Jeff Kraus, owner of Crêpe Bar in Tempe, may be the closest thing to an artist the Valley food scene has today. He sprinkles bananas with sugar and molasses and brûlées them until they are sweet and smoky and tinged with a glassy gold. He griddles small, thin strands of crispy pepper jack cheese to the edges of crepes so that, when folded, they resemble yellow-fringed skirts. He rolls, cuts, and arranges his crepes along with slices of vacuum-packed strawberries and a pillow of vanilla bean custard atop a Pollock-like drizzle of caramel so that his guests can have fun with, think about, and ultimately enjoy this familiar food presented in an unfamiliar way.
He also has a jar of Nutella tattooed on his arm.
When Kraus came to the Valley in 2006, it was after dropping out of a Chicago cooking school and traveling through the Midwest and along the East Coast, where jobs like gas station attendant, food and beverage manager, and newspaper ad salesman fit for a time but didn't seem to stick.
Laura Hahnefeld cafe column
7520 South Rural Road, Tempe
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
Breakfast Burrito: $6.50
Veggie Stack: $6.75
First Time: $5.25
Caramel Apple: $6.75
A trip to Paris in 2009 changed everything for Kraus. Impassioned by the country's impact on the culinary world, its dedication to ingredients, and its cooking techniques, he quit a corporate gig in Phoenix that same year and launched one of the first food trucks to hit Valley streets: Truckin' Good Food. Specializing in crepes and frites, it wasn't long before Kraus caught the attention of the national media, including being named one of the top 10 most influential food trucks by the Huffington Post in 2010.
In July of this year, Kraus traded in his wheels for brick and mortar. And it's Crêpe Bar that this Valley chef-artist, along with partner Erin Ware, now calls home.
Through crepes, those lusciously thin French pancakes made with light sauces and fillings, Kraus seems to have found the perfect balance of artistry and discipline. His savory and sweet creations are a simple, mindful harmony of quality ingredients and deftness in execution while at the same time allowing room for exploration and imagination — and there isn't a clunker in the bunch. In fact, once you've had one, it's much more fun to try another rather than stick with a favorite. After all, you never know what you're going to get.
The menu is short and to the point. Along with the crepes are side dishes — comforting porridge served on weekends until it sells out, fresh yogurt parfaits, and a vegan cereal of spelt and pistachio granola with almond milk. Assorted teas, as well as espresso, cold brew, and pour-over coffees, are as carefully prepared as the food.
It's a good idea to take advantage of the daily specials, with which Kraus demonstrates his expertise in foods of the non-crepe variety. A colorful radish salad, hand-whipped cream over woozy Nutella bread, and miniature oatmeal cookies are as flavorful as his crepes (and there's nothing in the rulebook that says the two can't be had alongside each other). In fact, since the portion sizes at Crêpe Bar never get out of hand, sharing a few dishes with a friend makes the experience all the more gratifying.
The most outstanding feature of Kraus' savory crepes may be their ability to emulate familiar foods while still fulfilling their definition as crepes. Egg, bacon, and queso come packed into a chipotle-flavored crepe masquerading as a tortilla and drizzled in an avocado salsa for a mildly spicy breakfast burrito that could easily hold its own against the popular Mexican dish. A decidedly lighter affair is the Veggie Stack. Featuring slices of seasonal squash and diced red and green peppers festively sprinkled in and around two small, circular crepes flanked by soft dabs of herbed chèvre, pistachios, and streaks of almond pesto, the taste could be mistaken for something closer to a grilled vegetable salad.
And sandwiches get Kraus' crepe treatment as well. The light pancake rolled around tender and flavorful turkey with a snappy rémoulade sauce, white cheddar cheese, celery root, and sweet and sour stone fruit mostarda might as well be a delicate but highly flavorful wrap. And the Papa K, my favorite, is more or less the crepe version of a ham and cheese hoagie. Its top-notch pork, rich mushroom ragout, and baby spinach folded into a golden triangle edged with crispy, griddled strands of cheese gets even better with a sprinkle or two of the accompanying basil sea salt.
On the sweet side, the crepes are more customizable. As with all of Kraus' creations, the devil is in the details, and many of the sweet selections can be enhanced with add-ons of caramel, nuts, or fresh berries. Rolled pieces of thin and moist crepes tinted brown with melted sugar can be had with luscious vanilla bean custard, strawberries, and streaks of caramel or with diced apples, candied walnuts and salted caramel in the creation, which is called the Caramel Apple but tastes more like the crepe version of a caramel apple pie.
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If there is a sweet crepe standout, it is the First Time. Inspired by the first street-corner crepe he tasted on his life-altering trip to France, Kraus' version goes more the gourmet route. A brûléed banana gets tucked inside a griddled, slightly sweetened crepe smeared with Nutella. The crepe is then sliced, brûléed, and placed atop a smear of more Nutella and surrounded by more torched banana, sliced strawberries, and spiced walnuts. It's pretty much perfect.
The casual, nearly plain interior of Crêpe Bar belies the artfulness of the fare. But it is a friendly place nonetheless. An upbeat soundtrack plays amid gray walls splashed with local art surrounding a dark and shiny concrete floor topped with several wooden tables and metal chairs. And in the back, at the ordering counter, there is a graphic wall of sky-blue spheres where a soft-spoken but amiable team member will take your order. Later, he or she will check on your table and ask you if everything is to your satisfaction.
The answer is always yes.