When pastry chef Maury Rubin opened City Bakery in 1990, it looked more like an industrial loft space than a place to buy sticky buns. The only decorations in the narrow, concrete-floored storefront were cardboard cake boxes tacked to the walls. The design was "non-Laura Ashley," says Maury, the mastermind. The sweets made the loudest statement: oversize cookies, thick hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows and tarts that were minimalist yet decadent and shaped like hockey pucks. Through word of mouth, City Bakery cultivated a following of loyal customers, many of them shoppers at the nearby Union Square Greenmarket.
Six years later, Maury hired Ilene Rosen to be the chef for his salad bar, which was becoming a more prominent part of City Bakery... making the place, he says, "the newest notion of what a neighborhood bakery could be." Already a regular at the bakery, Ilene had attended New York City's French Culinary Institute with the goal of working for Maury after graduation. Like Maury, she had a passion for design as well as for the culinary arts: "We felt a strong connection that went beyond the food," she says. Inspired by the Greenmarket, she made innovative yet comforting dishes like rice noodles with mustard greens and edamame (fresh soy beans).
Ilene and Maury don't collaborate on recipes. Evidently, they don't need to since they share a sensibility that emphasizes high-quality organic ingredients and recipes that are original, unpretentious and honest. "We're natural complements to one another," Maury says. "He's the sugar, I'm the salt," Ilene concurs.
Last spring City Bakery moved a few blocks away into a larger location that is still industrial in feel, but with a hint of nostalgia for midcentury America: Witness the soda fountain where Maury debuted his homemade ice creams. There's a hot-food counter for dishes like Ilene's macaroni and cheese (the topping uses City Bakery's corn bread), and upstairs there's a wine bar and a full-service dining room. Ilene's new salad bar continues to attract devotees, with dishes like her chicken with a crust of (crushed) pretzels purchased from a favorite Greenmarket vendor. It's her version of Maury's pretzel croissant: different, unexpected and totally delicious (City Bakery, 3 W. 18th St.; 212-366-1414).