The French Market has never been as French as its name (its English name) implies. A Native American trading post at its inception in the 1790s, teeming with Italian fruit and vegetable vendors by the mid-1800s, it was historically -- and still is to some degree -- a multicultural hodgepodge of people all drinking cafe au lait.
But as Louisiana produce came close to extinction at this, the country's oldest open-air marketplace, and when tchotchkes threatened to supplant all crafts, the people of New Orleans rose to action. Last year, for example, the French Market Corp. instigated a revitalization. The Crescent City Farmers Market now sets up shop at the French Market every Wednesday. And Steve Kudelich opened Cafe de Mello, a creperie, on French Market Place.
As you enter Cafe de Mello, passing between the sidewalk tables and beneath a brick archway, you inhale the golden scent of sizzling batter radiating from two crepe irons. The creperie doesn't close between breakfast and lunch, which attracts a steady flow of weary shoppers; there's always someone licking a plate clean of lemon gel filling or cutting into a cloud of whipped cream.
If there's a collective culinary subconscious in New Orleans, it was in high gear when Cafe de Mello opened six months ago -- roughly the era when Crepes a la Carte appeared Uptown, and when Dickie Brennan fired up the irons at The Creperie of Bourbon House. Local culinary traditions have long included the svelte French pancake (note Galatoire's idiosyncratic grape jelly-filled Crepes Maison), but single-minded creperies are a novelty.
While it's statistically implausible, the creperies' near-simultaneous openings were coincidental. As if to prove their independence, each one approaches the crepe differently. Over-stuffed is the best description for the comestibles at Crepes a la Carte, a corner walk-up store; cooks slide the one-meal fold-ups into triangular cardboard holders to combat floppiness. At The Creperie of Bourbon House, a hole-in-the-wall dispensing crepes as street food, seasonal fruit, housemade preserves and high-quality cheeses top the short list of fillers; the crepes are leaner here and come wrapped in parchment. Cafe de Mello is the sole sit-down creperie of the three; many of its crepes are named for familiar dishes, like the desirable Lasagna Crepe smothered in a rich, bolognese-type sauce, and the Thai Stir Fry Crepe wrapped around crisp vegetables and a sickly sweet peanut butter sauce.
Like in Europe, the three creperies have fluctuating philosophies on whether to sizzle the crepes to order or to cook them ahead of time to be reheated on the iron when an order rolls in. Both methods are authentic, and a once-cooled, leathery crepe may be better able to contain moist fillings like melted butter and Nutella. Still, it's an awful tease for a customer to see a hot crepe iron, to smell the batter browning, and then to be served a reheated crepe whose flavor is no longer toasty, whose body no longer springs and whose edges are no longer crisp.
All the crepes I tried at Cafe de Mello had been reheated, some of them not so thoroughly; to their credit, the thin, pliant skins of cooked batter never tasted old. The crepes' faint egginess lends to super breakfast preparations, like huevos rancheros and crepes Benedict. Topped with fresh salsa, the former curls around black beans and a thin sheet of scrabbled eggs; the latter is like an envelope containing sliced ham and a sunny-side up egg, sealed with a gloppy hollandaise sauce that's surprisingly light and lemony.
Others are satisfactory but fall short of remarkable. A little salt could improve the potato and Gruyere filling. Spinach and artichoke filling is, like most spinach and artichoke dips, satisfyingly creamy but bland. The Brazilian crepe incorporates banana, pineapple, ham, ricotta cheese and cashews; a literal sum of its parts, it's neither as freakish nor as titillating as it sounds. Sweet crepes filled with syrup-preserved peaches will pack greater pleasure when ripe Louisiana peaches are no longer for sale at the French Market.
Much like the French Market itself, Cafe de Mello's structure mixes contemporary and vintage aesthetics. Kudelich and his wife, Andrea, carved the space of natural light, robin's egg-blue paint and white tile out of a dank, refrigerated produce warehouse. They found cork insulation, a half-dime dating from 1852 and antique wine bottles along the way, and they retained the original building's skylight and brick walls. Francisco de Melo Palheta, who introduced the first coffee beans to Brazil, inspired the cafe's name. The phonetic implication is also intentional, and Cafe de Mello can be a mellow place indeed if you don't mind that the full service is sometimes less than full (I had to leave my table for coffee refills, to add to orders and to fetch the bill). Whatever its shortcomings, Cafe de Mello -- like Crepes a la Carte and The Creperie of Bourbon House -- is an inexpensive, refreshing addition to the eating scene. Typical of most successful culinary trends in New Orleans, which almost by necessity nod to tradition, it also feels like something that should have been here all along.
- Cheryl Gerber
- French revolution: Wallace Lester prepares crepes inside the recently opened creperie, CAFE DE MELLO.