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December 1st, 2004 KELLY CLARKE | z-Bite Club
 

SOLAR POWER

     
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Crêpe Soleil's Ali Hanni.
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
Unless you really want to face the icy derision of a Lyonnaise gypsy, do not go to Crêpe Soleil expecting to grab a quick bite. This little crêperie might have unfolded its sunny yellow sandwich board on North Williams Avenue just a month ago, yet its attitude is slow-going, vintage Frenchiness.

That's because Ali Hanni, the restaurant's co-owner, treats Crêpe Soleil like his own living room. He takes afternoon siestas behind the counter. He doesn't answer the phone if he's in the middle of a good political or gastronomical debate. And if you venture in during the evening, you shouldn't be surprised if you interrupt an impromptu jam session or a showing of an independent local film. The lax attitude of this tall, dark, Flamenco-guitar-playing, ex-engineer, ex-translator from Lyon is probably enough to drive some red-blooded, schedule-driven Americans crazy.

Good thing his crêpes are so damn delicious.

The joint is owned by Hanni, Tanya Stagray, his girlfriend, and Andrew Hoeflein, the host of ¡Hola... Hola!, a local Spanish-language kid's show produced by the Portland Public Schools for cable television. The place is a warm warren of ochre walls, dark-beamed ceilings and tangerine curtains. But it was the food made by Hanni, who spent his childhood devouring his mom's crêpes and Moroccan tagine in a North African suburb outside of Lyon, that made Bite Club swoon. What did it take? Just one sweet crêpe filled with thick chunks of fresh pineapple and mango drizzled with lemon-sugar sauce ($5).

At Soleil, prices are low ($3-$8 per crêpe) and the menu as ephemeral as a European train schedule. A compact list of offerings, one named after a rough gypsy neighborhood in Sevilla, Spain, and another for a famous Flamenco singer, is scrawled on a tall blackboard near the door. But the chalky list of ingredients, from raisins and kiwis to sun-dried tomatoes, remains perpetually smudged due to constant additions and subtractions.

The first time Bite Club visited Soleil, we ended up hanging out for two hours, jawing with Hanni about solar power, the dangerous effects of workaholism and just why it is that Portland feels like the "Frenchest city in America." On another stop, we sampled the "Mora" crêpe--a punchy melange of artichoke and palm sauce, sweet green onions and mushrooms wrapped in a buckwheat packet and topped with avocado slices and cilantro.

Portland boasts a handful of crêperies, from the trashy-wonderful Le Happy in Northwest to another new North Portland creperie (this one's housed in an Airstream trailer) called Fold, but Hanni's thin, light, pliable crêpes are a unique taste.

"They should be crispy and crackly, never gooey or chewy," he explains as he sprinkles diced apples atop a slowly cooking crêpe spread with lush cajeta, goat-milk caramel. "It should never sit in your stomach all weird."

Hanni says his simple cooking style owes much to French cooking icon Paul Bocuse. But Soleil's lazy charm is Hanni's own. "It's about socializing and making people feel at home," he shrugs. "That's how you bless your food."


Crêpe Soleil, 3120 N Williams Ave., 249-7042.

The name of the crêperie refers to solar power. Beginning Dec. 15, Hanni, a former engineer, is teaching a 10-week solar power workshop. Call or stop by the restaurant to sign up.

 
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