There's only one country in the world that could take something so crude, a list of ingredients any bumpkin ought to have within reach — a bit of flour, egg, milk, and butter — and turn it into a foodstuff that encapsulates, at once, the historic marriage of Catherine de Medici to Henri II; the yokel farmer celebrating Shove Tuesday; the intrigues of a 17th-century royal court; the seminal treatise of Europe's greatest gastronomic revolution, and... your breakfast. The dish is crepes with cream sauce. Want to take a stab at the country?
"Make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn't curdle," wrote François Pierre La Varenne, chef to the Marquis d'Uxelles, in 1651. It was a little sentence, about a little sauce called "béchamel," that changed the course of history. You can trace an arc from that "good fresh butter" and "egg yolk" that runs through love and death, from the suicide of the great chef Vatel, who fell on his sword when a fish delivery came too late and ruined a banquet scheduled for 2,000 guests in honor of Louis XIV, to the streets of revolutionary Paris running with the très riche blood of Marie Antoinette, Princess Marie Thérèse, and Madame du Barry. When those ladies perished in 1793, literally torn limb from limb, the chefs who had fattened and coddled them on bonbons and pastries, who had organized their picnics and produced the baroque menus for their masked balls, were out of work. So they did what entrepreneurs at loose ends do to this day. They opened restaurants.
We have the decadence of aristocratic French kitchens and the excesses of furious peasant mobs to thank when we sit down to a "Lyon crepe" (ham, Swiss cheese, béchamel sauce, $8.25), many years and miles away, at Paris Bakery and Café in West Palm Beach, a place that feels altogether safer if a bit less nervy. The only mobs here are the ones that show up at noon for lunch as the church bells toll and the sun hoists its gleaming blade high enough to cast a ray or two between high-rises. Office workers, clerks, lawyers, gaggles of young dudes dressed in identical suits, Bluetooth devices tucked around one ear, stream in from the courthouse, City Hall — now Everyman scarfs for lunch the food that once roiled only the digestion of royals. And Paris Café proprietor Didier Martin isn't likely to off himself if he runs out of the day's special, say coq au vin or boeuf Bourguignon, before the rush is over. His wife, Andrea, bubbly and swift, will inevitably smooth any ruffled feathers — the worker may have to wait long minutes for his bowl of carrot soup ($3.95) or a portobello panini ($8.95), but madame's enthusiasm for her homemade tarragon dressing ("It is really, really good — you put it on the baguette") is irresistible.
The same La Varenne who codified the recipe for sauce béchamel in his cookbook Le Cuisinier François also worked out the niceties of pastries, confection, and jellies in subsequent tomes. So we have La Varenne to thank for what eventually became staples of bistro and boulangerie, including our own slice of Paris: Poire Belle-Helene ($5.95), Fraise Melba ($5.95), the croissant filled with chocolate ($2.05), and a baguette slathered with country butter and jam ($6.55 with orange juice and coffee). All these the Martins turn out efficiently for breakfast and lunch, along with a huge list of salads (chicken breast, spinach and strawberries, sautéed shrimp with bacon, and smoked salmon, taboule, and fruit) and sandwiches (the Normandy, the Paysanne, the Calabria, the pan bagnat), wraps, hot subs, quiche Lorraine, and two daily specials that include what I privately call the "creamburger" on Wednesdays, a grilled cheeseburger made from ground beef mixed with heavy cream and given a dollop of crème fraiche for good measure, a burger to pleasure the most decadent princesses of SoFla.
But it's the crepes that the Martins really put their heart into, and they're outstanding. They serve them for breakfast, lunch, and by reservation only for Saturday dinner. The quotidian French have been eating simple pancakes, made first with buckwheat and later with refined white flour, since the Middle Ages — but it's La Varenne's famous white sauce that elevates these little folded pancakes into something you'd be happy to eat every day for the rest of your life. At Paris Café, you'll find the lacy, buttery hems rolled around chicken and mushrooms, or mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes, or smoked salmon, or tuna salad and Swiss cheese, or prosciutto and portobello mushrooms, or sautéed shrimps — but always with the pale, velvety béchamel on the savory crepes; or with a smear of Nutella, homemade apple compote, or fruit and ice cream on the sweet ones. Unbelievably, the restaurant has a small list of wines and specialty drinks to go with the crepes, like Kir (white wine with crème de cassis), mimosas, or bottles of Duboeuf Beaujolais — breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Didier Martin was born in Normandy. He and his wife, who hails from France's southern coastline, ended up in Miami when Didier took a job as director of operations at the Hotel Sofitel. What he knows of kitchens he picked up there. "I worked with all the bakers and chefs doing openings," he told me by phone. "By being close to them, I could see how they were working. As a manager, you have to know how to do this stuff by yourself in case anything goes wrong." Although the Martins had never run a restaurant before, they bought a struggling bakery on Olive Avenue three years ago and figured out a way to import partly baked croissants and baguettes from France that they finish in their own ovens. They compiled a list of Andrea's favorite family recipes to serve as weekly specials and for their heavenly breakfasts, and Didier admits that the place would have probably tanked without his wife — she's got charm to spare.
The Martins see to it that there's cream and butter in everything — the oeuf cocotte has two poached eggs dipped in heavy cream, finished off with ham and cheese and stuffed into a baguette. There's French toast with strawberries, buttermilk pancakes, and a crepe platter in which your pancake is loaded with eggs, bacon, and cheese. Plus home fries and more bread. The omelets are delish — we had the "Veggie" with goat cheese and ratatouille one Saturday morning, and it was fine. And as we ate our way through the entire list of crepes, day by day, we agreed that although the salade niçoise ($8.85) and the quiche Lorraine ($6.95), served with a fresh green salad, the beloved sweet tarragon dressing, and many servings of bread were palatable enough, it was those thin, butter-infused pancakes and the occasional word with Madame Martin we were coming back for — the rest was just necessary research.
I think the scribes mistook those famous words, the ones that supposedly sealed the child-queen's doom. When told that her subjects were starving in droves, that a famine had stricken her country and the people had no bread, Marie Antoinette would surely have responded: Let them eat crepes.