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Is it a sign of the times that Mani Niall, famous for his sugarless, low-fat sweets, these days is baking gooey, buttery, sugar-filled desserts with not an ounce of guilt?

October 21, 1998|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mani Niall stands proudly beside a display of his baked goods. Chocolate cakes, chocolate chip cookies, fruit tarts and banana butterscotch cream pies stand ready to lead customers into temptation.

Of course, if you've heard of Niall, you'll fear no temptation. With the debut of the first Mani's Bakery on Fairfax in 1990, Niall developed a national reputation for no-sugar, low-fat sweets and a fanatical local clientele who loved to hang out at his bakery, working on their laptops and drinking cappuccino. Tim Burton, Jamie Lee Curtis and Roseanne were among the celebrities who became fans.

Using barley malt, tofu and fruit juice concentrate, together with real chocolate and fresh fruit, Niall created chocolate-filled cookies, fudgy brownies, rich carrot cakes and layer cakes, fruit tarts and cheesecakes that often could be mistaken for the real deal. His "faux nuts" (originally created for Danny DeVito) were his guilt-free version of doughnuts.

But there is something different going on with this display at the takeout emporium Urban Epicuria where Niall has been baking lately--something very different.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 28, 1998 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, producer Dino De Laurentiis was misidentified as a director and his name misspelled in an Oct. 21 story about the baker Mani Niall.
Also, many readers have asked where they can buy Niall's non-nonfat pastries. They are at Urban Epicuria, 8315 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 848-8411.

White flour. Sugar. And butter. Lots of it.

Before you accuse the 29-year-old Niall of being a baking turncoat, hear him out: "I thought there were going to be people who would think it's bizarre that I'm doing this, but for me it's just learning more [about] the art and craft of baking. It's an amazing opportunity for me to stretch myself and learn."

After all, he had a good run with sugarless baking. He published a cookbook, "Sweet & Natural Baking," in 1996. And the first Mani's Bakery was followed by three more, in Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks and West Hollywood.

But a split with his business partner over differences in how to run the company left Niall bakery-less (the Fairfax and Santa Monica stores remain; the other two have closed). He segued into consulting jobs with various food-related companies and was a spokesman for the California Prune Board.

Through friends, he hooked up with the three partners who eventually opened Urban Epicuria: Gail and Alan Baral and Wayne Davis, transplanted New Yorkers who missed Manhattan foodie mecca Dean & Deluca and wanted L.A. to have something on the same level.

The result is a shop that specializes in to-go items--appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, side dishes, sandwiches. Some of the notable menu items: Caesar salad, fresh corn chowder, grilled chicken salad, red Thai coconut chicken curry, meatloaf, Greek-style blue lake string beans--all in individual-serving oven- and microwave-ready packages. It also has wines, fresh flowers, condiments, tableware--even a "food concierge" to give advice.

Niall first acted as consultant, giving the founders a quick history of takeout in L.A. In the '80s, for instance, there were Pasta Pasta Pasta and the Fellini-esque DDL Foodshow (actually owned by director Dino di Laurentis). Takeout has long been a way of life in Southern California and now can be found almost everywhere, from the ubiquitous Koo Koo Roo and Boston Market restaurants to supermarkets.

As Urban Epicuria's opening date drew near, Niall was asked to develop the bakery.

"I was a little concerned that it was so different from what I had done in the past," Niall explains over a soy milk latte. "And [the partners] were too. But they said, 'We know you can do it.'

"And after all, I had been a chef before I did Mani's Bakery. I had done a lot of mainstream catering, but I also did catering for people with some bizarre dietary things, like Michael Jackson [vegetarian at the time] and William Shatner [wheat-free]. Another person was vegan. So I had developed a niche for doing these things and making it taste good."

Next stop: to the kitchen to develop recipes. And what was it like, mixing real butter with white sugar and flour?

"It was freeing!" Niall recalls, breaking into a wide grin. "It was wonderful. The whole sugar-free thing always required so much translation work. You had to take a great recipe and refigure it all.

"It was so nice to just be able to pick up a cookbook and say, 'I'll take this cookie from here and this filling from there and that topping, and then put my spin on it.' There was so much less tinkering to do.

"And there's so much you can do with powdered sugar and caramelizing sugar and crystallizing sugar. Texturally and color-wise, there's a lot more you can do. I thought, 'I'm having a ball here!' The first time I made the marshmallow filling [for his Mani's Moon Pie], I was in heaven. I sat there eating the whole thing."

The concept the owners wanted in the bakery was nostalgic American desserts, and Niall was only too happy to comply.

"I love that phrase. To me it means childhood, and big and gooey and voluptuous and something you really want to stick a spoon in. I hadn't even tasted flavors like butterscotch and caramel since I was little.

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