PORTLAND STREET CREPERIE - Getting a taste of France in downtown Dartmouth
Crepes: they make eating thin pancakes slathered with Nutella socially acceptable as dinnertime fare . . . for adults. We all know them, we all love them. Since the landing of Portland Street Crêperie in the heart of downtown Dartmouth in 2015, it’s been all too obvious that crepes for breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner were just what the community was looking for. On opening day last October, there was a lineup out the door. Owner Neil Cook couldn’t be happier with how customers and fellow business owners in Dartmouth have welcomed them “with big, wide, open arms.”
“The food is good, the prices are reasonable — but it’s about the experience,” says Cook. “People coming into Portland Street Crêperie, they’re seeing their food being made, and smelling the good smells.” Cook and his son Max, who run the operation together, pride themselves on creating a welcoming environment complete with positive vibes and good music in order to keep customers coming back again and again. It seems to be working. “I’d say 60 per cent of our customers every day are return customers,” says Cook, who has been at the business almost daily since it opened.
The crêperie itself is a bright, clean space with white walls and wooden tables. Atop a long counter behind glass is the equipment used for hand-crafting crepes while customers watch. On the wall behind that hangs a series of clipboards displaying menu items printed in clean black and white. It’s a modest space for a modest concept.
“I think people kind of get what we do. It’s a really simple menu, we don’t use a ton of ingredients,” says Cook. Max, who has a background in the food service industry, developed the menu. They source local when possible, buying their ham and bacon, for example, from Oulton's Meats, based in Windsor. The menu offers five savoury and seven sweet crepes, plus a weekly feature. Classic combinations like ham and Swiss or lemon sugar are complemented by more inventive crepes like The Flatliner, a crepe stuffed with peanut butter, bacon and banana. Concealed inside the Oreo Cheesecake crepe are pieces of their own from-scratch New York cheesecake and crumbled Oreo cookies.
The best-selling crepe is a savoury one called the Bon Matin. “It’s so good that you can have it pretty much any time of day. It’s Oulton’s bacon, cheddar, house-made garlic aioli and an egg that we throw on there,” says Cook. This is the crepe that I get to taste on my visit to Portland Street Crêperie. It is made with a series of folds, as the technique layers in each ingredient, ensuring that every bite has crispy bacon, oozing cheddar, rich egg and aioli. All that deliciousness is sealed up and presented as a rather inconspicuous looking triangular crepe. It’s finished with a dollop of aioli on top. This is one hearty crepe, easily a filling meal any time of the day. The batter itself is fantastic, with just a hint of sweetness, perfect for housing savoury or dessert fillings.
“It took us a while to figure out a really good batter, because you have to respect the batter and pay attention to that,” says Cook. It took Max about a month’s worth of changes and adjustments to perfect the batter recipe before opening; he also estimates he must have practised that crepe-making technique on the griddle about 100 times before getting it down. Looking at the menu, you notice there’s usually no more than four ingredients, plus a sauce or spread, in each crepe. Keeping it simple allows the ingredients to shine and doesn’t overwhelm customers.
“We have a very diverse customer base, multicultural, a lot of French speakers, but crepes, when you look at it and you start to dig down a little bit — crepes are a universal food,” says Cook of their choice of focus. Before launching, and not even knowing what their concept would be, he wanted it to check three boxes: easy to eat, versatile and not already being done. Crepes were that food.
“I was drawn to downtown Dartmouth, I just had a feeling this would be a good, strong place,” says Cook, who grew up there, as did Max. “There’s a good change happening right now and I wanted to support that.” Cook couldn’t be more enthusiastic to be a part of the evolution of the neighbourhood. “Portland Street, downtown Dartmouth, Ochterloney — I think they’re maybe being seen as foodie destinations. So we’re really excited to be here.”
As for future plans, there really aren’t any right now. “I think the future holds a lot of good things. I can immediately say that this location is not going anywhere, it’s going to be our founding establishment,” says Cook, adding that they open to a lineup outside on Sundays, and that weekends are generally very busy. They’re open daily from 8:30 am to 5 pm except for Sundays (10 am to 3 pm). On Friday nights they stay open until 7 pm.