Food Matters: French Alpine Bistro La Crêperie du Village goes full snow globe
French Alpine Bistro La Crêperie du Village
Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
400 E. Hopkins Ave.
Ensconced among rustic wood panels warped by time, cushy pillows wrapped in striped ticking fabric, fluffy lambskins, glowing pendant lights and fragrant bundles of dried lavender, the dining tables at French Alpine Bistro La Crêperie du Village transport visitors to a world seemingly far away from the corner of Hopkins Avenue and Mill Street. Still, just a dozen steps separate the restaurant’s entrance from sidewalk above.
The most coveted spot to settle in, however, sits outside the front door proper. In a downtown where every inch of real estate matters, owners Karin and Raphael Derly have transformed their sunken outdoor patio to accommodate sheltered wintertime seating.
Thanks to the recent addition of removable, glass-paned wooden doors and robust overhead heaters, two reconfigured dining nooks fashion a natural extension of the warm, candlelit, fromage-scented main room indoors.
“It’s like a bubble of heat,” enthuses maître d’ Jaimie Atkinson during a bustling weekday lunch service. Daylight beams from above, lending an inside-outside chalet vibe. No doubt the area will thrive during après-ski, especially — in sunshine or snowstorm.
“Last year it was snowing in people’s cheese fondues and they didn’t care,” Atkinson marvels, of the then-exposed terrace. Now revamped, she says, “It’s two nice little rooms, where a group of 10 can have its own section.”
On Dec. 8, French Alpine Bistro La Crêperie du Village celebrated its eighth anniversary in Aspen. The soul of the European haunt, however, is at least eight times as old. Decorated with framed paintings, carved wooden objects, vintage farm tools, kitchen implements and other ephemera handpicked from France, Switzerland and Karin’s native Austria, “The Crêperie,” as it’s known locally, has been evolving constantly since it opened in December 2011.
Perhaps the most significant — yet invisible — upgrade lately is the acquisition of dedicated storage across the street, freeing up precious space within the 950-square-foot property with street-level skylights. Once a catchall for spare supplies, the bathroom was remodeled this fall into a chic, mirrored oasis. Other tiny design tweaks enhance energy flow, while every cranny remains filled. A coat rack is stuffed beside a narrow back corridor; wine bottles and sauté pans line shelves above the open kitchen’s seven-seat bar; and chefs still have to walk through the dining room, out the front door, and upstairs to a back alley to access the storage freezer.
“Since we didn’t have the budget to build out the rather challenging space with everything we needed right from the start, we kept adding on,” Karin explains. “The kitchen is constantly reconfigured to maximize space and be as efficient as possible.”
Very exciting for the crew: a new kitchen hood and ventless fryer, which turns out golden frites for moules at long last. Following 20 years cooking in New York City, Grenoble-native chef Eric Francou joined the French Alpine Bistro in November 2018.
“Each chef steps it up,” admits Karin, crediting both cuisine and ambience for a raft of international press over the years. “Raphael and I are also passionate cooks and foodies, and heavily involved in the menu.”
An instant classic: the Kaiser-Schnitzel Caesar salad, which arrives with a flattened, crispy pork loin covering a plate of creamy, dressed Romaine. (Like so many dishes on the menu — including modifications on all crêpes and special baguette for fondue — the pork’s breading is gluten-free.)
Two new offerings make use of small cast-iron pans delivered tableside: potato gratin alongside Colorado rack of lamb and the new Black & Wild Crêpe, which showcases familiar flavors of roasted mushrooms, truffled white-wine cream sauce, melted Gruyère, and poached egg with crispy kale garnish.
Lighter options abound, too: a handful of salads; Mediterranean eggplant “caviar” for scooping up with gluten-free crackers; and the new “Délice d’Asie,” which combines warm wild rice and quinoa with a medley of crunchy vegetables and house-made sesame ginger vinaigrette. Together these creations belie an inaccurate yet persistent perception about “The Crêperie.”
“Unfortunately, so many (locals) associate our restaurant with hearty, heavy food only,” Karin says. The eatery made its name, literally, on Brittany’s signature buckwheat pancakes stuffed traditionally with ham and cheese, and broadcast a tagline, “We melt with you,” to imply luscious fondue and gooey Swiss raclette scraped over fingerling potatoes, charcuterie and cornichon. Despite these origins, the bistro’s menu du jour celebrates a wider range of ingredients with varying weights.
Thai green coconut curry infuses “The Nirvana” crêpe, folded over fragrant chicken and vegetables then sprinkled with toasted coconut. Classic coq au vin, steak tartare and a beef Bourguignon crêpe (The French Connection) are ever popular, yet charred Maine sea scallops in lemon-saffron sauce with roasted cherry tomatoes and microgreens comprise one of the restaurant’s most celebrated dishes. Escargots sautéed with butter, tomato and pastis are served with airy brioche toasts. Seared salmon or roasted chicken breast may be added to any salad, too, for a light, protein-packed meal.
“In recent years we have added more vegetarian and vegan dishes and can execute 90% of our menu gluten-free, including cheese fondue and all crêpes,” Karin reiterates. “We have some of the best gluten-free bread in town.”
While chocolate fondue and sweet crêpes (Suzette-style, plus versions with berries, fruit, Nutella, dulce de leche or all of the above) rule the dessert menu, a new plate of of four artisan cheeses with lemon-thyme honey is a refreshing addition. While expanded under the stewardship of French Alpine Bistro staff sommeliers now working the floor this season, the wine list remains manageable at two pages.
“Everything we do is out of love,” says Raphael, gesturing toward the sheltered outdoor dining area he designed with Karin. “We are creating a glass house … to enjoy even when it’s snowing. A VIP room in a winter storm.”