Crêpe Craving

NoDa's newest restaurant is serving up delicious crêpes -- and a whole lot more

 

Spinach and mushroom crêpe

Spinach and mushroom crêpe

When nouvelle cuisine was in full swing in the 1980s, my mom would take me to lunch at a place called The Magic Pan. Known for its delicious crêpes, it flourished until America tossed the crêpe fad on the slag heap, never to look back at crêpes—or nouvelle cuisine—again. Still, there is something about crêpes. Light, airy, and warm, they are a perfect vehicle for both sweet and savory fillings—far superior to wraps, flatbreads, pitas, or tortillas. I had completely forgotten about them until now. Happily, these fond memories are now flowing through my brain as I deliciously reintroduce myself to the simple crêpe at the Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub in NoDa.

Crêpes are French in origin, and in Europe they are more of a staple than a fad. When managing partner Jeff Tonidandel, a Davidson grad, and his wife were backpacking around Europe in 2007, they lived on crêpes, French-press coffee, and other lowbrow cafe cuisine. Back in Charlotte, they saw a bohemian niche in the NoDa section of town and decided to make crêpes the centerpiece of their restaurant. Part crêperie and part gastropub, the Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub moniker is almost misleading. And, while intriguing and unique, crêpes may very well be the last reason to visit the Crêpe Cellar. There are mussels and shrimp, succotash, mac and cheese, French bread pizza, gnocchi, hanger steak, and fish and chips. Hell, there are even po' boys. The great responsibility of executing a menu this diverse rests squarely on the capable shoulders of the other managing partner, Paul Manley.

Jon Luther's Favorite Dishes

Hand-cut Brie and pesto fries $6.50
Heady, herbaceous, and irresistible frites with pesto and Brie

Hanger steak and frites $17
Beefy and tender with a silky green peppercorn brandy reduction

Spinach and mushroom crêpe (pictured) $8.50
Earthy and warm, wrapped in a savory, freshly made buckwheat crêpe

One hectic Saturday night, we observe the kitchen in full gallop. It is small yet efficient, with the affable Manley chattering back and forth with Chef Steve Kuney, expediting orders, delivering plates, and checking on tables. Crêpes fly from the French-made crêpe griddle, authentic down to the little wooden spatula that spreads the batter over the large circular heating elements. Toward the front of the restaurant, behind large comfortable booths, are big windows looking out to the street. Smartly lit dark woods and brick abound, and the bar area is crowded with young people sucking down wine and European and American brews. The wine list is small, but features affordable selections from Europe, South America, California—even North Carolina. (The house wine and sangria are from RayLen Vineyards, in the Yadkin Valley.)

For lunch one day, the savory crêpes ($7 to $8.50) do not disappoint. Made with buckwheat, their light, spongy texture and rather benign flavor is a pleasing foil for the flavorful fillings like smoky ham and Gruyère, served with traditional Dijon mustard. The rustic spinach and mushroom crêpe is a vegetarian offering, but chicken can be added for a small fee. Add a side of the hand-cut frites or slaw and you have an affordable, filling lunch. And it seems like a good word has begun to spread: on two separate visits the dining room was flush with young people, professionals, and families.

After we settle into a booth, a few starters arrive. Mussels are perfectly steamed in a flavorful white wine and garlic broth. Sautéed tapas-style garlic shrimp are plump and perfectly pink. The heady pesto and Brie fries are must-haves, perfectly cooked to a golden crisp and irresistible. However, “Buffalo-style" fried oysters are soggy and limp, having been tossed in the Buffalo sauce right out of the fryer and piled in a paper cone. And the cheese plate is pedestrian and pricey at $12.50.

Salads are available, as are French bread pizzas and a few sandwiches, including the aforementioned po' boy. But the biggest surprise is the entrées. Save for a few out-of-place menu items (pumpkin gnocchi in the summer?), these offerings show imagination, an eye for detail, and raw culinary talent. A tuna special one night is sublime. Perfect sushi-grade tuna loin is seared and sliced impeccably, served over a piquant ginger and lemongrass risotto. The latter offers an exotic sweetness up front that combines wonderfully with the tuna, with an almost tropical, summery tang. A hanger steak is cloaked in a delicate smoky char yielding tender medium-rare beef underneath a green peppercorn and brandy sauce. The resulting tempest of beef, juices, butter, and brandy combine on the plate with the crispy fries in a flood of bold flavors and textures.
Crêpes make their grand finale at dessert. Trust me—save room. This may be the most pleasurable dessert experience in Charlotte. The classic crêpe suzette is something to behold. Caramelized sugar, orange zest, and flambéed Grand Marnier join with a dollop of vanilla ice cream in a folded crêpe with intoxicating results. The banana and Nutella crêpe is another favorite of the table. The restaurant also offers traditional French-press coffee, complete with a clip-on digital timer to let diners know exactly when to plunge the press.

In the afterglow, there is a lively energy in the dining room, at the bar, and on the sidewalk, where waiting patrons spill out. The place emits a thrum of laughter, good music, and spirited conversation. The Crêpe Cellar does not take reservations, so you might wait for a table on a weekend evening. But given the twinkling lights outside, the cooling evening temperatures, and the sights and sounds of NoDa, hanging out for a few minutes soaking it all in doesn't seem so bad.

Crêpe Cellar
Kitchen & Pub
3116 N. Davidson St.
704-910-6543
$$,L, D, BR, FSB.
Closed Mon.
crepecellar.com