Get Jean-Christophe Henry talking about crêpes (this isn't difficult) and you'll learn a thing or two. He's a charming, chatty son of Brittany who'll tell you all about his homeland's signature pancakes: how good ones are rare in New York, what's in them, and how they're made. He'll tell you where classic fillings like strawberry originated (that would be Brittany), and beyond crêpes, where to find the best oysters, langoustines, and cider (Brittany again). Henry's workshop is Crêpes Canaveral ("made of the RIGHT STUFF," the sign promises), his closet-size kitchen at William Barnacle Tavern in the East Village with a window that looks onto St. Marks Place. He's been there a year.
Henry follows old family recipes from Cornouaille, Brittany's far-western region. It's there, he says, that crêpes are "the thinnest, the lightest, the flakiest, and the best." (Not above a little regional trash talk, he adds that they call for more skill than the thick galettes of eastern Brittany.) With eyes, hands, and wiry frame in nonstop motion, he shuttles between two griddles, pouring and spreading the batter on the first, which is polished smooth "like a pool table" and heated to 410 degrees Fahrenheit.
After just a few seconds he carefully lifts the hot, paper-thin pancake, delicate as a wood shaving, to the second, rougher griddle, which is about 20 degrees cooler, to fill, fold, and finish.
A popular savory order at Crêpes Canaveral is the Complète, filled with egg, Emmentaler cheese, and ham ("not sweet, not smoked"). The sweet flavor of choice is strawberry with vanilla salted caramel and whipped cream, with black pepper, which plays off the herbal taste of the berry seeds. These are two different crêpes, he explains—the savory batter made mostly of buckwheat flour for its earthy flavor, cut with wheat flour to lighten the texture; the sweet batter made mostly of wheat flour with a touch of buckwheat and a dash of sugar.
Henry sets up shop every day but Tuesday, starting around 6 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. on weekends. Customers can order from the bar or at the sidewalk window.
Photos by Mark Hokoda