367 Selby Ave., St. Paul
La Creperie, At City Center Food Court
37 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis
As an American these days, I must confess that I find it perplexing, worrying, and even confounding to be an American these days. I mean, what are we doing? Where are we going? Who's in charge? What's for lunch? And of course I can answer only one of those questions. For lunch, for dinner, the new trend is: Eastern European-owned creperies.
I don't know why. I think it has something to do with the fact that, since time immemorial, the Russians have been just crazy about the French, importing scads of their Champagne, speaking French in the courts, and even going so far at one point as to move their capital west to be closer to those fabled, froggy magicians of pastry and sauté pan. I can only think that this long ago fandom is why we suddenly have at least two separate places in the Twin Cities that seem, at first glance, to be French crepe quick-serves, but are actually, on closer inspection, marvelous places for Eastern European comforts.
The first is an offshoot of Moscow on the Hill; in fact, it's right next door. Remember the old Tanpopo spot, the crisp and clean spare room with the simple tables and broad counter separating diners from the tiny kitchen? It's all exactly like it was, except suddenly more Russian constructivist than Japanese serene, thanks to a few posters. A giant red banner hangs above the kitchen, outlining the various crepes and soups you can order at the counter, which will then be delivered to your table, on real plates, along with real silverware.
They have the famous Moscow on the Hill borscht, of course. For $4 you get that fuchsia concentration of beets and cabbage that makes you feel invincibly healthy. It's served, classically, with a dollop of sour cream in the center. Are you the type to stir in your sour cream, rendering your soup flamingo pink, or the kind to pair each spoonful with a tip of sour cream? Find out. They also serve Moscow on the Hill's beloved dumplings: A giant plateful of either meat-and-onion pelmeni ($7.95) or potato-and-onion vareniki ($7.95) are both very subtly seasoned and served with a dollop of sour cream: Real rib-sticking comfort food.
The crepes of the Crepes Room come in a few varieties: Savory ones are either Russian or old-school, old-style, country-club French. I like the Russian ones. Pork stew "babushka" ($6.50) is a large buckwheat crepe filled with a simple braised pork and carrot stew; it's a wholesome, farm-country sort of dish, as straightforward and enjoyable as a baked potato. A typical country-club French one is something like the salmon fillet on a bed of rice, topped, oddly, with poached eggs, and absolutely drowned in so much creamy hollandaise that the hollandaise-lovers of the metro should right now feel their homing devices turning as one toward Cathedral Hill.
There are dessert crepes, too: the classic strawberries and whipped cream, or jam, or bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream. Unfortunately, on my several visits I never found the dessert ones to have any real feeling for how a crepe should be. They weren't light, fresh, and fanciful, but instead were flat, over-sauced, reheated, and generally tasted like things catered to large groups.
The real miracle of the place, I think, is going to be for anyone in the neighborhood looking for take-out: A couple of orders of borscht, a container of pelmeni, and a beer or two in front of the fireplace? That's what we need to get through these winters. My one wish for this place would be for them to import another take-out perfect deli classic or two from the mother ship. If you could get the Moscow on the Hill liver pâté or smoked fish to go, this place would be a take-out destination for the whole metro, instead of just another feather in the cap for pretty Cathedral Hill.
Meanwhile, over the river, through the woods, and smack dab in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, there is La Crêperie. Sounds French, right? Sounds like a chain, right? No! Right there, in the barely converted Cinnabon space in the middle of City Center's food court, is a real mom and pop shop. Well, a mom and daughter shop, anyway, run by recent émigrée Bilijana Zalica and her daughter Ana. The Zalicas originally hail from the former Yugoslavia, from Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia, although Bilijana spent an intervening decade cooking in Turin, Italy.
Unfortunately, Bilijana isn't allowed to cook the Italian foods she made in Turin, because of City Center regulations that forbid her from serving the same things as the nearby Sbarro. So she went with crepes. The crepes are fine--all the classics are here, from Nutella to jam to ham and cheese--and again, there's this old-school French thing: rice and shrimp in a white wine sauce, spinach and ricotta with béchamel, and such. These sauces are often done beautifully, and the Zalicas would be millionaires if they could package the rich, silky, utterly homemade and utterly luxuriant mushroom sauce so that you could buy it in pint containers the way you buy puttanesca from Broder's--but that's just me dreaming. Sadly, when I visited the only way one could get the sauce was mixed in with some really lackluster pressed chicken pieces in a chicken-and-mushroom crepe, but you definitely get the sense that if the Zalicas had any money to do more with better ingredients, they would.
To be perfectly honest, I was pretty ambivalent about whether to write about this place at all, until the very moment I ordered its wonderful beef goulash. I ordered it, I had no great hopes, I popped the top on the Styrofoam container and was enchanted to find real carrots, real potatoes, real beef. I tasted it and was thrilled by the powerful taste of good paprika and long stewing, and as I sat there murmuring and marveling, Bilijana wandered out into the food court looking for me, because she forgot to give me a little plate of handmade crackers. Handmade crackers! In City Center! Each one was cut with wee cookie cutters, in the shapes of diamonds, leaves, scalloped rounds; and each little square of dough was egg-glazed and then topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or caraway. They were as darling, upscale, and homemade as anything in the margins of Gourmet magazine, and being served around the corner from the Lady Footlocker. Sacré bleu!
A bowl of goulash at La Crêperie costs $3.75, while a cup runs $3.25, and if you throw the four bucks you've got for lunch this way you will not only get an amazing stew destined to warm the very cockles of your comfort-seeking heart, you'll also be doing a good deed, because Bilijana is a seriously talented chef in serious need of some customers.
Which she'd probably have if the place were named La Goulasherie, instead of La Crêperie. I mean, most Minnesotans I know regard crepes in generally the same category as tea roses, linen stationery, and cotton candy: all very nice things, certainly, but distinctly nonessential. Meanwhile, rich, peppery meat stews like goulash or comforting, hearty dumplings like pelmeni fit into the cultural heritage of fully half of everyone who lives here, whether we're from Germany, Sweden, the Punjab, Korea, or Eastern Europe, and so are regarded as very essential.
I just don't think most of you would cross the street for a crepe, but I think you'd run through moving traffic for any lovingly homemade meat and potato thing. And not because of any anti-French feeling, but just because you didn't grow up on crepes, you grew up on lovingly made winter comfort foods, or at least grew up getting enough glimpses of them to know that you should seize them on sight.
Which is part of what makes it so difficult to be an American these days, I think. As we rush back and forth, up and down, spinning on our spinning wheels, spinning out our America, the busiest country on earth. Where our productivity is through the roof, and our time to think is through the floor. As we dash through City Center, on our lunch hour errand sprints, dragging our identities behind us, like so many squalling five-year-olds, held firm by one wrist, and we haven't got a second to think about what we might want, and we barely have a second to read the billboards, to scan the signs. But I'm telling you the truth here: Back behind some of these big signs, sometimes you can find the real comforts.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.