April 18 was a sad day at the City Bakery, despite the flock of balloons bouncing against the ceiling. After more than a decade, Maury Rubin was closing the bakery-café that had become, thanks to its minimalist tarts and seasonal salad bar -- not to mention its annual hot-chocolate festival -- a Union Square institution. Not for good, though; three days later, the new, improved City Bakery opened around the corner in quarters large enough for Rubin to make a go of some of the more ambitious ideas that had been percolating in his cramped basement office. In lofty premises previously inhabited by two failed brewpubs, Rubin and Ilene Rosen -- his co-chef and the driving force behind everything outside Rubin's flour-dusted pastry realm -- are in the process of creating a three-meals-a-day destination. They've just received their liquor license and are poised to expand from breakfast and lunch to an evening bar menu and, in a week or two, dinner. Once they open on Sundays, you'll never have to leave.
Rubin designed the stylish, quasi-industrial new bakery, with its double-height plate-glass windows, down to the nubby recycled-cardboard dishware. (This is a man who sweats the details. When last seen, he'd just scheduled a "Monday-morning milk-shake meeting.") There's a lot -- almost too much -- going on. Downstairs, there's banquette seating; the familiar mouthwatering pastry displays; an expanded salad bar with a separate hot-food annex ($7.50 to $9.50 a pound); a self-contained shrine to cocoa in all its forms (the chocolate room); and a seven-stool counter carved from Douglas fir, inexplicably named Lucille. For lunch and breakfast, customers have two choices: They can eat at Lucille, or they can pick their food from one of the self-serve bars and find a seat on the banquette or at a quieter table on the mezzanine upstairs. That upstairs space will soon begin to undergo an evening transformation (low lights, Whispering Jack Smith on the sound system, waiter service) to become a dining room and bar.
The multi-pronged approach to eating is a little tough to grasp, especially for customers who don't understand why they can't have salad-bar provisions on a soda-fountain stool. But there's so much good new grub for breakfast and lunch, at the salad bar and the lunch counter -- never mind what treasures reside within that chocolate room -- that it's worth dropping in while the place is still a work in progress.
A proper City Bakery breakfast has always revolved around Rubin's pastries and Rosen's fruit-and-yogurt bar, decked out with exotica like litchis and young coconuts. Now Ilene's taken her fixings fixation to new heights: Besides her classic oatmeal and its customary condiments, she offers congee, a delicate rice porridge dressed to order with ginger syrup, soy nuts, and coconut flakes; and mamaligah (Jewish grits) topped, if your inner yiddishe mama has her way, with Ben's farmer cheese. Snag a seat at the lunch counter, manned by sweetly solicitous servers, and you're in for an entirely different experience, dictated by Rubin's pastry aesthetic: a chocolate croissant, for the sheer sugary hell of it, resting on a pool of chocolate syrup and served with a demitasse of hot chocolate, for example, or a stack of bready doughnut holes you're meant to dunk into a dish of buttery glaze, a playful incursion into Krispy Kreme territory.
The lunch crowd gravitates to the salad bar, stocked with exquisitely roasted vegetables and hearty hot specials like red-bean-and-tomato stew with chipotle and lime. The Lucille lunch menu is virtually all about sandwiches, from perfectly balanced BLTs showcasing superior Greenmarket bacon to the seasonal grilled-cheese selection (Coach Farm goat cheese with sautéed ramps on rye for spring). The head of sandwich development at Peanut Butter & Co., the Village café singularly devoted to the stuff, must have his tongue permanently stuck to the roof of his mouth in envy over Rosen's over-the-top pressed peanut-butter-and-banana on coconut-milk French toast, served with a spicy mango chutney. Best of all, everything's relatively cheap, considering the quality and creativity -- most lunch entrées are under $10.
At 5 p.m., beginning this week, the bar menu starts, served upstairs in a cozy nook outfitted with a small bar, a handful of seats, a chalkboard menu, and beer on tap. Tired old munchies like pretzels and popcorn are reborn. The pretzels are transformed into warm, flaky, sesame-seeded pretzel croissants served with honey mustard, and there are two variations on the popcorn theme: one sweet with caramel and sesame seeds, the other savory with tiny, briny dried shrimp, cilantro, and lime. "Dips and chips" is a profuse mound of crunchy cassava and tempeh crackers accompanied by a soybean-based "Japanese hummus" and a creamy, nutty pumpkin-seed dip. Those latke look-alikes are actually shrimp pancakes, served with six garnishes, from peanuts to Thai bird chilies.
Dinner -- which we got to preview -- offers even more options than lunch; what you eat depends on where you sit. Downstairs, dinner at Lucille will offer a dressed-up version of lunch. Upstairs will be more of a real full-service restaurant, if a funky one. Rosen's menu covers some broad culinary and geographic territory, from moist, crumbly chopped liver with Kossar's onion bread to a turmeric-infused bowl of Manila clams with purple yam-flour pancakes. A snow-white baby chicken we sampled was lacquered red as a Chinatown duck with Malaysian soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, and five-spice powder. Those translucent squares we couldn't identify? Water-chestnut Jell-O. A dense little ramekin of potato kugel and rich, buttery creamed mushrooms on toast were a bridge from the Far East to the Lower East Side. "Ilene's vegetable smorgasbord" turned out to be a nighttime nod to her lunchtime salad bar, delicious proof that what Joël Robuchon is to silken mashed potatoes, Ilene Rosen is to taro root, which she purees with coconut milk to a peanut-butter consistency.
You don't say no to dessert at a place called the City Bakery, and Rubin doesn't disappoint: A "sweet, warm, dark cherry tart" lives up to its name. An "almond croissant, dressed for dinner," turns out to be a plain croissant split and slathered with blackberry jam, surrounded by almond paste, and baked until crispy outside and custardy within. And for the first time in City Bakery history, there's ice cream, in luscious, custardy flavors like prune and molasses. "I'm thinking about making my own cones," he says, with the dreamy expression of a man who outfits his pastries in eveningwear.
City Bakery 3 West 18th Street (212-366-1414). Open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, beginning shortly, will be served 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $11; entrées, $9 to $20. All major credit cards.