A simple dish can expand your horizons—but only if you let it.
Generally speaking, I don’t think about crepes. At no point have I ever craved a crepe or sought out a crepe or been excited by the possibility of a crepe. For valid reasons: I harbor no acute Francophilic tendencies and find the idea of fried dough—pancakes, hushpuppies, elephant ears, doughnuts, crepes, etc.—pretty unappetizing.
After a lifetime of snubbing, I was offered an hour of intense crepe reconsideration at Paris Eastside, a new French boutique and cooking school on Capitol Hill. In observance of an obscure Gallic holiday in early February, the owner, Muriel Foucher, was hosting a crepe-making class. I recognized an opportunity to expand my horizons and signed up.
Turns out Le Chandeleur is the French Groundhog Day (Foucher’s words, not mine). Every Feb. 2, tradition dictates something about lighting candles that’s been lost over the years, plus the home-making of crepes: You hold a gold coin in one hand while the other wields a pan. A successful crepe-flip signals a prosperous year ahead.
Any kitchen-fearing dolt can concoct crepe batter. It’s just flour, water and egg (though a French classmate mentioned adding hard cider or orange-flower water to the mix for complexity). The intrigue comes with the flip. Pour a skin of batter into a hot, low-sided, lightweight frying pan, give it a minute to set and, with a flick of the wrist, flip the Frisbee-sized disc in one fluid motion. Ha-ha! We topped ours with either lemon juice and sugar or chocolate ganache (French for melted chocolate blended with warm cream). Simple and undeniably tasty.
Foucher presented crepes as not just easy to make but redolent of je ne sais quoi elegance. Like popcorn and s’mores, the cooking process itself is as much the point of a crepe as eating it. This fact I didn’t fully grasp until I ordered a crepe at a restaurant.
Restaurant crepes are typically made on a special, disc-shaped griddle. The crepe-maker uses a wooden paddle to spread the batter across the griddle surface and then, once it sets, folds it with a metal spatula. There’s no flip but the technique requires a fair amount of prowess and provides a fun culinary performance to watch.
So the first problem with Crepe Café in Ravenna was that, seated at a two-top and waited on by an amiable server, my friend and I couldn’t watch our crepes being made in the tiny kitchen behind us. The second problem was that my “Westchester” crepe—folded with avocado, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, tomatoes, spinach and sun-dried tomato coulis inside—cost $13. My friend’s ham and cheese crepe was $12.
As Foucher described in class, in France crepes are most often eaten as a between-meal snack, not a meal in itself. A pit stop, not a final destination. Though the service at Crepe Café was friendly and our crepes were both delicious, the experience felt incongruous. Too much consequence—financial, gustatorial—put into an item meant for casual enjoyment.
At Joe Bar on Capitol Hill, the price point was lower, the quality about equal and the atmosphere much smarter (with ever-rotating art on the walls and a constant stream of good music at a fair volume and Belgian beer in bottles, the place is reminiscent of stylish cafés in Amsterdam and Barcelona). My proscuitto, gruyere and scrambled egg crepe was wrapped in tangy buckwheat dough and served folded into quadrants like a pocket square. At $9, it wasn’t big enough for—or as expensive as—a full lunch, which left room for a chocolate chip cookie to finish.
Foucher also averred that in France crepes are popular as street food, which brought to mind La Creperie Voilà, a walk-up window on Pike near the convention center that I’ve passed a million times over the years and never thought to try.
Like Joe Bar, La Creperie Voilà’s griddles are set behind a glass counter and young, gregarious chefs prepare your order right in front of you while looking very cool. The tab for two crepes—mine with wild salmon lox, scrambled egg, crème fraîche, spinach, lemon and herb butter, and my companion’s with ham, Swiss cheese, scrambled egg and “white sauce”—was about the same as the Westchester alone at Crepe Café. Granted, these came wrapped in paper and were eaten while standing amidst a swirl of foot traffic. But the balanced flavors and bustling informality added up to an ideal crepe encounter, so much so that I not only considered a Nutella and banana crepe, I ordered one to share. I’ve been daydreaming about it ever since.
Photo by Nate Watters