Exploring Crêpe Culture In New York City

Bonjour Crêpes & Wine

Bonjour Crêpes & Wine

A sweet and comforting aroma fills the springtime air every evening at the corner of Second Avenue and 82nd Street. Neighborhood residents curiously stroll past the hand-painted plant holder, four black iron chairs, and the open glass door from which the intoxicating scent spills onto the sidewalk. Inside is the newest addition to the Upper East Side’s culinary scene featuring one of France’s oldest traditions.

The narrow café space of Bonjour Crêpes & Wine showcases an open kitchen with four, round cooking stones and a bar with platters of fresh meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Two men sporting black aprons and pinstriped caps rotate T-shaped wooden sticks along the circumference of each stone, spreading the sweet, thin batter with a smooth rolling of the wrist. Patrons watch with anticipation as their crêpes are made to order, folded into a delicate triangle, guided into a paper cone and passed into their hands.

Bonjour owner Parvez Eliaas opened up shop in late February, joining dozens of other New York City chefs catering to the public’s craving for crêpes. Crêperies have popped up all over town in recent years as this thin pancake trend has picked up momentous speed. From full-service restaurants to food market kiosks, crêpe chefs offer New Yorkers a French classic with their modern twists, aiming to distinguish themselves among the competition.

A seasoned veteran of New York’s restaurant industry, Eliaas worked closely with renowned chef Daniel Boulud before beginning ventures of his own. The Bangladesh native opened his first Persian restaurant, Restaurant Persepolis, in the Upper East Side in 2005, followed by Shalezeh in 2008 that maintains an enviable Michelin star. He dabbled with the art of crêpe making during his time at Café Boulud, but his inspiration for Bonjour did not arrive until he met his wife, Barbara, in 2001 when she joined Café Boulud as a manager. The two have been inseparable from that moment forward.

Barbara brought her Hungarian heritage into their home, making crêpes that closely resembled the ones found on the streets of France but with a new variety of filling ingredients. Eliaas found her third-generation batter recipe delicious and inspiring; she often joked about running a crêpe food truck in Manhattan. After several years of lighthearted conversation, the truck idea transformed into a quaint café across from the Second Avenue subway construction project, embracing the challenge of opening a new restaurant along a noisy street that has deterred other restaurateurs in recent years.

Eliaas maintains a minimalist, authentic approach as he replicates his French visions of the cultural staple. He serves his crêpes to go in portable, paper cones ordered specially from a vendor in France, and he relies on an old-fashioned list of favorite fillings including Gruyere cheese and fruit jams. “Some places serve crêpes with a knife and fork. But when you are eating with a knife and fork, you are missing the perfect bites,” Eliaas said. “Sometimes when people ask for a fork here, I resist to give because they eat the inside and after that, the crêpe is not tasty anymore.”

Bonjour's Hungarian Crêpe

Bonjour’s Hungarian Crêpe

The cozy crêpe shop offers a signature savory option that pays tribute to Barbara’s Hungarian roots. “We have one with our homemade tomato sauce, Hungarian ham, Gruyere cheese and egg,” Eliaas said. “In Hungary, they eat hard-boiled eggs with a very thin slice of ham and tomato, so we brought this into the crêpe.” Otherwise, all of their fresh ingredient combinations can be found on the streets of France. Eliaas also pairs his wine and beer selections with each crêpe on the menu, a custom he observed during his trips to Europe with his wife.

“This is a little more personal and close to customers. Everything is happening in a very fast and interactive way,” said Eliaas. “When everyone comes here and they hold the crêpe in their hands, I see the happiness that comes from their face because of the freshness and the smell of the crêpe when it reaches their nose. It just blows me out.”

Four miles south just below Union Square, Vive la Crêpe! offers its own take on the French crêpe. After trading architecture careers for Parisian culinary school and finding a passion for the “to-go” food culture there, three Mexican brothers started the crêperie franchise in Mexico City in 1996; today, Vive la Crêpe maintains over 30 locations in Mexico and three in New York City. Brother Andres Mier-y-Teran oversees the New York locations in SoHo, University Place and the Upper West Side, using his architecture background to customize each location’s interior designs himself.

Gabriela Nunic joined the Viva la Crêpe team two years ago on Spring Street as a crêpe maker and worked her way up to assistant general manager. Explaining the brothers’ motivation behind the crêpe restaurant, Nunic said, “They wanted to bring the concept of Parisian café meets modern times into a chill spot. It’s to-go, but you can also come here with your girlfriends or on a date.”

VivelaCrepe

Mozzarella, Tomato & Basil Crêpe at Vive la Crêpe!

Similar to Bonjour, Vive la Crêpe serves crêpes in cones rather than on plates. However, with the exception of using the traditional buckwheat batter and French Gruyere and raclette cheeses, the franchise is looking to create a crêpe culture of its own. Catering to Union Square’s high tourist foot traffic, the shop serves as a social spot for anyone’s first visit to the big city. “There is a huge window in front, and you can just come in and watch us make your crêpe,” said Nunic. “You can always see what going into your food.”

