I wanted cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers and beer, a shot of whiskey. Laura wanted Mexican food — chips and salsa, top-shelf mezcal and tamales. New Mexican would've been all right with her. A bowl of pozole, a plate of tacos and thee. She was chasing after some memory of our destitution and poverty in Albuquerque, some deep-brain hit of the good shit from back in the days before we had cats, health insurance, cable TV.
We were in a celebration frame of mind, but we had two very different ideas of the appropriate food to go along with our party mood. How we ended up eating crepes, I couldn't tell you.
To me, crepes — along with quiche and, a little less so, pap like tartiflette and raclette — have always been the baby food of French cuisine, the mewling, ingratiating inner child who warrants no more than a false smile, a gentle pat on the head and a kick in the pants when he doesn't move along quickly enough. That the grand, mother cuisine that gifted the world with such delights as the sautéed livers of force-fed geese, shellfish poached alive in boiling wine and pig face in mustard sauce could've also considered gritty pancakes folded around bananas and topped with chocolate sauce a worthwhile contribution to historical gastronomy was anathema to me. The quiche, at least, has some kind of loopy connection to the mousse and soufflé (dishes best reserved for preparation by the intellectual kitchen monk with the calm of a Zen master), and tartiflette is essentially just cheese and potatoes. But crepes? There aren't many areas in which the American hash-slinger wins hands-down over the French chef, but in the construction of pancakes, we own the field.
Crepes 'n Crepes
2816 East Third Avenue
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.- 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
Plain crepe: $4
Ham and cheese: $7
Poulet au gratin: $9.50
Strawberry and banana: $8
And yet there we were — Laura and I, standing in the freezing cold in Cherry Creek, staring in through the windows of the original Crepes 'n Crepes (there's another, newer location in Writer Square).
"There's no tables," Laura said, a note of hopeful expectation in her voice. "And I'm not gonna wait for a crepe."
"Me neither, but we're here. When we're done, we can always go to the Cricket and get drunk."
Shrugging, she acquiesced, the cold outside and the promise of beers after no doubt a powerful motivator. I opened the door for her, and the minute I did, I felt like I was being lifted on a wave of sound, of color. The place was busy, with tables crowded close together, crowded against walls, crowded with people, everyone talking and laughing and eating, drinking café au lait and hot chocolate with chantilly cream. The polished wood bar seemed to glow. The floor was full of servers — girls in black aprons, black-and-white-striped T-shirts and tattoos.
And as we waited, I remembered that those American genius pancake-makers had to learn their tricks somewhere. Though we've had johnnycakes and oatcakes and primitive latkes here since forever, our forever is significantly shorter than that of the Europeans. In France, they've been eating crepes and galettes since the Middle Ages — since the first buckwheat plants arrived from Asia in the twelfth century and took to the temperate climes of Brittany like they'd been born there. The galette (a fat buckwheat cake that some say actually predates the loaf of bread) came first and was a primary source of sustenance for the farmers and peasants of the area, fried in the pan and served with sausages, pickles and salted butter, or cut into strips and plunked into broth (buckwheat dumplings). The crepe (and, in particular, the crepes au froment) came later — first cooked flat, between two hot stones, then in specialized pans that would someday make the fortunes of the geniuses behind innumerable gourmet-cookware stores. And really, if you want to get seriously academic about it, the crepe can be traced eleven hundred years further back, to the first century, when Apicus scribbled down a recipe for ova svongia ex lacte — more an omelet than a crepe proper, but the dish from which the crepe would eventually take its name: crispus, Latin for crispy, lacy and/or wavy.
Flash forward roughly 2,000 years to me, standing with eyes closed in the narrow, cleared space between the door and the bar, smelling the sweet-sour stink of Grand Marnier in the pan, of grill oil and warm breath and savory spices. And suddenly I am remembering eating crepes — at breakfasts out with my family when I'd order crepes (actually blintzes) simply because they were different from the eggs, bacon, pancakes and waffles (offspring of the galette) that my parents and my little brother were having; at a creperie in New York City, where I first had poireaux grilles (the roasted-leek crepe that's probably the closest thing still served to the ancient crepes of Northern France); celebrating, again, the end of a family camping trip at a nowhere bar up near the Canadian border, my parents drinking banana daiquiris, me eating crepes with bloody-red cherries and the stinging bite of armagnac (so wrong — it should've been prunes — and yet just so right).
