I've never made a crêpe. Well, I'd never made a crêpe until recently, that is. Often, I go into restaurants to review them and I can say, "OK, I've made that." I have an idea how difficult or how easy it is to pull off at least a variation of some of the items on the menu. Even if I've resorted to a packet or mix, I've been able to discern just how much work it would take to make it from scratch. I've eaten crêpes throughout much of my life, but unless you count pancakes (and you shouldn't), I'd never battered up and griddled down.
Crêperie du Château changed that. The stark little café at the bottom of the Château Plaza office building screams "quick sandwich in the middle of the workday," but unlike most first-floor eateries below cubicles and copiers, it offers a foray into French savories and sweets. The sterile setting is also the part of the restaurant most unlike an actual café in France: No seats line the outside dining area (only two tables) and no cigarette smoke wafts from coffee-drinking people-watchers...at least on my visits.
The menu spans sandwiches, quiche, some basic entrees and, of course, crêpes. Co-owned by former Dallas Maverick/current Los Angeles Laker Didier Ilunga-Mbenga (yeah, that's what I said) and Paris native Fatoumata Ndiaye (she moved here about two years ago), the restaurant doesn't flip out the blond crêpe we Americans normally see. Instead, its savory crêpes are of the sarrasin variety popular in western France, meaning they are made with organic buckwheat for a heartier flavor. So, to the shopping list I add "organic buckwheat flour," and with recipes in hand, I head to my trusty Whole Foods.
But not before I have my first taste of Crêperie du Château. Quiche Florentine? Delicious and not too firm. Moderate spinach, unannounced bell peppers, flaky crust. French onion soup is salty and beefy, with a crust of gloriously bubbly cheese oozing over a handful of croutons. It takes a long while for the bread to get soggy—the croutons are a fine choice. And then there's chicken crêpe.
At first, the open-face plating that the crêperie uses disappoints me. Really, it is only because one of my dining companions and I are splitting the crêpe and the presentation makes it more difficult to do the ol' cut 'n' swap, but I quickly get over it. The innards comprise chicken breast chunks, mushrooms, onions and shallots, and a nice béchamel sauce. The sturdy buckwheat crêpe holds up to the sauce and doesn't get too soggy by meal's end. The dish overall is rich and creamy and, save being a tad oversalted, enjoyable. Half an entrée crêpe proves filling enough, so it's safe to say the kitchen has the "big" portions we Texans have come to expect. I add "béchamel" to my crêpe-making plan.
I stroll through Whole Foods pondering my fillings and debating the loose flours versus the packaged kind. I go for loose. Who knows how often I'll be whipping up buckwheat crêpes if I totally suck at making them? I select some Gruyère and an incredible Parrano suggested by the cheese steward for its texture and melt potential. I grab organic uncured ham, some organic turkey (figuring I'd vary a bit on the chicken dish), large brown eggs, whole milk and Ficoco, a fig and cocoa spread I plan on using for my version of Crêperie du Château's Nutella and banana dessert crêpes that totally blew my mind.
The La Parisienne at the little corner bistro is similar in its ingredients to the crêpes one grabs from a window walk-up on a Paris street. It's ham and cheese, with a mornay sauce drizzled about. It may not be the hand-held, conical offering that enables walking and noshing, but it has the flavor. I don't particularly favor the diced ham, preferring thin slices instead, but that's no reason to call foul here. Because of the creamy sauce and cheese, Paris' treat is a heavy mouthful and will keep you full until dinner, or even the next day depending on when you dine. After one bite, I decide I need to make that sucker. The salty ham and the slightly grainy flavor of the crêpe mesh so well, I have to see if it has late-night snack potential, past the Crêperie's closing hours.
I get my bowls out, grab the whisks and measure out the two types of flours—the buckwheat and a pastry flour. I'm going for savory and sweet with every expectation that I can perhaps come humbly close to the savory product of Crêperie du Château, but will never come close to its desserts. I sift and make wells in my flours. (I love recipes that require forming a well in the flour for the eggs. That was always the best part of watching my grandmother cook—the way she could whisk an egg with no bowl—and when I do it myself it makes me feel, foolishly, that I'm worthy of spending upward of a Grant on pastry blenders, silicone spatulas, recipe dividers and other such gadgets if I so much as get close to a Crate & Barrel or Williams-Sonoma.)
Batter prepared, I first head into savory territory. My first crêpe is mayhem. Uneven and misshapen, it tears to bits when I attempt to loosen the edges and flip. I sadly feed it to the disposal. The second try is better but still tears on the flip. With the third try, I feel something click. My wrist motions are more fluid, and I get a round specimen. No tears and a good flip. I fill it with grated Gruyère and seared ham. I roll it up, and it's not too shabby. I make another and whip up a béchamel (a roux and some milk) and then decide to mimic the Château and add in the extra Gruyère for a mornay sauce. I am victorious. Not Uptown-grade, but successful enough to warrant a "Yeah!" and an arm-raise in the style of a dismounting gymnast (fork in hand). The Parrano is just sitting there, staring at me, so I go for another using the nutty cheese I will now list as a favorite.
My turkey-mushroom concoction blows fairly hard, however, and I make note to just order from the Crêperie by 10 p.m. if I'm craving its fowl offerings.
The sweet crêpes are the highlights of my aventure de crêpe. At the McKinney Avenue French-aurant, dessert is the real coup. Think ahead and don't fill up. You'll thank me later. The Nutella (a decadent chocolate hazelnut spread, for those who don't keep a jar of it and a spoon in close proximity) is simple. A traditional crêpe spread with the sinful blend is topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It's a win-win-win. The French strawberry shortcake is made with a vanilla muffin and, while it's quite dense, the berries and whipped cream soften the blow with sweet grace. The banana split crêpe is nothing short of dynamite. It's tender and sweet with slices of fresh banana, a healthy spread of Nutella and a scoop of ice cream. A sprinkling of walnuts really heightens the experience, adding a nutty crunch amidst all the softness.
My home variation features Ficoco in the role of sumptuous spread, sliced banana and ice cream. My walnuts didn't make it home somehow, so I sub some large granola pieces (c'mon, it has nuts) for crunch. My pastry flour crêpes aren't nearly as flavorful as the buckwheat ones, but I'm thinking that's a good thing—they allow the ingredients to really marry with no taste interference. I find the crêpe gone before I realize it and use the rest of the banana in another smaller crêpe with a drizzle of local honey. So nice...but as expected, nowhere near those of Dallas' Crêperie du Château, which, thankfully, is here and nowhere near Paris.
Next time, I'll go for the crêpe Suzette. At Crêperie du Château, mind you. I'm leaving anything combining crêpes and "flambé" to the professionals in Uptown.
2515 McKinney Ave., 214-292-4664. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursdays, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. $$