Just like any successful franchise, a consistent experience from one location to another is crucial. “You go into one location and ask a question, and they’re going to tell you the exact same thing at another location,” said Nunic. “Just like Starbucks—if you’re going to get a venti caramel macchiato, you better expect the same one if you’re in New Jersey or something.”

The crêpe arrived in the Brittany region of France during the 12th century when the easy-to-grow and inexpensive buckwheat crop was introduced. The French combined the milled wheat with eggs, milk and butter to form the batter, and poured it onto a cast-iron hot plate heated over a wood fire. Using a rotel, the T-shaped wooden stick, they spun the batter into a paper-thin circle. After flipping it onto the opposite side with a thin spatula, the crêpe was ready in a matter of seconds.

Crêpes were originally consumed without fillings, serving as bread for poorer families; however, with wealth came the extended palette for these wafer-thin French pancakes and all of their variations. In the home, crêpes were served in stacks on plates alongside toppings like fresh fruit, fruit jams, sugar and butter.  When crêpes reached the streets of France, vendors began serving them in triangular paper cones for easy, on-the-go consumption as locals and tourists alike wandered through town.

White flour crêpes made their debut in the 20th century as buckwheat prices rose and white wheat flour prices fell. The white flour crêpe batter is preferred for making sweet crêpes due to its softer texture, while the traditional buckwheat recipe works well with savory crêpe renditions. The crêpe may be native to France, but a plethora of European countries serve similar pancake-like creations using their own names, techniques and fillings. Italy has the crespelle, Greece has the krep, Hungary has the palacsinta, and the list goes on and on.

Yorkville Crêperie

Yorkville Crêperie

Less than four blocks away from Bonjour Crêpes & Wine, Brian McKenna shares his take on the French staple with the Yorkville community through a different type of venue. Four years ago, co-owner McKenna converted the sidebar property of Saloon, a bar-club hybrid with a modern feel, into the full-service restaurant that locals recognize today as Yorkville Crêperie. The cozy dining space features fresh table flowers, an earthy décor and an open kitchen that fills the room with the sweet smell of cooking crêpe batter.

“The original concept was going to be more of a pick-up style, not full service where you come up, order and sit down like café style,” said McKenna. “Over the course of the first couple of months, it evolved into a full-service environment which is better for everybody. The guest has a better experience.”

Operated by two self-proclaimed “bar guys,” Yorkville Crêperie shares the event-driven focus of its sister bar. From midday storytime to $5 wine happy hour to live acoustic music, the restaurant caters to the family-filled neighborhood and its needs. “Crêpes in general are a very comforting style of food,” said McKenna, and local patrons appreciate the lightness of this type of fare.

Yorkville Crêperie's Country Crêpe (Nutella, Strawberries & Banana)

Yorkville Crêperie’s Country Crêpe (Nutella, Strawberries & Banana)

Yorkville Crêperie’s menu expanded from crêpes over the past few years to include a selection of salads, paninis and small appetizer plates created by chef Christopher Boyce. All crêpes are artistically presented on plates, some rolled and some folded, and a side salad accompanies each savory option. The fungi crêpe appears to be the Upper East Side favorite, filled with sautéed onions, mushrooms, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

The open kitchen of Yorkville Crêperie plays a primary role in customers’ overall dining experience. Crêpe lovers enjoy being a part of the preparation process, from watching the chef pour the fresh batter to breathing the scents emanating from the hot cooktop. “We make a Spartan crêpe, which has fresh garlic in it. And as soon as the garlic hits the crêpe top, it just explodes, and it releases endorphins it smells so good,” said McKenna.

The Financial District’s Crêpes du Nord, which opened in 2011, tells a story similar to Yorkville Crêperie in transforming the open, adjoining café space of Smorgas Chef, a farm-to-table Scandinavian restaurant that joined New York’s food scene eight years ago. The boutique venue suits its crêperie cuisine with an open kitchen on display in the front of the restaurant and bar-style, and wooden tables filling the remaining space. Ideal for Wall Streeters, the fresh crêpes can be ordered, prepared and enjoyed within a typical 30-minute lunch break without rushing. The shop also appeals to tourists who make up 60 percent of its clientele.

Owned by Scandinavian architect-turned-chef Morten Sohlberg, Crêpes du Nord operates with a “farm-to-crêpe” mentality, using fresh ingredients grown on the company’s farm upstate in the Catskills. The French-Scandinavian fusion crêperie uses buckwheat flour for savory crêpes and all-purpose flour for sweet crêpes, filling the spaces in between with Sohlberg’s ingredient ideas and the farm’s in-season produce. General manager Nelson Baez said, “I think the French part of it is that we try to respect the technique, use certain ingredients, use the layout of your typical crêperie, and then I think that’s where it stops for the most part. After that, it’s pretty much our influence on it and what we want to project.”

