February 14-20, 2007

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Bistro Maxine

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Streaming media: Vanessa Pan pours crepe batter at Bistro Maxine.

Crepe Crusader

Bistro Maxine brings authenticity to French street food in Palo Alto

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

A DECADE ago I lived in Paris and I can still picture the hole-in-the-wall creperie that abutted my apartment in the Latin Quarter. The turtleneck-clad cook ladled batter onto hot griddles from dusk until dawn, offering sustenance and pleasure to hungry students, tourists and night owls. This was street food at its best, and few other food memories from that time remain as vivid or as comforting.

Fortunately, it's not hard to find a decent crepe here in Silicon Valley; they can be found at countless cafes, full-scale restaurants and some farmers markets. Even those sporting decidedly Californian fillings have a certain appeal. But Palo Alto's Bistro Maxine, located on a side street off bustling University Avenue, keeps things simple in true French fashion. Georges Wansek, a classical trumpet player turned pilot and one of three co-owners, was born and raised in the French Alps.

Bistro Maxine is a bright, friendly little spot, a coffee shop and creperie rolled into one. If you're lucky, you'll snag one of the five indoor or two outdoor tables while perusing the long but straightforward menu. You won't exactly think you're in France—with its supercasual vibe this still feels very much like Palo Alto—but after a glass of wine and a neatly folded crepe (or two), you won't really care where you are.

Savory crepes are cooked to order with regular or buckwheat batter; go for the buckwheat, though I admit I expected a darker color and a bit more tang. No matter: the fillings shine in all their glorious simplicity. The Crepe Complete ($7.95) with ham, egg and cheese is a classic, one you can find in every creperie in France, and Bistro Maxine does it justice. The Mont St.-Michel ($8.95) has only a handful of ingredients (brie, Fuji apples and walnuts), but I enjoyed the interplay of flavors and textures. And I was duly impressed by how generous a layer of smoked salmon filled the salmon crepe ($8.95). With crème fraîche, capers and lemon, it was another winner and a substantial meal.

Though I love goat cheese, the goat cheese crepe with walnuts and honey ($8.95) was a bit thick on the tongue. The combination of sweet honey, tangy cheese and crunchy nuts is certainly tasty, but it's tough to down that much goat cheese in a single sitting.

Each savory crepe comes with a lightly dressed romaine salad on the side. You have the option of skipping it and saving a buck, but don't be cheap. The well-balanced vinaigrette cuts the richness of the crepes.

Bistro Maxine serves a few French wines (muscadet, beaujolais), Fischer beer (a French lager) and an effervescent hard cider. If you've never tried French cider, be prepared for its almost yeasty aftertaste.

Helpful and friendly servers take pains to accommodate you while you're waiting for the tables to open up. This is especially impressive since only two or three employees work at a given time, and one of them is generally busy making the crepes.

The cafe is open all day. Stop by in the morning for a fresh brioche, croissant or pain au chocolate (all $1.85) brought in daily from Palo Alto Baking Company, and wash it down with a gargantuan bowl of pitch-perfect café au lait ($2.50). (Who doesn't love drinking coffee from a bowl?) An intense, spicy hot chocolate laced with red chilies and cinnamon ($3) is also worth a try. It's exotic to sip on its own, but too filling, in my opinion, to accompany a crepe.

Bistro Maxine tries to tempt customers to come in the evening for dinner, but the ambience is all wrong at night. Lights are too bright (a dimmer is all that's needed), and the crepes and sandwiches (basic, but good) are better suited to daytime noshing. That said, after a movie or browsing on University Avenue, do pop in here for the to-die-for sweet crepes. One with sautéed apples, cinnamon and caramel sauce is irresistible ($5.95). Another, the Malicious ($6.95), combines a biting orange jam with a slather of chocolate and a splash of Cointreau, creating a wonderful fusion of strong flavors. The Suzette, with ($6.95) or without ($5.95) liqueur, delivers a citrus-y kick and the sweet, pleasant grittiness of granulated sugar. (The Josephine, with bananas, almonds and Grand Marnier, was so boozy it was nearly inedible.) All are garnished with billowy mounds of fresh whipped cream.

One final word of advice: if you're ever trying to ingratiate yourself into the life of a child, go straight for the crepe with bananas and Nutella ($5.95). I guarantee you'll be a hero forever.

Bistro Maxine

Address: 548 Ramona St., Palo Alto.

Phone: 650.323.1815.

Hours: 8am-10pm daily.

Cuisine: Crepes.

Price Range: $4.25-$8.95.

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