Small is beautiful. But sometimes small is overlooked.
Consider La Creperie, in the heart of downtown. It's one door in from Bijou, across from Acacia Park. It's glass-fronted, strung with white lights year-round. In almost all weather, there are outside tables. And yet my friends and I admitted to each other as we sat there the other night that though La Creperie has been here close to 20 years and has always enjoyed a stellar reputation, we seldom think to dine there.
That is about to change.
We had a delightful, relaxed and tasteful experience. Were we not looking out at a certain fountainous monstrosity across Tejon Street in the park, we might have thought we were in some backstreet bistro in Paris. It's a warm, bustling, crowded room one enters, every inch devoted to table space (there are 11 tables in all).
True to its name, crepes dominate the menu both at lunchtime and at dinner. If the menu ended there, I'd be happy, but the chalkboard displayed on the wall tempted us with some classic bistro specials: steak au poivre, beef tips bordelaise, New Zealand lamb Provenal. There were fish specials: fricassee of shrimp and scallops, trout almandine, and grilled tuna with tomato and basil salsa. How does one choose?
Well, begin at the beginning. Start with the Pat Maison, a meltingly smooth pat served with cornichons, hot mustard, and a small salad garnish (far more salad than garnish: baby greens, tomato, carrots and onion topped with a creamy vinaigrette). The serving is large enough to share, though so good you won't want to. Spread some pat on the crusty French bread supplied by La Baguette, sip on a dry red wine and think of the money you'll save by not going to France this year.
We sampled one appetizer special: crab cakes rmoulade. The crab cakes were crisp outside and moist inside. Their accompanying aioli, a homemade mayonnaise with enough garlic to kill and enough cayenne to awaken, was delicious, and the perfect foil to the crabby sweetness of the cakes. This dish, too, came with its share of salad.
Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad; we opted for soup, and tried each of the daily soups. The French onion was beefy, flavorful, and finished with a crispy, cheese-topped baguette slice. The broccoli soup was delicate and a bit thin, disappointing only in its lack of anything to bite into. Even a small garnish of, say, a few slices of water chestnut, would have made it more interesting. The potato-leek, also light in texture, had a deeper flavor.
Tougher choices confronted us for entrees. Everything sounded yummy, and nothing we finally ordered disappointed. The fricassee of shrimp and scallops was a generous mound of seafood (huge shrimp, and many of them) over brown rice, ringed with paper-thin half slices of zucchini and yellow squash. This dish sparkled with fresh herbs and tomatoes, even as warmed leftovers the next day.
Real temptation, however, rests in the crepes section of the menu. Give in to that temptation. As if one could possibly resist crepes, light as air, rich as butter, filled with chicken, almonds, mushrooms and hollandaise, or turkey, spinach, Swiss cheese and bchamel sauce. My favorite is the chicken, broccoli, cheddar and hollandaise. You may feel your arteries hardening, but you'll do so with a smile on your face.
Vegetarians might be troubled but the abundance of meat ingredients -- only two of the 15 crepes are meatless. Two, however, have seafood (crab and shrimp), and the meat can be omitted from any choice.
Be sure to save room for a dessert crepe. Or two. Dessert crepes contain various combinations of cherries, banana, chocolate and almonds; raspberries, blueberries, strawberries; flambed orange liqueur, apples and butter; or plain sugar and lemon. The one we tried was a huge and heavenly combo of apples, rum-soaked raisins and whipped cream. Despite its size, it was light enough to float away. We passed over the Bananas Foster and the Mousse au Chocolat and ordered the lemon almond tart, a dense, delicious end to an understated terrific dinner.
Prices at La Creperie are understated too. Crepes range from $7.50 to $10.50. Chalkboard specials are about $16 to $25. Appetizers run from $6.95 to $8.50 and can be "super-sized" for a few dollars to include soup or salad and make a fabulous light meal. Wines from eight countries are available at quite reasonable prices. More than half the wines on the list are available by the glass. There's nothing small about that, or anything else at La Creperie, including their ambitious hours: open every day for Le Petit Djeuner (doesn't that sound nicer than breakfast?), shifting into lunch and dinner without missing a beat.
Lunch specials change daily and often reflect seasonal choices. Dinner specials include a few standards, such as the steak au poivre and beef tips bordelaise, surrounded by a list of changing dishes.
If you've been overlooking this gem of French country cooking, head over there soon.