Say “oui” to What Crepe?, two Parisian charmers in Birmingham and Royal Oak.
At the downtown Birmingham creperie, guests enter through a black wrought iron gateway. It’s reminiscent of the Exposition Universelle de France, the world’s fair held in Paris in 1889.
Owner Paul Jenkins Jr. put a photo of the fair’s symbol, the iconic Eiffel Tower, among the posters, prints and other decorative effects at his French-inspired cafe.
Jenkins gutted the space and created a movie-like setting. Dining room walls are either wine red or weathered brick peeking through stucco; the floor is black distressed wood planks, and street-lamp-style lights illuminate bare tables adorned with a single red rose. Even the luxurious restrooms keep to the cafe theme.
What Crepe? opened this past Valentine’s Day, just around the corner from the Uptown Palladium 12 movie complex. It’s the second creperie for Jenkins and his managing partner, Kermit Harris. The original restaurant, also quite special but in a more intimate space, opened three springs ago in downtown Royal Oak and will be expanding soon into the adjacent storefront. Rob Gunter is the executive chef in Birmingham and Erik Stephenson is his counterpart in Royal Oak.
Why a restaurant centered on crepes? Jenkins simply loves the thin pancake specialties with their endless variety of fillings. He frequently enjoyed crepes at a favorite spot in Toronto before deciding that his Detroit hometown needed them, too.
Jenkins’ next chapter as successful restaurateur follows a career in promotions and marketing. As owner of LA-based Group 411, he previously hosted lavish parties for music industry celebrities, such as Missy Elliott and Russell Simmons.
The crepe’s culinary history is about 9,000 years, according to the What Crepe? website. The “galette,” as a crepe was called then, originated in Brittany, on the west coast of France. According to a framed poster at What Crepe? in Birmingham: “In medieval times, peasants presented crepes to their feudal lords as a demonstration of loyalty.”
It’s easy to be loyal to these delicious flour-battered crepes. Ingredients determine if the crepe is “savory” — suitable for an entrée — or “sweet” — possibly a dessert choice.
On the savory side, the What Crepe? menu includes marinated chicken, turkey and eggs, which may or may not be combined with organically grown vegetables and herbs. Fully vegetarian and vegan choices are available.
Sweets lovers can try crepes made with seasonal fruit, ice cream, nuts and assorted sauces, including raspberry, caramel and Nutella. You can also build your own crepe.
Talk about loyalty: I encountered two regular diners who told me they always order a particular crepe on the Savory list and nothing else. I got their votes for No. 10 — pan-seared chicken, tomatoes and spinach, and No. 14 — pan-seared tofu, red onion, avocado, tomatoes, spinach and Feta.
Chef Rob said the “Obvious Choice” in the Favorites section, is one of two best sellers, and I found out why. The chicken, spinach, pecans, caramelized apples and Feta is phenomenal with its mixture of savory and sweet tastes. Spicy Chicken Truffle is the other most popular.
I really loved Crepe de Crevette. Instead of being a filling, these ingredients were arranged prettily atop the crepe: six marinated shrimp, fire-roasted peppers, asparagus and grape tomatoes in a house-made curry clam sauce. Earlier, I noticed a strong bite to my black bean soup topped with shredded Cheddar. All soups come with a crunchy slab of the crepe batter.
Another time I chose a special, the Fruit Flan. Set before me was a colorful plate of fresh and luscious strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwi and orange slices with pineapple glaze and powdered sugar on top, delicate creamy filling with graham crackers inside. Oh, my!
This time of year, the pleasant young staff can serve food on the patio at either location, but only Royal Oak currently has a liquor license.
172 N. Old Woodward
Birmingham, MI 48009
317 S. Washington
Royal Oak, MI 48067
$$1/2 out of $$$$$