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April 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 08, 2005

A European experience A European experience (April 08, 2005)

Crepes Cafe offers traditional French crepes in sidewalk bistro atmosphere

by Jennifer Aquino

You would almost miss Crepes Cafe if you weren't paying attention.

Tucked into a recessed corner of a new development across from the Menlo Park train station, I passed by the cafe while riding the train for months before I noticed it next to Gambardello's and Lisa's Tea Treasures.

But it would be a shame not to take note of this French-inspired cafe. This tiny spot offers a taste of Europe, serving traditional crepes, the best chocolate mousse I've ever had and fine cheeses in a setting that screams French bistro. While this cafe is a stand-out, there are a few things that need to be worked on to make it stellar.

The cafe, opened a little more than a year ago, is the innovation of Helene Pascal, Alexandra Carrou and their two silent partners, who thought the Peninsula needed a traditional French creperie. Helene's partner traveled to Brittany (the West Coast of France) to learn the art of making French crepes. From there, a menu of French sandwiches, galettes, soups, salads and dessert crepes was assembled based on recipes from the French region.

The owners, inspired by the Impressionist painters, hope to draw a crowd eager to share in the pleasures of life -- good food and conservation. The small interior is IKEA-like, with blue chairs, simple blond wooden tables and wood-beamed ceiling. The crepe maker sits behind the cash register, where a sous chef turns out the thin pancakes as you order.

The sweet smell of butter and sugar cooking wafts through the small space and outside onto the wrap-around, Craftsman-style porch that fronts the cafe. The porch and sidewalk are really the main dining areas, featuring several tables and powerful heaters. Given that the interior is chilled to the temperature of a walk-in freezer and is small, I'd suggest sitting outside under a heat lamp even on the dreariest of days.

Creperies have become en vogue recently, popping up along the Peninsula and San Francisco. But unlike those trendy spots, Crepes Cafe is much more traditional. First off, they don't fold the crepes. Instead they are presented flat on the plate, like an open-face sandwich. This is puzzling to most diners who are used to having their crepes folded. I suggest rolling the thin pancake around its contents as you eat. Secondly, the creperie prepares its savory crepes, called galettes , with buckwheat, which is traditional in Brittany. The heartier flour yields a nuttier-tasting crepe.

The best galette I tried was the goat cheese with lardons ($8.95), the latter a European-style bacon that is cut in cubes, with a more intense, smokey flavor than American bacon. The goat cheese and lardon were a sharp contrast to the galette and the walnuts inside. Another good bet is the smoked salmon ($9.95), with creme fraiche, lemons and scallions. The fish was fresh, perfectly pink and thinly sliced. Its earthy flavors were picked up by the acidity in the capers and the silkiness of the creme fraiche.

On any given day there are at least two galette specials. I had the guacamole with lardon ($9.95). The guacamole was fresh and the bacon tasty, but I found it a bit bland and more like an appetizer than a main course. Another special galette, the steak and blue cheese ($9.95), was less stellar. The cheese was overbearing -- almost cloying -- and the steak tasted more like ground beef.

If you are looking for something other than a galette, the creperie serves some good sandwiches, soups and salads. I highly recommend the French onion soup ($3.50 small; $4.95 large), made with beef broth, a heap of onions, crisp sourdough toast and a healthy helping of Gruyere cheese. The soup's salty, tangy onions and broth were tempered by the silky cheese and buttery croutons.

The warm goat cheese salad ($7.95) was also wonderful and showed off the creperie's emphasis on high-quality cheeses, bought from local artisans and -- in some cases -- shipped from France. The imported French Crottin goat cheese in this salad was incredibly creamy, salty and far less pungent than other goat cheeses. Crottin slices were placed on sourdough bread croutons and scattered on a plate of greens, lardons and walnuts. It was smothered in the café's signature dressing, French mustard, egg yolks, vinegar and olive oil.

In the sandwich category, the chicken pesto ($6.75) was served hot and featured chicken, melted Swiss cheese and pesto sauce on a baguette. Though a bit dry, the meat was tender, the bread soft and the cheese pungent. The hot smoked turkey breast ($6.75), served on sliced sourdough with melted Swiss cheese, was incredibly flavorful, with sweet turkey breast, tangy, homemade aioli and fresh tomatoes and lettuce.

For a decadent finale to your meal, try the chocolate mousse ($4.75 small; $5.50 large). Perfect rows of sundae glasses full of mousse line a refrigerated case near the register. The mousse was incredibly velvety and airy like whipped cream, the chocolate luscious and smooth. Pascal said the mousse's deep flavor comes from the use of real cocoa imported from France.

The fresh strawberry crepe ($6.50) was divine. The shiny, red strawberries were perfectly sweet and the crepe warm and sugary, melting the mound of some of the best whipped cream I've ever had. The sidewalk crepe ($2.95) is the genre in its most simplistic form, with a dash of lemon and a sprinkle of sugar. In France, vendors sell these on the street. Here it was nearly perfect, albeit a bit too lemony.

There is one glitch in this operation -- the service can be hit-or-miss. While the waiters and waitresses are well-intentioned, they don't have good timing. They took our order all three times almost immediately after seating us and delivered our food at a rapid pace. However, they took eons to clear plates and neglected on all occasions to offer us a dessert menu. If you left without dessert, you really missed the best part.

That said, this creperie is truly an authentic experience -- right down to the fact that you can get imported French cider served in a bowl and, during the winter, fondue. The menu even features specialty cheese and meat plates.

A blogger on Epicurious, a foodie's Website, called the place "the real thing." "I am French and I have not eaten such crepes in a long, long time," the blogger wrote.

Crepes CafŽ
Reservations: No
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Street
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Children: Yes
Outdoor dining: Yes
Party and banquet: No
Take out: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
Catering: No
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Good

Crepes Cafe, 1195 Merrill St., Menlo Park; (650) 473-0506; www.crepescafe.com.

Hours: Monday -Saturday 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Full service dinner begins at 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.


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