Until the spring of 2010, when “Buffalo” Sean Carroll began cooking his remarkable crepes from a cart on Westheimer, Houston was pretty much a disaster zone for the thin French pancakes. What few crepe purveyors there were tended to do a subpar job of it. Even otherwise respectable restaurants too often contented themselves with peeling a sad, clammy pancake off a pre-made pile, or trouncing their crepes with an overload of fillings and sauces.
Two years on, with Carroll’s Melange Creperie a celebrated and beloved staple on the Houston dining scene, some new crepe hopefuls have entered the market. Sweet Paris Creperie in the Rice Village and Guru Burgers & Crepes in Sugar Land’s Town Square are both trim, well-run places that should be well positioned to capitalize upon the city’s reawakened interest in the crepe genre. Yet they face the unenviable task of working in the shadow of Carroll’s genius.
Time and again as I sampled my way through the repertoire at Sweet Paris and Guru, I made unhappy comparisons to the crepes at Melange, where the pancakes are featherlight orbs alive with texture: lacy-edged and crisp, their bottoms seared to a taut variegated bronze, their brown-freckled insides tightened with a last-minute flipping.
It wasn’t just the immediacy of a Melange crepe’s textures I missed. I pined for the interest level of Carroll’s ingenious fillings, based on local ingredients, pointedly seasonal and often drawn from the varied ethnic cuisines that increasingly define the way Houston eats.
Too, I craved the balance that seems to be second nature at Melange, where the primacy of the crepe itself never gets lost behind the fillings — and there’s never a sauce on top to sog things out.
Greatness may not be on the crepe menu, but both Sweet Paris and Guru have their good points.
Sweet Paris is fresh and cute-on-a-shoestring in its whitewashed-brick slot on Rice Boulevard, lit by antiqued wall sconces and glittery modern chandeliers that hang from the whitewashed rafters. A wall sponged robin’s-egg blue draws the eye, Piaf warbles on the sound system, and the table flags are topped with miniature Eiffel Towers.
It’s corny but rather sweet, and it’s generally filled with a chattering, diverse crowd from the nearby university and surrounding neighborhoods. (More than once I have imagined I have wandered into some international congress of grad students.)
The crepes are made to order at four griddle-drums behind the semi-serve counter, where you choose your filling, pick up a drink and fetch utensils rolled in a napkin down at the end. But because Sweet Paris doesn’t flip their crepes to tighten and brown the undersides, and because assembling the fillings takes place off the burners, by the time the pancake hits your table, the interiors can have that listless, clammy feel I dread.
That’s what happened with my ham and cheese crepe here. Folded into a triangular packet, it came with a strip of good bechamel sauce, flavored with just a hint of nutmeg, running down the center.
But I longed for some nutty, pungent Gruyere instead of the relatively bland stretchy mozzarella inside with the smoky ham strips. (That’s the problem with the roster of international-style fillings here: with carbonara this and truffled caprese that, it reads more like a centrist menu for a wannabe chain than a personal document.)
And while the outside of this crepe was crisp, it was so uniform as to taste inert. It had none of the lacy edge-crackle and faint bubbliness of a Melange pancake, where you can see the tiny air holes bubble up on top of the batter as it browns.
It wasn’t that Sweet Paris’s ham and cheese crepe was bad, it was that it was just okayish. Okayish crepes aren’t good enough in a city where Carroll has worked his magic.
The Nordic Crepe at Sweet Paris was OK, too, with a bit more crispness on the top edge and a filling of decent smoked salmon pieces gigged with sharp little explosions of caper and pickled red onion, all smoothed out by sour cream and heightened with sprigs of fresh dill.
A pro-forma small heap of bagged spring mix haphazardly squiggled with vinaigrette didn’t add much; nor did a glass of inexpensive sauvignon blanc with little varietal character in the way of acid or bounce.
But then, on my third visit, I finally found a Sweet Paris crepe I would happily eat again: the simplest one on their chalkboard menu, just lemon and sugar.
Simpler is often better where crepes are concerned. In this case, adding just enough sugar allowed the tart lemon flavor to shine through, and the crepe retained its crispness through the two minutes or so in which I inhaled it. (Yes, it was that good.)
Over in Sugar Land, at Guru Burgers and Crepes, I never really hit that crepe sweet spot, and I was forced to conclude that I like the place better as a purveyor of excellent Wagyu burgers and eccentric beet fries.
Guru is a full-service operation, with a cheerful young staff that reminds me of the helpful kids who work at Sweet Paris. On a service level, I can’t fault either place. And with its funny signage and industrial edge, Guru is almost as pleasant to sit in as Sweet Paris (if far noisier), right down to the similar patio seating outside the front door.
But my crepes left me flummoxed, mostly. A pleasant enough filling of chicken in a mushroom and white-wine sauce completely overwhelmed the pancake it filled within and blanketed without, turning the crepe into the equivalent of thin, sodden dumplings adrift in a stew.
I appreciated the fact that Guru, which is owned by the folks who run Japaneiro’s South-American inflected sushi restaurant nearby, is serious enough about the provenance of its ingredients to offer all-natural, hormone-free chicken and a wine sauce made with Texas white wine.
But even though I found Guru’s crepe textures marginally more lively and varied than at Sweet Paris, I deplore the way their fillings tend to defeat those textures. Even when I ordered a simple-sounding dessert crepe of dulce de leche with fresh strawberries and candied walnuts, the crepe arrived with its surface paved over with sliced strawberries, with and an unadvertised scoop of vanilla ice cream sitting on top. Bye-bye, crispness; it’s back to clammy city.
I found one goodish crepe at Guru that seemed to point toward what the restaurant could do if it laid off the smothery approach. A clever BLT crepe filled with crisp pieces of Texas pecan-smoked bacon was lightened up with chopped Bibb lettuce and Roma tomatoes and red onions, with a melt of Provolone holding it all together.
I’m not sure where the advertised goat cheese fit in (I had been looking forward to the tart tang it would provide), but I liked the effect of a little garlic aioli drizzled on top in narrow ribbons, so that the sauce didn’t play havoc with the crepe’s crispness.
With a little tweaking, I could almost see that BLT crepe coming off the Melange cart.
I would hope Carroll would not serve sweet-sour ginger/sesame dressing on a salad of bagged mixed greens, however; nor, if he ever opened in a brick and mortar establishment, serve the kind of dreary, middle-of-the-road wines served by both Guru and Sweet Paris.
But then, I am beginning to think that a crepe served in a sit-down brick-and-mortar restaurant is never going to have the vibrant immediacy of a pancake folded right off the griddle and handed over to a waiting customer, so that for a few second’s it’s almost too hot to eat.
In the end, the pleasures of a well-made crepe are fleeting. That’s what makes crepes interesting — and so hard to do well.
(Sweet Paris Creperie, 2420 Rice Blvd., 713-360-6266. Guru Burgers & Crepes, 2268 Texas Drive, Sugar Land Town Square, Sugar Land, 281-313-0026.)