One of the most enduring Parisian traditions is the making of bad crepes. This skill has been handed down from father to son for centuries. Today, all over Paris (but especially in the 5th and 6th arrondissements) you can get truly vile crepes at any of a large number of family-owned sidewalk stands. Here, the visitor will find a burly, none-too-clean crepe-maker. A cigarette dangling from his lip, he presides over a well-tempered gas-fired griddle and the ancestral stack of pancakes. The bottom of the stack was laid down around the time of the Saint Bartholomew massacre, and geological compaction has made it as hard as a millstone. At the approach of an unsuspecting tourist, the top layers can be peeled off for consumption (if not digestion) through the application of strong chemicals. These are displayed in assorted jars and bottles whose labels often have nothing to do with their contents. Thus, there will be an industrial solvent in a Grand Marnier bottle, and some petroleum derivative masquerading as Crème de Marrons. Most noxious of all (but authentically labeled) is a nasty sludge called Nutellla - a sort of heavily-sweetened Vegemite. (Chowhounds are advised to observe the revolting street spectacle of crepe-making from a distance of at least ten feet).
But the city is changing, whether Parisians like it or not. Successive waves of newcomers arrive to clamor for a slice of the big French pie, only to be met with indifference or hostility. Some of them turn to incoherent rapping, burning cars and raising hell, while others take quiet refuge in their own ancient customs. Among the latter group are the owners of Ty Breiz, who seem to think that they are back in Brittany, where there is no such thing as a bad crepe.
(pron. Tea braze, meaning a Brittany-style cottage)
52 blvd de Vaugirard
Metro Pasteur or Montparnasse
Closed Sunday, Monday
The neighborhood can only be described as utilitarian, due to the proximity of the Montparnasse train station and the hideous office tower. The local restaurants are dubious, the small hotels even more so. Ty Breiz is a large friendly creperie, decorated in an eclectic, somewhat funky, style. The walls are covered with dusty nautical memorabilia, and there are jars of preserved fruits and vegetables scattered about. It doesnt matter the customer is not here to admire the décor, but to eat delicious crepes, and to drink apple cider.
As every cook knows, a crepe is a simple dish that, nonetheless, demands the freshest ingredients, careful preparation and expert cooking. At Ty Breiz, everything is just as it should be. For dessert crepes, froment flour is used, made from the finest low-protein soft wheat. For savoury crepes, they use a mixture of froment and sarrasin. Sarrasin is buckwheat, which is actually not a wheat at all, but a relative of rhubarb. The batter has to sit for several hours, but not too long. The griddle is seasoned with lightly salted butter. Incidentally, in France, salted butter is by no means regarded as inferior, and often contains high-grade, expensive salt such as fleur de sel.
There are the usual toppings: cheese, eggs, sausage, country ham, boiled potatoes. I usually order a combination of Roquefort and toasted walnuts. Along with many French people, I normally dont care for Roquefort, a sheep cheese with a disagreeable chalky texture, but I find that the taste improves when the cheese melts just a little bit. For dessert, one can choose chocolate (made from cocoa and the above-mentioned butter), home-made fruit preserves, ice cream and other delicacies.
A well-cooked crepe is a thing of beauty. The underside must have a smooth, almost industrial, sheen, but must never absorb the flavour of the griddle. The edges should be crisp and lacy, and the whole must be nice and brown, with both body and lightness. This is what is achieved routinely at Ty Breiz, but practically never in the basic street-crepe.
Cidre is fermented, fizzy apple juice with about 1/3 the alcoholic content of wine. It comes in two versions, sweet (doux) and dry (brut). (The x is not pronounced, the t is). There is a lot of bad cidre in Brittany and Normandy, but you wont find it here. Alas, they do not serve poire, a tasty pear cider.
An ample dinner for two, with a bottle of cidre, is under 50 euros.
I strongly urge Paris-bound chowhounds to add Ty Breiz to their lists, somewhere in between the tedious Bistrot Clone and the pompous Palace Senderens-sur-Merde. I would go so far as to say that anyone who stays more than 3-4 days and doesnt go to a creperie (there are other good ones, such as those recently mentioned by Paris experts Maurice and Dodo) is making a big mistake, on a par with not visiting the Grand Palais or the royal tombs at Saint Denis.