Sometimes, the best crêpe is a no-frills crêpe: a squeeze of lemon juice, a dusting of powdered sugar — done. That's your Crêpe Citron, for five bucks.
Now, Crêpe Française chef James Davis is known for anything but layman's food. But along with co-chef Matt Carter — his longtime sous chef at the Blue Star — and pastry chef Marcel Chêne, Davis isn't looking to prove anything. For the moment, in fact, he wants to offer little more than "good quality French rudimentary cooking."
It works wonderfully inside the airy, hardwood-floored space (formerly Flavors on Tejon) adopted by restaurant owner, greeter and Davis' longtime friend Florence Reinhardt. Even a salad ($10) I tried at lunch showcased a beautiful simplicity: Half a head of butter leaf lettuce came naked, cut-side up on a long plate next to grapefruit supremes (wedges sans peel, pith and seeds), a cut of fine chèvre half-rolled in coarse black pepper, and ramekin of honey thyme vinaigrette.
Davis underwent shoulder surgery just prior to the mid-January opening, and is still only at 65 percent, he says, which explains why Crêpe Française has started with a four-item daily fresh sheet (served all day) that he wants to expand into a more formal menu later on. Its prices, even for steak ($16) and a delicious crispy duck confit over white bean ragout and fennel-sausage meatballs that I devoured one night ($14), are surprisingly reasonable for full gourmet entrées.
The small operation also serves one of the best French onion bowls in town; its sherried Soup à l'Oignon ($6) comes with a satisfying, thick layer of Gruyere and spongy bread through which to plunge. A warm bowl of herb- and garlic-infused olives ($4) also makes a fine starter.
Béchamel and beyond
But on to what you really go for.
Davis had said in January that he'd would be doing "raw, honest, classic" crêpes you could find tomorrow in France. Just for fun, I brought along a friend from Brittany to test that claim.
The inconsistencies she identified were minor: the crêpe texture being identical on savories and sweets (in France, savories are made with buckwheat flour, sweets with wheat flour), and tomatoes making their way into the Crêpe Oeuf ($10). Regardless, that crêpe — also containing Swiss cheese, an over-medium fried egg and thick, moist French ham slices — quickly became my favorite.
Given the nod of French approval, we continued on to the Florence ($9) and Alaska ($14), and I later stole bites from the Dinde ($10) and Corpus Christi ($13). Summary on the savory scene: all-around superb.
The Dinde's Dijon cream sauce makes bacon and turkey sing. A tomato-tarragon sour cream receives salmon chunks delightfully on the Alaska. The Florence's Mornay sauce (milk, flour, butter and cheese) complements clean spinach and mushroom flavors. And sautéed baby shrimp meet onions and sweet peppers in a gorgeous tomato-buerre blanc in the Corpus Christi.
Sensitive to trends, Crêpe Française does offer a gluten-free crêpe option made from chickpea, tapioca, potato and sweet potato flours. Side-by-side with a standard crêpe, the difference in texture is detectable, but in flavor, it's negligible.
As for presentation, some of the large crepes were folded into "beggar's purses" and "pyramids," while one came rolled almost like an ice cream cone half way up, revealing and spilling its goods out the top. (The idea is to expose at least a little of the stuffing so servers can distinguish dishes.)
On the sweet list, eight crêpes ($5 to $9) and eight "handcrafted desserts" (all $8) by Chêne vie for attention. We bypassed standards like the Nutella, Normande (apple brandy flambé), à la Banane (bananas and chocolate) and Suzette (Grand Marnier flambé), for the Citron, Chantilly (berries and real whipped cream) and Crêpe au Chocolat (chocolate pastry cream, berries and chocolate sauce).
The Chantilly was light and lovely, but the Chocolat introduced a major fumble: Hershey's Syrup, and lots of it. After having heard our servers talk up the homemade desserts, we were appalled to find them topped with such a miserable commercial product. (Hey, why not Magic Shell?)
The syrup reared its synthetic flavor not only on the au Chocolat, but also on the Chocolate Bavaroise, a mousse-like, gelatin-stiffened egg custard that we ordered based off an erroneous description by our server (who otherwise was fine). We'd hoped to stray further from our Crème Caramel, also an egg custard that's more flan-like, which Chêne executed beautifully.
A pastry case went in to the lobby the day before my second visit, with authentic-looking treats begging for a try, and I hope to also return for Chêne's traditional tarts.
A sidewalk crêpe station will operate in weather good and bad, but even there, you should be prepared to wait a little longer than most places for food. Davis and Co. are committed to cooking à la minute from raw ingredients.
"I don't want to speed it up or make big batches of food," Davis says unapologetically.
And that's when I realize what's making this whole operation work so well: real French attitude.