A king of tarts in Manhattan The confectioner: A Baltimore native turns a hobby into a bakery, and is now trying to take the mystery out of making pastry.

November 29, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

With his longish hair and whimsical smile, Maury Rubin might well be some sweet '60s holdover, a folk singer, a poet, a master of the gentle protest.

He is, in fact, a veteran of television production -- he worked with the legendary Howard Cosell at ABC Sports -- a French-trained pastry-maker, a New York restaurateur, and, most recently, a cookbook author. And he is anything but gentle in his criticism of mainstream American commercial baking.

At the City Bakery in Manhattan, Mr. Rubin 36, who was born in Baltimore and graduated from Milford Mill High School and the University of Maryland College Park, serves pastries and light lunch fare such as pizza, pasta and sandwiches.

But it was for its exquisite little tarts that the bakery first became known. Now, with the publication of "The Book of Tarts" (William Morrow and Co., $25), Mr. Rubin offers ordinary bakers a chance to turn out the City Bakery's signature confection.

Along the way, he hopes to remove some of the common perception that baking is a mystically difficult art, requiring the skills of a sorcerer and a mechanical engineer.

"The recipes are written in as spare a way as possible," he said on a recent visit to Baltimore, where his parents and one brother still live. His main concession to home cooks was to convert every measurement from metric -- which he uses exclusively at the bakery -- to the more familiar cups, and tablespoons.

"I really do think it is a bit of myth" that baking is difficult, he said. "There's an attention to detail that's different from baking a chicken or sauteing a fish. But it's a dubious thing to me that a lot of baking books make something that's not complicated seem complicated."

If the tarts aren't complicated, they are certainly aesthetically intricate. For in Mr. Rubin's hands the humble tart is transformed into a tiny abstract jewel of patisserie.

Four inches around, three-quarters of an inch high, the tarts have the deceptive simplicity of modern art.

Take mango, decorated with a single, perfect, nickel-sized dollop of chocolate or raspberry puree. Or cranberry, caramel and almond, with its mound of deep crimson fruit and architectural ruin of honey-golden almonds. Or chocolate, with a single stark stripe of darker chocolate --ed across the top.

It was never Mr. Rubin's intention to turn from TV production to tart production. "Work was great," he said. "But I took a break and it turned into this food thing."

Still, the food thing gives him all kinds of outlets for creativity, he said, from designing the tarts -- some of his developmental sketches adorn the book -- to designing the bakery's window display.

In fact, he designed the bakery space, which, besides the kitchen, has 38 seats and a small retail area. It's a long, tall, narrow space that's mostly black and white. One playful note is a long wall dotted with string-tied pastry boxes that look as if they've popped out of the plaster. But plenty of color is supplied by the 800 to 900 people who stop by every day.

"I love the idea of a neighborhood bakery -- in Paris you really do have a bakery on every corner," Mr. Rubin said. "I have a lot of interest in cities, in urban places, in architecture. I have a real concern for how all this fits into the cityscape. I like the idea of small, independent, creative stores in the city."

Wooed by food

Mr. Rubin began to develop his interest in food when he moved to New York after college. He was amazed at the depth of the culinary world in New York and was soon sampling the cuisine of other places -- in those plummy days when networks had a lot of money -- as fast as he could get it on his expense account. "It was a good way to get romanced by food," he says with a smile.

So heavy was the romance that in 1986 he quit television and moved to Paris. He took a course in pastry-making in Lyons, then apprenticed in a bakery in Paris and worked in a chocolate shop and in other bakeries. After seven months, he returned to New York and discovered there simply were no bakeries of the type he had grown used to.

"New York has all kinds of amazing food stores, but it's very weak in the bakery area," he said. "And what some New Yorkers would consider -- how do I put this nicely? -- well, they're not good bakeries at all."

Why not? "They still use canned fruit, they use ultra-pasteurized milk and cream -- there's been a sea change for the use of ingredients that anybody's who's interested in food knows about," he said.

To prove the difference, he opened his own shop on East 17th Street, just off the corner of Union Square where the notable Union Square Greenmarket operates four days a week.

"City Bakery is a bakery that really reflects what's changed in the food world," he said. It also reflects Mr. Rubin's culinary philosophy. "For one thing there's [freshness]. 'Fresh' is a bit of a cliche on the savory side, but I think for baked goods, there is less sense of the importance of 'fresh.'

What is 'fresh'?

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