First, a confession. Remember the cheese and food specialty shop run by Kris Horton on the first floor of the Public Market House in Monument Square?
It had all kinds of exotic cheeses and meats, oils and nuts, jars of this and that, all packaged neatly with colorful hand-written signs. I often gazed at the cornucopia, wishing I were the type of person who could pluck this cheese and that meat and throw together a tasty and satisfying meal that even my kids might eat.
Alas, I am not that sophisticated a foodie, so mostly I marveled at K. Horton’s wonders … and eventually turned away to buy a loaf of fruit bread at the adjacent Big Sky Bakery. Upon hearing the specialty shop closed this winter after 18 years in business, I felt a twinge of sadness.
Last week, I returned to the building for the first time in a few months and discovered a new operation had taken over the same space: Café Crêpe. Owner Lauren Brinkmann started with a food truck, added a crepe eatery in Freeport (20 Bow St.) and now has a second one in Monument Square. Such a load of crepes!
If your notion of crepes involves snooty French bistros, Café Crêpe may surprise you. The folks behind the counter are friendly. The food is served on paper plates, with plastic utensils. Instead of tables, pub-style wooden bars run along the aisle leading deeper in the building (with six tall black stools) and the spacious window overlooking Monument Square (with 10 bright red stools).
This square, after all, is where two distinct parts of Portland – the arts district and Congress Street – come together, often uncomfortably. Panhandlers, briefcase-toting lawyers and The Whistler stroll by. A nearby patron was reading Kerouac, “Dharma Bums” rather than “On the Road.”
As a no-frills purveyor of French cuisine – these are basically skinny pancakes, after all – Café Crêpe fits in perfectly with its surroundings.
Portland High students stream into the place at lunchtime. Colorful local art adorns walls with exposed brick and plaster. A tall chalkboard lists savory fillings on one side and sweet on the other.
On the day I visited, there were eight savory and nine sweet options, as well as two breakfast crepes (served until 11 a.m. weekdays and all day on weekends). Savory options included three featuring meat (ham, turkey or both), three without meat (hummus, mozzarella and tomatoes and goat cheese as main ingredients), one from the sea (smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, red onion) and a baked brie with walnuts and raspberry preserves with optional turkey for a dollar more. Prices ranged from $6.50 to $8.50 although a “high school special” offered the Ham Melt or Veggie Delight for $5 each.
I chose the Billy Goat ($8), with herbed goat cheese, roasted red peppers, spinach and a balsamic glaze. It was terrific. Satisfying and substantial. A $2 bottle of pomegranate and blueberry juice under the Purity Organic label turned out to contain only 20 percent juice, a disappointment. Next time, I’ll get water. A variety of coffee and tea is also available.
After a work meeting, I returned for a sweet sampling (prices from $3.50 to $5.50) and went for the Strawberry Cheesecake, one of three choices not listed on the paper menu, so it may be seasonal. Filled with fresh berries, graham cracker crumbs and sweet cream, it was delectable, as if I were transported to a state fair.
To paraphrase Mike Myers: It’s not Scottish, it’s crepes. They’re a welcome addition to the square.
WHERE: 28 Monument Square, Portland
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
WAIT: Five minutes
PARKING: On-street meters and two nearby garages
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes
WHAT ELSE: Dairy/gluten-free batter available for 75 cents extra