A friend and I took a giant Eurotrip this summer. Along with visiting England and some of Finland, we spent two weeks in France. I realize that spending a couple weeks in France doesn’t exactly make me an expert on the cuisine; during that two-week period, my entire crêpe intake totaled a whopping zero. It was our last day in Paris and we were about to leave the land of butter and chocolate when I realized that I’d done the unthinkable: I’d forgotten to eat a crêpe while in France.
My friend and I set off to get the quintessential French culinary experience that we’d been told a million times that we “absolutely must have.” We found a small street stand, excitedly ran up to the server, and ordered the most delicious combination known to mankind: Nutella et banane. Fantastique.
Crêpe literally translates to “pancake” in French, and that’s essentially what they are. The crêpe as we know it today originated in the western area of France called Brittany. They were made with buckwheat flour (because that was cheapest) and used as bread for sandwiches (much like the wheat flour variety at Crêpe Bistro at Northwestern). As the farmers of Brittany became wealthier, they invented the desert crêpe, replacing the buckwheat with white flour. In Brittany, it is customary to tap the handle of the pan and make a wish as you turn over the crêpe. They don’t do this at the Bistro (I checked).
I can still taste the melting hazelnutty chocolate combining with the slightly hot banana and the butter from the crêpe dough as I walk up to the register of Crêpe Bistro in Norris. In my head, I’m trying to tell myself not to have such high expectations. I walk cautiously up to the counter and order the “Banane au Nutella.” I feel a bit silly watching the cashier and chef in their puffy red hats hustle and bustle around the crêpe pan, and since the coffee here is cheaper than at Starbucks, the line gets pretty long and the wait takes maybe seven minutes (a lifetime when there’s a crêpe at the end).
Though you may be well acquainted with the Norris franchise, the Crêpe Bistro has another location in the Loop that also serves alcohol (it also offers three courses of crêpes for $20 every Friday night and was mentioned in the Chicago Tribune’s 25 “Loop Lunches We Love”). It is also much more expensive (Crêpe a la Tomate is $8.75 in Chicago, compared to $4.75 at Norris), though the Chicago branch probably has a nicer presentation. There are normally two chefs at a time on duty and, according to Shanena Graves, who has been working at the Bistro since its opening, they were trained by a true Parisian chef.
To me, the perfect crêpe is one that is just tasty enough to enhance the flavor of the fillings without overwhelming. It should be light, thin, but not too airy. A crêpe needs to be delicious on its own, but should above all serve as the perfect compliment for the ingredients inside (like bread). I generally look for a golden brown color, and (though this is debatable) a slight crisp around the edges. Though my favorite crêpe is the Nutella/banana combination, I also love the simple cinnamon sugar ones, or just plain chocolate if you’re in that kind of mood.
If you’ve had your fill of the Crêpe Bistro, why not check out some of Chicago’s offerings? In Chicago, there is Crêpes de Paris and Crêpe and Coffee Palace. While nothing compares to the satisfaction of that perfect French crêpe you eat by the side of the road, as hot Nutella drips down your arm and bitter Parisians curse at you to get out of their way, the Chicago area has done its best to provide us with some amazing alternatives.