The Signature Crêpe du Nord

The Signature Crêpe du Nord

The most popular creation is the signature crêpe du Nord, which includes Scandinavian aquavit-cured salmon, scrambled eggs and a dill crème. The sweet crêpes vary from white chocolate with strawberries and whipped cream to blueberries with ice cream to a rendition of the s’more. The crêperie also offers a small bistro menu including salads and sandwiches prepared in the Smorgas Chef kitchen. Each savory crêpe is accompanied by a side salad of farm-fresh greens. “It is a very simple product that can be made very complicated,” said Baez. “When Morten wants to incorporate a new crêpe, he’ll make 18 different variations of it with a twist, and he will have all of us taste it and get our opinions on it.”

Bar Suzette

Bar Suzette

Heading west into Chelsea Market’s shopping arcade, crêpe fans find yet another take on the French fare at Bar Suzette. The month-long pop-up crêpe stand debuted in 2009 on 25th and Broadway, experiencing incredible growth that resulted in a rental offer from the Chelsea Market management team in the spring of 2010. “We wanted a cuisine that was understood by many different cultures—though most people refer to the French crêpe, almost every single culture has one—so anybody that walks by, no matter where they are from, they associate it with something in their past,” said co-owner and chef Troi Lughod. “It’s also visually cool to watch and grabs people’s attention.”

Bar Suzette sources 95 percent of its crêpe ingredients inside the Chelsea Market, adjusting the menu offerings frequently to incorporate in-season, available foods. The restaurant serves crispier crêpes in custom-designed cones, making them as easy to eat as possible while wandering through the market or down the street. “I think in our exploration of the worldwide crêpe, the closer type of crêpe it comes to is Greek style—they tend to cook it a little crispier—or like the Indian dosa, which is really crispy,” said Lughod. “We kind of wanted to find a middle ground. We didn’t want to change the taste but we wanted to change the texture, so we added a little olive oil to the batter and took out the butter.”

Lughod and his friend-turned-business partner Peter Tondreau concoct the majority of the crêpe ingredient combinations themselves, focusing on the savory-style crêpe. They created a gluten-free, dairy-free batter for customers with dietary restrictions by combining rice, lentils and water. Their most inventive creation to date, the French onion soup crêpe, only appears at their food festival pop-ups but is an undeniable crowd pleaser. “You make French onion soup and then cook it all the way down until there’s no soup left and it’s just caramelized, beefy onions. It’s very labor intensive to cook down 100 pounds of onions,” said Lughod.

Bar Suzette's Apples & Brie Crêpe

Bar Suzette’s Apples & Brie Crêpe

Ironically, they do not serve the crêpe that inspired their name, the crêpe Suzette. “It’s flambéed in a pan with Grand Marnier and orange citrus of some sort,” said Lughod. “We don’t have ventilation in this space, so we can catch things on fire. We didn’t know we would be opening in Chelsea Market when we created the company, and you definitely have to eat it on a plate. So it’s our signature crêpe that we don’t make.”

While each of these crêperies provides its own twist on French tradition, the owners, managers and chefs behind them all agree that the success of a crêpe shop lives and dies with its batter recipe. Each venue meticulously adheres to its formula, from the quantity of each ingredient to the order in which they are combined to the spinning technique utilized once the batter hits the griddle. Some prefer the fluffy, soft crêpe folded delicately on a plate, while others opt for a firm, crispy crêpe that stands tall in its carrying cone. However, no one argues about the fact that the texture of the pancake pocket transporting a variety of fillings matters just as much as what sits inside.

Additionally, both sit-down and quick-service crêperies attribute their success partially to the ability of customers to witness their food coming to life. The open kitchens fill the restaurant spaces and adjacent streets with the sweet batter perfume. They also guarantee the freshness of each creation, revealing the ingredients that go into them as they are made to order. The batter swirling technique is mesmerizing to watch, and chefs hand-deliver the orders to customers and sense their reactions in a much more intimate way than most restaurateurs experience.

Regardless of bizarre yet delicious ingredient combinations, the American palette knows what it wants—and that’s the familiar flavors of home. As far as savory crêpes are concerned, ham and cheese always wins. Nunic from Vive la Crêpe said, “Ham and gruyere is just so basic. And kid friendly—oh God kids love it. ‘Mom, can I get a number two?!’ That’s for sure the favorite.” And when it comes to the sweeter side of crêpe making, Nutella with any variety of fresh fruit reins victorious as each restaurant’s bestseller.

While crêpes have made quite an impression on New York City in recent years, residents have yet to reveal if this food love affair is more than just a fling. While many in the crêpe-making business believe in the food’s longevity, others are less optimistic. “It’s not going to be a revolution here. It’s not France, it’s not Greece on the beach. You can have some, but I don’t think you’re going to have too many restaurants with a good level of success,” said Lughod from Bar Suzette. “I think it’s a trend, and unfortunately, I don’t see New York becoming a city with people eating crêpes all over the place. I think New Yorkers are going to stick to eating tons of pizza—it’s going to remain a pizza place.”

Originally written for my food writing class

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