"Two," I said, when the harried waitress approached and asked how many. She looked around, bit her lip, called us into the back. There was one table left, jammed into a corner, with a chair that stuck out into the flow of traffic between the main bar/dining room and the overflow dining room in the back. We sat down gratefully, ordered big mugs of hot chocolate and started poring over the triple-fold laminated menu — written in French with English subtitles, large but admirably focused, with forty or fifty varieties of crepe, two soups, three salads and nothing else — while the staff surged around us and the tables just kept turning.
Crepes 'n Crepes has been open for two years and has been busy since day one, hour one, minute one. There are other creperies in Denver now, as well as restaurants that do crepes as part of a larger French gestalt. But none have ever done this kind of business, and none have deserved to. That's because Crepes 'n Crepes is uncompromisingly, unabashedly and unstintingly French. The cooks are French. Owners Kathy Knight and Alain Veratti have imported all their iron crepe griddles from France. The ingredients and preparations — the camembert and Chambord, ratatouille and sauce aux champignons — are French. And the space itself — the ramshackle, patched, plastered and sunny dining rooms, cramped back bar, sundry collection of plates and flatware — gives off the honest and earned vibe of café-along-the-Seine frugality and disorder. The place is lovely in only the way that something so necessarily unlovely can possibly be, and after retiring briefly to use the facilities, Laura, who has been everywhere, came back and settled the matter. "Unisex bathroom," she said. "How very European. Substandard plumbing and all."
It took three waitresses coming through the door, bumping my chair and delivering unmatched plates to unmatched tables before someone took our order: banane & fraises avec crème fouettée aux Nutella, myrtilles sauvages avec du sucre, and the classic Suzette — because it was Saturday and this was breakfast for us and the woman one table over had hardly eaten a bite of her crepe poulet au gratin. (I discovered that she was an idiot when I returned a couple days later for the savory crepes — for ham and cheese that was good, if a bit pedestrian; for my own poulet au gratin with diced, roasted chicken and wild mushrooms in a white wine and cream sauce thickened with emmenthaler that was fantastic, soft and milky-sweet; and for a long-overdue hit of the immortal poireaux grilles that I found less reminiscent than I'd hoped, but certainly hearty and peasant-ish and kind of like eating a collapsed onion pie.)
Crepes, when done well and classically, are simple, the buckwheat or wheat-flour crepe serving just as a wrapper that holds all the good stuff in one place. But while they're simple, they can also be good. And Crepes 'n Crepes makes the best crepes I can remember trying. The French crepe griddles help, as does the practice that comes from banging out hundreds of crepes fresh and to-order every day. So do the quality ingredients. Our order of myrtilles sauvages — essentially wild blueberries dusted with sugar — was beautiful and absolutely delicious. I was sad to see that the strawberry and banana crepe with cream cheese and Nutella used huge American strawberries rather than the bittersweet, almost rosy-tasting French fraises du bois that are virtually impossible to get here, but they were still good strawberries, mixed with homemade cream cheese (thin and almost liquidy), sliced banana and Nutella.
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But then there was the crepe Suzette.
"This is not crepe Suzette," Laura announced after having one bite, making a face and tossing down her fork in disgust. "Another bite of that and I won't be able to drive home."
She knows from the real thing because she's had the real thing, in France and at home, as made by her mother, who learned the proper balance of butter to lemon to caramelized sugar to liquor in the cafes of Paris, where they've been making crepes for generations. Out loud, Laura recalled how these crepes should have nothing but a whisper of astringent, orange-y alcohol bite, how they ought not be so cloyingly, sickeningly sweet. And she was right, though I knew the wrongness of these crepes only from the other side of the kitchen door. These suffered simply from not being flamed — pouring the Grand Marnier over the hot crepe in the pan and tilting it until the liquor catches fire in a great, whoofing mushroom cloud. While that French crepe griddle (the modern extension of the ancient two-hot-rocks cooking style) is used to wonderful effect at Crepes 'n Crepes, there's one thing you can't do with it: catch a flame. For that, you need a pan, a burner, a fire-starter's soul.
So we pushed the Suzette aside and focused on our blueberries, our sweet, perfumed strawberries, our hot chocolate and ourselves. And while the crowds swirled around us, we sat cramped at our uncomfortable table, mopping up Nutella with scraps of wheat-flour pancake and making big plans for the future — celebrating with the taste of chantilly cream and almond paste on our tongues, the sting of Grand Marnier still lingering in our throats, remembering only why we were here and no longer wondering why we'd stayed away from the crepe for so long.