Paul Manley has opened other restaurants. In fact, during his 18-year career with corporate restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory and Lone Star Steakhouse, and as owner of the Charlotte-based Damian Dining, he opened 23. Now, with managing partner Jeff Tonidandel, they have opened the charming 49-seat Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub in NoDa.
NoDa is one of the few organic Charlotte communities that makes you feel good. Even with the replacement of some of the older buildings, the community is alive and evolving into what it will be. When Addie's Jamaican Restaurant closed last fall, I mourned, but then the Crêpe Cellar emerged.
The interior of this North Davidson storefront has been painstakingly refurbished. The front door was relocated to allow more dining room space and a bar area. Since the Crêpe Cellar has only 11 tables, they do not take reservations. However, if you sign in, the hostess will call you on your cell so you can walk though the NoDa galleries or listen to the "itinerant" street musicians -- on one Friday night, a trio of junior high kids played violins -- while you wait. See what I mean about making you feel good? How much better is this than waiting in a noisy, enclosed reception area with a vibrating buzzer?
An eclectic mix of classical Western European dishes comprises the well-edited menu. Tonidandel, who with his wife traveled extensively through Europe, wanted to reintroduce these items to Charlotte since "no one was focusing on these foods." On the menu are French bread pizzas, fish and chips, gnocchi, pasta, crêpes, salads, and sandwiches including a burger with Gruyère and aioli. These dishes are executed by Executive Chef Steve Kuney, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute who gained experience locally in the kitchens at LuLu and Bonterra.
It's hard not to smile at the Cellar. The generational crowd is boisterous, the food is honest, and prices range from $7 for a four cheese savory crêpe entrée to $16 for a steak with truffle butter and fries. The majority of the entrées are under $12. First up is a basket of crispy "Buffalo style" oysters served with a blue cheese dunking sauce. I would quibble with the idea of occluding the taste of oysters with a fried casing and then adding densely flavored blue cheese to the mix. But I fear a wave of angry fryers might swamp me. I mean, just asking, but Brittany -- the region of origin for crêpes -- is also home to a veritable feast of fresh oysters. Am I alone in this? Meanwhile, my dining companion downed the oysters in short order, proclaiming them some of the best he'd had.
The mussel app, steamed in a white wine sauce, needed a heartier boost from the shallots and thyme, yet the Caesar got a refreshing kick from a bold sauce. Where the kitchen shines, however, is in its eponymous dishes: crêpes.
Crêpes have a renewed interest stateside. Several decades ago, chains like the Magic Pan flourished in malls. These stores vanished in the 1990s with a few notable exceptions (Mall of America), but today, a fast-food version by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., has emerged. Crêpes are also found at farmers markets nationwide.
These pancakes use buckwheat flour for the savory dishes, aka galettes, while the thinner dessert crêpes are made with white flour. The richness of the spinach and wild mushroom crêpe at the Cellar is offset by spry goat cheese. This scene-stealing plate arrives piled high with fries in a minimal chromatic display, but with layered flavoring. Other entrées are equally hearty and tasty. The steak and Guinness pie, traditional pub grub, arrives bubbling with a dark interior revealing its treasures.
Allowing room for dessert may require the self-control of a Buddhist monk, but the classic Crêpe Suzette is worth it. While not flambéed tableside, these are sweet, well-crafted and memorable.
The Crêpe Cellar has beers, as well as wine by the glass, bottle or from a barrel -- the latter from Raylen Vineyards in the Yadkin Valley. Also on hand are ciders -- the traditional sidekick of crêpes. One is from McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, also in Yadkin. Proper storage would assist both the wines and cider in maintaining their characters.
The service staff is so sweet and well-intentioned that any missteps (as in premature removal of plates and jumbled wine service) are quickly forgiven.
Anyone hungering for good food in a cozy, fun place -- where you can enjoy your meal and have a conversation -- will find the Crêpe Cellar a refuge. This friendly and inclusive outpost with its warmly appealing menu is a beaut.
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