Cornouaillians eat a lot of crepes, washed down with the delicious, hard apple cider produced there or a honey liqueur called hydromel, generally considered the "drink of the gods." There's a famous folk song about a fountain of hydromel in an enchanted forest, sung in alternating verses of French and Breton. I learned that song at age 14 when my French boyfriend taught it to me, strumming his guitar as we polished off a bottle of the olde mead. I can still sing it by heart, and I can still remember exactly what a crepe cooked in a Bretagne café tastes like and exactly how the streets of Quimper looked from the back of a motorcycle after a warm, light rain in the middle of a summer night.
They may be torching police cars in Rennes these days, but I'm pretty sure the only fires at La Crêperie are under the crêpes suzettes. Which is to say, I come to this 12-year-old Breton restaurant in Lauderhill with a good deal of baggage I'm a walking, talking definition of the word nostalgia. I'm ready to either pick the place to death on technicalities, burst into tears over my pot of onion soup, or both. What I certainly don't expect, at 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, is to find the place so crowded that I'm turned away from the door and instructed (firmly but kindly) to return in one hour, leaving me no option but to navigate stop-and-go traffic down University Drive, searching in vain for something to do. If ever there were a place as far in soul and spirit from the fantastical Celtic byways of Brittany, it's this stretch of Lauderhill: a suburban wasteland of Carl's Furniture stores, coin laundries, and auto insurance offices, of Dollar Planets and Plaster Castles.
Should have made a reservation, I thought gloomily as I ticked off slow minutes in the parking lot. The hiatus gave me too much time to study the details of La Crêperie from an outsider's point of view: the hysterically flickering "Restaurant Open" sign, the gigantic "Now Hiring" posted in a window, the '50s-style photos of frog legs and trout. What on Earth, I wondered, could have brought the good Monsieur et Madame Retty from paradise to this godforsaken stretch of road? And kept them here for more than a decade?
But there's something inarguably authentic about La Crêperie. The faux wood paneling and fake brick arches that you would see in France; the glass-topped tables with their old-timey French postcards and mismatched tablecloths; the decades-worth of accumulated bric-a-brac: oversized photos of old ladies wearing the traditional Breton lace, along with tarnished copper pots, souvenirs, and figurines. Strings of holiday lights, powered by generator after Hurricane Wilma, cozy things up. Anywhere on Europe's back highways, you'll find places like this time-warped restaurants in tiny hostels run by husband and wife. The food is invariably unfancy, unfussy, and delicious. As we settled down, finally, at our table with a half-carafe of house Chardonnay ($10.95), we began to understand that you can take the Breton out of Brittany, but you can't take Brittany out of the Breton.
La Crêperie's savory crepes are made from buckwheat flour in the traditional style of Brittany. They are golden, nutty, and aesthetically beautiful: With their delicate wings, they look vaguely like edible birds temporarily alighted on your china plate. There are 31 varieties of these dinner crepes and another 11 for dessert, so it would take a long time to work your way from chicken, spinach, and white sauce (number one) through spinach, Swiss cheese, and garlic (number 21) through tuna fish, mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and white sauce (number 26) to crepe William (ground sirloin, ratatouille, Swiss cheese number 30). And if you did manage it, there would be sweet crepes made with sugar and butter or apple and ice cream or pear Belle Helene with chocolate sauce waiting for you.
We've sampled the ham and Swiss cheese ($9.75), a classic Breton staple, and the more elaborate crepe with escargots, spinach, and Swiss cheese ($17.95). Both were excellent. The texture of the crepes themselves ranges from crisp and succinct toward the wings' outer edges to moist and buttery at the center, where the dampness of their fillings has relaxed them into soothing mouthfuls resembling bread pudding. The combination of ham and cheese is just unbeatable creamy, sweet, salty, fragrant, warming. I'm pretty sure I could eat a ham-and-cheese crepe every day for the rest of my life (as many a Breton does) and never tire of it. My dinner partner's snail-stuffed crepe was divine too, oozing with garlic and butter. The snails were plump, the spinach tart. With a tossed salad ($4.95) of diced vegetables in a creamy garlic dressing, these are a perfect light supper.
I have only one complaint with La Crêperie I wish it had a better bread (which tastes as if it's been frozen) and that it served sweet rather than salted butter with it.
Quite a few of La Crêperie's customers, it must be said, are older than God. Madame Retty a trim, energetic blond who, it turns out, is actually Canadian (her husband is Breton) tends to them with beatific patience and equanimity. Again and again, she recited the night's mouthwatering specials: moules farcies, baked brie with apples, shrimp Provençale, duck with strawberry sauce, tilapia almandine. And again and again, she got the same dull order: Vegetable soup. Quiche. Or a single entrée that she was obliged to cut up and dish out on two plates. That she did this with unfailing good humor, teasing her regular customers and chiding them about missing out on last week's chicken special, is testament to her saintliness and one reason La Crêperie has stayed in business through thick and thin. Madame's warmth is reflected in her staff, most of whom appear to be French or Canadian. They scurry around happily, chatting fluently in French and English. If you ever were tempted to classify French people as cold or snappish, this is a good place to dispel the myth.
We, of course, were not shy of appetite. We did have those moules farcies ($10.95), delicate little mussels baked in butter and garlic, sprinkled with parsley and breadcrumbs, radiating a divine heat. We had a steaming bowl of onion soup ($6.25), made with a good hearty beef stock and wine, topped with cheese that bubbled over and made a light, edible crust on the side of the pot. We had the aforementioned crepes. And we had, on two separate occasions, a roast chicken special ($18.95) in a rich brown mushroom sauce and the duck with strawberry sauce ($24.95), both served with julienned carrots, crisp French green beans, half a baked tomato dusted with parmesan cheese and bread crumbs, and a couple of perfectly roasted potatoes. Both birds were moist and flavorful, but I recommend the duck particularly. You just don't get duck cooked this way in many American restaurants. The French handle a duck as if it were an everyday dish (as it is, indeed, at La Crêperie, where it offers a canard du jour). Duck is very rich, and it retains a wildness of flavor that our chickens have long since lost there's something of field and lake still embedded in that dark flesh. With its crisp, fatty skin and a fathomless brown sauce, dense with roast duck drippings and sweetened with strawberry fruit, it tastes original, exotic, and homey all at once.
Oooof! We can really put it away, can't we? We'd have to put off the trout and the frog legs for another visit. But we'd saved room for chocolate mousse ($5.25) and a profiterole with ice cream ($3.25). I'd take a pass on the mousse next time served in a parfait glass, it's foamy and light (I like my mousse thick enough to clog an artery), and it had that lingering flavor of something long refrigerated. We preferred the profiteroles, gorgeously presented on a square plate squiggled with chocolate sauce and dusted with cocoa: two jaunty vanilla ice cream and whipped-cream centers wearing pastry toques and drizzled with melted chocolate.
Nostalgia intact. These were the flavors I remembered.