Crepe Comeback

The little French pancake is making it big

A polyglot country such as ours, whose culinary inventiveness has produced such hybrid wonders as pad Thai pizzas and bacon-cheeseburger burritos, was bound to find the simple crepe -- the French answer to the tortilla -- irresistible. And it has -- at least in San Francisco. The crepe, still filled in France with such time-honored ingredients as ham and cheese or strawberry preserves, has become around here a platform for inexpensive experiments in multicultural cuisine.

Reading through a menu at one of the local crepe places (which recently have been sprouting like wild mushrooms after a rainstorm) is like being at the California Pizza Kitchen and wondering what happened to the plain old pepperoni pie: Cuisines from around the world are etched on the tabula rasa that was the crepe.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Unlike the burrito, which remains a distinctly ethnic (and so, not very changeable) offering, the crepe has taken an upwardly mobile step or two, and flowered in the process. It may have become yuppie fare, but it's also become interesting in its variousness, and if a crepe costs a few dollars more than a burrito, it's still one of the best deals going at full-service restaurants.

Valencia Crepes is a true full-service crepe cafe -- a simple, airy dining room, sunny near the front windows (which gaze onto the pageant of Valencia Street), quieter and dimmer toward the rear. We sat in the gently lit middle latitudes, near a rushed young man in business clothes whose mobile phone kept trilling.

The menu offers, besides a wide variety of savory and sweet crepes, a small selection of sandwiches, salads, soups, and omelets; but even if these choices were missing, the bill of fare would remain extensive. Its apotheosis is the "create your own" crepe, which is very much like assembling your own pizza from a wide list of ingredients.

The easier way is to order a prefab crepe, such as the fajita ($7.95). It was the most burrito-ish crepe on the menu, with grilled chicken, green chilis, tomato, bell pepper, onion, cilantro, and cheddar, topped with guacamole. And while it wasn't bad, it lacked the juicy zing of a good burrito. The guac needed salt, and the green chilis didn't live up to their promise of heat. (The crepe itself was folded like an omelet into a half-moon -- quite different from the style of Parisian crepe carts. They roll the crepes into a flat flute shape, so you can hold it at one end while eating the other.)

A better choice was the shrimp creole ($7.95), whose spicy red sauce delivered some welcome punch. Unlike the fajita crepe, which was stuffed with ingredients that seemed to cancel each other out, the creole crepe was filled only with shrimp, mushrooms, basil, and garlic -- a simplicity that kept the flavors from cramping.

All crepe dishes at Valencia Crepes are served with a side order of seasoned grilled potatoes. These were nicely tender but utterly lacking in flavor. They also added considerable starch to a meal that was already starchy.

An extra $1.50 buys a cup of soup -- for me, a vegetable minestrone laden with carrots, celery, and tomato. Like the potatoes, the minestrone seemed not to have been salted at all, and it needed quite a few jolts before coming to wobbly life. (A minestrone of carrots and celery is pretty Spartan: How about some pasta, beans, and zucchini, too?)

Desserts, like main courses, consist mainly of crepes. The best one was the cinnamon ($3.75). It was stuffed with walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon, producing an effect in the mouth similar to that of cinnamon toast. The big puff of whipped cream on top was visually dramatic but fattening just to look at; the dish would have worked as well with half as much whipped cream, or even less.

The chocolate-hazelnut crepe ($4.75) was an extravaganza, but not very good. The crepe was filled with Nutella (the chocolate-hazelnut paste from Italy) and walnuts, then buried in whipped cream. Chocolate and hazelnut are a classic and irresistible combination, but the whipped cream was overkill and the crepe itself a little tough.

The Crepevine, on Irving between Seventh and Eighth avenues, benefits from N Judah traffic and the impoverished but upmarket professional students of nearby UCSF. It's bigger, darker, and busier than Valencia Crepes, but it's less stylish: All the dark wood reminded me of a beer hall.

It also doesn't offer full table service. You order at the counter (paying in cash only!), and then carry a number, like a little flagpole, back to your table, where staff delivers the food.

The Crepevine's main menu is quietly vegetarian, but the daily specials sometimes include choices with a bit more heft, such as a chicken-pesto crepe ($6.45). This dish featured a crepe filled with roasted chicken, pesto, mushrooms, and white cheese and topped with a decent marinara sauce.

The marinara sauce also appeared atop the lasagna "taste-alike" (menuspeak) crepe ($5.95), which did taste creditably like lasagna (without meat). The crepe was stuffed with cheddar, mozzarella, and cottage cheeses; mushrooms; eggplant; tomatoes; spinach; and onions -- a slathering of ingredients so heavy that the crepe itself ceased to matter.

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