The crêpe is, at its essence, not much more than a very thin cooked pancake, but ask even the most accomplished chefs to relate their initial attempts at baking crêpes and you’ll be regaled with tales of exasperation, woe, despair and misery.
Use too much water or milk and not enough fat and the crêpes will turn out elastic and tough. If your pan isn’t hot enough, the crêpes will stick to it; too hot and the crêpes turn out lacy. Roll them too tight and they’ll explode and scald your face…
Or at least that was the experience of Dominicans trying to pass off as Cuban cigar rollers in a hilarious episode of Seinfeld. When the owners of the Magic Pan crêperie became incapacitated, Jerry had the “Cubans” fill in at the restaurant rolling crêpes. Not surprisingly, the “Cubans” rolled the crêpes cigar tight, causing the filling to spray out and burn diners trying to eat them.
My own experiences include a sprained wrist from trying to flip crêpes on a pan for lack of a crêpe spatula. Using a spatula improved things just a bit, but the resultant effort was something tasting more like crêpe paper than pancakes.
The etymology of the word pancake is, in fact, derived from the French word “pannequet,” which is what crêpes used to be called until someone noticed the resemblance of a very thin pannequet to crêpe, the crinkly fabric.
Crêpes are believed to have originated in Brittany, a region in the Northwest of France. While no one knows the true origin of crêpes , I know a proud (most would say haughty) Frenchman who claims the crêpe is the progenitor or inspiration for the Mexican tortilla, the Russian blinchki and even the Indian masala dosa.
Whatever their origin, there’s no denying the crêpe (referring to both the thin pancake by itself or one filled with sundry ingredients) is extremely versatile. Crêpes can be made savory or sweet. They can be had as a main entree or as dessert. In Paris, crêpes are a ubiquitous street food and in rural America, they’re still rare enough to be considered a special treat. In Albuquerque, there is no more practiced and proficient purveyor of the crêpe than the venerable La Crêpe Michel in Albuquerque’s Old Town.
For more than a quarter-century, La Crêpe Michel has provided one of the city’s very best alternatives to New Mexican cuisine. Set back in an easy-to-miss alcove, this unpretentious, cafe-style restaurant has an unmistakably relaxed European feel to it. Housed in a charming adobe house and protected by codes governing historic buildings, it provides an interesting dichotomy–a French restaurant in a distinctly New Mexican edifice whose ceilings have vigas and brass light fixtures and the floors are made of red brick.
The dining room is very small enough for diners in adjacent tables to participate in each others’ conversations. An enclosed garden room includes a charming feature also found in two other Old Town dining establishments–a living tree growing through the ceiling.
True to the restaurant’s name, crêpes are a featured fare, prominent on both the entree and dessert portions of the menu. An assortment of salads and appetizers is also available as is what appears to be a selective beer and wine list. The dinner menu changes seasonally with the specials of the day posted on a slate board.
Arriving at your table shortly after your menu is a basket of sliced French bread with a tub of real butter and a black and green olive tapenade. It’s a delicious prelude to a magnificent meal–or a part of it if you can manage to stave off eating a slice or two.
If you can pry yourself away from the mussels or escargot, a popular appetizer is the Pâté de Campagne Maison, a hearty country blend of choice marinated pork, veal and chicken livers baked with spices, herbs and fine wines.
Available in half or full orders, the pâté is accompanied on the plate by tiny cornichons (sour crisp pickles made from tiny gherkin cucumbers), the very best grainy mustard I’ve ever had (with almost as much pungence and heat as horseradish) and a small salad of mixed greens.
The selection of crêpes is mouth-watering. It will take repeated visits to try them all, but you’ll be happy to do so because they’re all reputed to be excellent. Best of all, they’re reasonably priced and each one is full-meal sized.
The crêpe aux fruits de mer, a blend of sea scallops, bay scallops and shrimp in a veloute sauce, is memorable. The shrimp and scallops is succulent, sweet and perfectly prepared. The veloute sauce is smooth, creamy and rich, a credit to various stock bases thickened with a roux.
A featured entree you’ll find only on the slate board is the Filet de Boeuf, beef tenderloin prepared to order with your choice of a black peppercorn cream sauce or a Roquefort cheese sauce. While each of these two sauces by themselves have flavor characteristics with the potential to overwhelm a slab of beef, at La Crêpe Michel, the sauce is a subtle flavor ameliorant that enhances the flavor of the beef. (This is where you can use the restaurant’s wonderful bread to sop up any remaining sauce.)
Sharing plate space with the Filet de Bouef are some of the best scalloped potatoes you’ll find anywhere as well as a side of fresh vegetables cooked just enough to give them a crispy snap when you bite into them.
As superb as the savory entrees might be, an evening of fine dining at La Crêpe Michel is incomplete without at least one of the restaurant’s famous dessert crêpes. These are the type of crêpes about which you dream at night, the type you don’t want to share even with someone you love, the type you know will mean a return visit is in order…and very shortly.
When you see Crêpe Au Poivre on the dessert menu, you’ll probably wonder if it’s French ingenuity in play or a bit of French whimsy. One bite, however, and you’ll know there’s not only inventiveness in this crêpe, but a chef who knows how to apportion sweet and savory ingredients in perfect proportion. This crepe is filled with vanilla ice cream and “seasoned” with black pepper and Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur from Italy. It is absolutely wonderful!
More traditional is the Crêpe Au Chocolate, a thin crêpe filled with melted Belgian Callebaut chocolate and Chantilly cream. To say Callebaut is a fine chocolate is an understatement. Created with prime grades of cocoa beans and replete in fat content, it is rich and hearty chocolate decadence, an exemplary confection. Chantilly cream is sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla or brandy. Put all this together and you might have to ask for an angioplasty with your dessert, but oh, what a way to go!
La Crêpe Michel
400 San Felipe Drive., #C2
LATEST VISIT: 1 June 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pate De Campagne Maison, Filet De Boeuf, Crêpe Aux Fruits De Mer, Crêpe Au Poivre, Crêpe Au Chocolat