A Sweet and Savory Specialty in Old Town
By Julia Beizer
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 13, 2009
At a glance: It isn't easy to match cobblestone-covered Old Town Alexandria for quaintness, but Fontaine Caffe & Creperie comes pretty close. "I wanted something with a touch of romance to it, and I just thought a creperie would be perfect," Kyong Yi says of the charming cafe she opened with her sister last year on Royal Street.
Deep-blue walls and cherry wood accents welcome visitors to a shoe-box space. Chandeliers overhead are actually clusters of mini lamps with colorfully patterned shades. The chatter of nearby diners provides a soundtrack at night and during bustling weekend brunch service. During less busy times, the sounds of French songstresses float from speakers.
On the menu: Sure, you could order chocolate French toast, pate or quiche at Fontaine, but you won't want to. The sweet and savory crepes menu is more than enough to keep a curious diner satisfied. Thick slices of ham, sauteed mushroom slivers and melted Swiss cheese come folded in a buckwheat crepe in the Alexandrian. The Tuscan, filled with crumbled sausage, cannellini beans and tomatoes, is like an Italian appetizer in a thin pancake shell. I was particularly fond of the Norwegian, which pairs salty smoked salmon, sweet caramelized onions and indulgent creme fraiche.
If crepes have a reputation for being too dainty, Fontaine's heftier menu items are doing their part to blast it. French fries, curry sauce and a sweet bratwurst are piled high atop a folded crepe in the Berliner. The Washingtonian's filling of tender beef, potatoes and mushrooms brought to mind a wintry beef stew. All savory crepes come with a side salad of lightly dressed mixed greens. Most are drizzled artfully with bright green pesto aioli.
The sweet crepe menu features classic Parisian street-food combos (such as Nutella and strawberries or lemon cream and sugar) in addition to more elaborate creations. Try the Marathon for layers of peanut butter, Nutella and banana, or the sophisticated Late Nighter for boozy poached pears drizzled in chocolate. The crepe is merely an afterthought in the Sundae Afternoon, which is made up of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, bananas, walnuts and whipped cream.
On the non-crepe portion of the menu, I was most impressed with a flaky savory tartlet, topped with caramelized onions, ham, goat cheese and roasted tomato sauce. Kids can nosh on such simple crepes as powdered sugar, ham-and-cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.
At your service: Water is apparently hard to come by at the cafe; ask for it and you probably won't receive it until the second reminder. But you can't fault the waitresses here for hustle. With an often-busy dining room, they get plates out promptly and cheerfully.
What to avoid: There isn't much that falls into this category. The duck pate seems a steal at $8.95 but the starter is served cold and is nearly impossible to spread on the toast points provided. The bloody mary on the brunch menu is smaller than what we've come to expect from the breakfast cocktail and much less spicy.
Wet your whistle: French sparkling cider -- a mildly alcoholic beverage that Yi says is commonly paired with crepes in France's Brittany region -- is fizzy and festive. The restaurant offers a wide selection of wines by the bottle (most less than $40). The beer list is made up of mostly European selections.
The restaurant goes beyond the bloody-mary-mimosa dichotomy at brunch by offering a full selection of cocktails such as kir royale and French 75. The Campari Orange was my favorite; it perfectly captures the velvety taste of a Creamsicle. The cafe serves coffee from the Italian company Bristot. A brewed cup is richly flavored and well caffeinated.
Bottom line: Fontaine Caffe & Creperie is exactly what thrifty diners are looking for: simple, delicious food in a space you want to revisit. It's easy to get lost in all of the savory options, but be sure to save room for dessert.
Few restaurants glow with the kind of warmth one finds at Fontaine. At night, mini-lamps hanging overhead cast a golden light over the cozy dining room (and your dinner partner). Conversation is easy over the clink of wine glasses. It's a pleasant space.
The temptation is to order dessert first. Simple, street cart-style crepes pair lemon cream with powdered sugar or Nutella with strawberries. The more indulgent ones include caramelized fruits, chocolate and/or ice cream. But don't write off a full dinner here just because it'll be wrapped in a pastry shell. Some of the savory crepes prove to be very filling, such as a hearty veggie-friendly number with eggplant, mozzarella and tomato sauce, which is an occasional special. My favorite dish is perhaps the most simple: a fold of ham, cheese and sauteed mushrooms.
-- Julia Beizer (Feb. 19, 2010)