as much and have the world beat a path to their door. And it's equally clear they never will.

Maybe it was life in the luxe lane that put Tolle off doilies forever: He says he got his start in some of the most extravagant pastry kitchens in this country, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America straight into a post in the pastry kitchen at the legendarily extravagant Helmsley Palace. (And no, he says mythically nutty Leona Helmsley left him alone: "She had to have these special little sherbets, take a machine that was like a sausage maker for fruit and run through exactly three raspberries, four blueberries, mangoes, whatever, and as long as we had that she didn't come down on us. But for the other cooks, if the grilled chicken didn't have the right number of score marks, all hell would come down.") Tolle says he went from there to a year-and-a-half stint as the pastry chef at the Plaza Hotel, responsible for the super-fancy high teas, the luxurious room-service pastries, the billionaire wedding banquets, the whole five-star ball of wax. Who knows, maybe any one of us would want to have our pastries chucked about casually after years of centering a million raspberries in a million mounds of pastry cream.

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