The Coy and the Tarts
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.
Tolle certainly revels in the freedom that running a neighborhood bakery gives him: The fussy, perfect pastries that impressed me so much are only a small, ever-changing part of what the bakery sells. They also do cake doughnuts (42 cents), cupcakes, muffins, dazzlingly good scones, Rice Krispie bars, hamburger rolls (six for $1.89), and a whole range of seasonal treats, like Irish soda bread at St. Patrick's Day, chocolate truffles at Valentine's Day, lemon-meringue pie for Easter, fresh strawberry pie for Mother's Day, and too many breads to name.
I tried some of Baker's Wife's breads and rolls and found them fine: A ciabatta ($2.59) was the size of a viola and tasted fresh and light; a big white round boule ($1.99) had a fine, delicate texture and a pretty crust; and butter-flake rolls (six for $1.79) were so dangerously good, so full of butter-wiped pull-apart layers that they deserve one of those "death by chocolate" names. Admittedly, death by butter has a little more of a disturbingly probable ring.
Still, a life without good pastry probably isn't worth living. The last time I visited A Baker's Wife's the walls were decorated with children's art from what looked like a recent school trip, drawings scrawled on typing paper, each picture finished with a careful, teacher-drawn caption: "I like giant mixers." "I like flour." "I like cookies." Sitting at one of the bakery's several tables, sipping a 79-cent cup of coffee, eating pastry so good it makes you want to cry, it's hard not to agree: I like lemon bars. I like little neighborhood bakeries that look like nothing and yield treasure. And I'd like you all to put off coming here for as long as you can stand it.
SINGAPORE ETHIOPIAN CUISINE: If you're like me, you hate to remember the number of evenings spoiled by that age-old question: Shall we go out for Malaysian food, or Ethiopian? Malaysian? Ethiopian? And what about sushi?
Well, fret no more, old bean, because Kin Lee, the critics'-darling chef from Singapore Chinese Cuisine, where they do marvelous things with Malaysian and southeastern Chinese food, is hard at work on "Singapore Too," a restaurant that he plans to open this June on 35th Avenue South in Minneapolis, five minutes from the airport.
"We're going to do Afro-Asian food. It's going to be bizarre, right?" asks Lee, cutting me off at the pass.
Turns out that Lee has had an Ethiopian next-door neighbor for the past several years, and the two got to cooking together in their backyards for barbecues, discovered that they had similar tastes in vegetables, one thing led to another, and shazam! Next thing you know they were previewing Ethiopian/Malaysian food for select groups of customers up at Singapore Chinese Cuisine. Lee says the concept worked out well--I'm guessing curries are the common ground--and so the two embarked on the plans for Singapore Too. Lee says the restaurant will serve beer and wine and will host a series of fresh-seafood tanks in the basement, so that diners may have the freshest possible oysters, lobsters, and crabs. "When I went back to Malaysia last year, everywhere I looked I saw Malaysians eating sushi. Lots of things that Americans don't think of--lobster sushi, not just salmon."
I guess my side of the line went silent while I tried to get my head around Malaysian-Ethiopian sushi as inspired by the immigration patterns of the Twin Cities in 2001, and so Lee volunteered: "I'm crazy, right? The food will have a very, very unique flavor. Everything is going to be different there." Lee says anyone who wants a preview of the coming tastes should stop by Singapore Chinese Cuisine and make their intentions known: Singapore Chinese Cuisine, 1715-A Beam Ave., Maplewood; (651) 777-7999.
MISSED ONE: Remember my definitive bagel roundup of a few weeks ago, when I went to each and every bagel shop in the core metro? Well, of course, I missed one: The Saint Paul Bagelry, in Roseville, just over the border from St. Paul. Maddeningly, it's located in the very same strip mall that hosts Maverick's, which I also just wrote about. (I swear to God, the number of ways you can fail in the course of a day is truly mind-numbing.) Anyway, the spot is run by one Mike Sherwood, a man who lived in Manhattan briefly during his career in JC Penney management but returned to the Midwest so enchanted by bagel culture that he apprenticed himself, in his words, "to a Jewish bagel guy in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places."
Once my head stopped spinning with thoughts of a North Dakota bagel apprenticeship, I piloted my vehicle over to the Saint Paul Bagelry for a go-see. Indeed, that apprenticeship paid off nicely: Saint Paul Bagelry bagels are big, handmade, chewy fellows slathered with toppings and boasting tender hearts and tough crusts, just as they should. The place also sells Dunn Bros. coffee and Sebastian Joe's ice cream, gathering Twin Cities flavors together very nicely. If you live in the neighborhood, by all means run on over. Or, stay in and let it come to you! The Bagelry delivers orders of $25 or more to addresses within three miles of the corner of Lexington and Larpenteur, a fact that should make Como Park property values treble. Saint Paul Bagelry, 1702 Lexington Ave., Roseville; (651) 488-1700.
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