Saturday, August 15, 2009

Much Ado About Crepes: What Crepe?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

One of the advantages of being a food writer is a little somnething called a "media tasting." I was invited to one such of these "media tastings" last week for What Crepe?, the new creperie in Royal Oak.

And thank God for it...left to my own devices, it would have taken me who knows how long to make the trip out to Royal Oak ALLLLLLL the way from my usual Detroit-Dearborn circuit. But now, just four days after the tasting, I was back again having the exact same crepe I had the first time because it was, quite simply, THAT good.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

Inhabiting the former Cafe Muse location, a tiny little hallway of a building on Washington Ave., the spot is by its very nature terribly cute and cozy. As Cafe Muse, it was cheery and eclectic and quaint. What Crepe? is just as quaint, but with a little more drama. The walls are a deep berry-stained red, with dramatic dark wood accents and a distinctly Parisian flair. The furniture, glassware, and plates are all amusingly mismatched, like the lone leftovers of an antique sale that desperately needed a home. You might sit in a plush velvet wingback chair, or on a backless leather bar stool. One plate might be flowery like something found in Grandma's pantry, and another might have a wild zebra pattern. The menus are made with old French record sleeves, completing the apparent effect of what almost feels like a trendy Euro-style antique salvage space. The (mismatched) wrought iron cafe tables out front complete the vibe of a thoroughly modern Parisian cafe reborn out of the old.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

I noted before that creperies seem to be all the rage right now, so I will admit that my expectations for What Crepe? were a little high simply because I expected that they would (nay: MUST) have something new to offer to the scene already getting a little creped-out. The various crepe offerings around the city range in quality, with some more impressive than others. Prior to my discovery of What Crepe?, Le Petit Zinc was my favorite. And while I do still love the child-like sunniness of Le Petit Zinc, the menu at What Crepe? takes the, well, crepe.

On Tuesday What Crepe? will debut their new menu designed by Chef Justin Kopsch, who was hired on specifically to expand the menu and increase portion sizes. This new menu features some 50 specialty crepes, each plentiful enough as a meal on its own. The old favorites--such as MY favorite, the Mushroom Madness--will remain on the menu, which will also now include such items as an asparagus, prosciutto, and gruyere savory crepe and the brings-out-the-kid-in-me peanut butter, chocolate sauce and marshmallow sweet crepe.

On my first visit I had the chance to chat with owner Paul Jenkins Jr. (PJ), who is equally adorable as he is most assuredly insane for opening a new restaurant in this current economic climate, having no previous restaurant experience. "No time like the present," he tells me with a winning grin. "I always dreamed of opening my own restaurant, and now I'm finally living my dream."

The advantage What Crepe? has over some other restaurants is that, for $30.00, a couple can come out and have a lovely evening with amazing food, without breaking the bank. "I love seeing people come here on dates," PJ tells me, and he seems genuinely happy that people are choosing his place for their special nights out. They currently have no liquor license, but are third in line to receive the new "Bistro Liquor License," introduced by the Royal Oak Liquor Control Commission to allow restaurants with limited seating the ability to serve wine and beer (particularly in a city like Royal Oak which is already 2 or 3 Class C liquor licenses over its quota).

PJ might not have any restaurant experience, but before you start getting a fanciful picture of a boy with a simple love of crepes taking a chance and opening a restaurant with nothing but his dreams, this boy happens to have YEARS of experience operating his own promotions and publicity business, throwing parties all over the world for people like P-Diddy. In fact, that love of crepes which inspired this new restaurant venture came from his international travels when he and his girlfriend would search for the best crepes. And through a familial connection he was also able to sit in on meetings at Motor City Casino regarding all aspects of restaurant operations, so he was not without prior exposure. Oh, I should probably note he also has a degree in business management and marketing. So yes--a boy and his dreams, sure, but not quite wide-eyed and inexperienced, and also a bit of a wunderkind. In other words, don't get your hopes up that opening a restaurant could be so easy. Try also not to be spurned on by the fact that he achieved this all within three months of having the idea for What Crepe?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Matiyow and Lians for

As the owner, PJ is constantly striving to offer the best ingredients to make the finest crepes. He will not TRY to be the best; he WILL be. This sort of full-throttle attitude is evident all over the menu: where else can you find such items as Truffle Zip Sauce, Agave Nectar, Creme Fraiche, as well as an assortment of vegan options and substitutes so that everyone can enjoy the items on the menu?

The Chicken Truffle is made with marinated all-natural chicken, arugula, and truffle zip sauce. The chicken is tender and juicy and the truffle zip light and tangy, perfect for a light lunch. The mixed fresh berry is a simple combination of smashed fresh raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, topped with powered sugar and whipped cream. At first this sounded a little boring to me, but at the enthusiastic recommendation of our server, the endearingly sweet Sophie, I went for it. With crepes, simplicity is often key; here the tart berry compote with the cream and the delicate, slightly sweet crepe shell made for a tastefully simple combination.

Though there is also something to be said for indulgence: the What Chocolate Eclair Crepe is full of vanilla custard and coated with nutella, topped with shaved white chocolate, whip cream, powdered sugar and cocoa powder. You really just can't go wrong with custard, but custard with nutella makes for the juggernaut of desserts. Doughtnut, your days are numbered.

But I have yet to tell you about the crepe de resistance: Mushroom Madness. Cremini, shitake, and whole button mushrooms, soaked in butter and wrapped in a crepe shell that looks like it's about to burst. It is drizzled with truffle zip sauce and loaded with melted gruyere swiss cheese. Gruyere makes me happy, and tangy, melted gruyere covering butter-soaked exotic mushrooms makes me even happier. Having sampled it once already, I couldn't help but sample it a second time--the huge chunks of mushrooms burst with their uniquely exotic flavors and taste richer, more robust than some of the finest cuts of beef. The high-quality gruyere is sharp and tangy, offsetting the basic (as in, opposite of acidic), slightly bitter mushrooms. The crepe is hearty and filling and absolutely decadent.

From top, Chicken Truffle, Mushroom Madness, and Wild Berry

There is a small garden plot behind the restaurant where they grow their tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and strawberries, staying true to the garden-to-table ethic Slow Foodies and locovores all over are taking up.

The service is consistently wonderful. Sophie was my server on both trips and her genuine smile and upbeat attitude was a delight. On my second trip they had run out of some items after a particularly busy Sunday morning, and she was incredibly apologetic for it. Lita, whom a sixth-sense tingling makes me believe is PJ's crepe-loving globe-trotting partner, also personally came over and apologized for the inconvenience, offering to help us make different selections. This was in stark contrast to an experience I had almost two years ago at the Frank Taylor restaurant Detroit Breakfast House, where a terse and unapologetic "We're out of that" (orange juice, bananas, bacon) was met with impatience at our dawdling over the menu (suffice it to say I haven't been back since). Then Sophie later thanked us for being so nice to her, which caught me off guard because I certainly hadn't thought we had done anything special. Another server (Molly? Megan?) introduced herself to the table of middle-aged women next to us having a riveting conversation about medical ailments because she recognized them as regulars.

One thing I should note is that the space is very SMALL. The other patrons become your inadvertent dining partners--every conversation is easily overheard, and no matter where you sit you're likely to be sitting very close to someone at another table. The patio offers a little more privacy, if you don't mind baking in the sun. But despite this, the experience is still enjoyable--just know what to expect.

At What Crepe?, you're made to feel genuinely welcome, like each and every person there is sincerely happy and grateful that you came. This level of graciousness is hard to find, and it, much like this restaurant and its wonderful crepes, is a welcome treat.