The 19th century French novelist Honore de Balzac was said to have consumed more than 40 cups of espresso daily as he churned out his pages.
There’s a pertinent quote from the great author painted in neat cursive on the back wall of the Café Balzac, a tiny creperie and espresso stall that opened the first week of December at The Bloc on Seventh and Flower streets.
It says, “Coffee is a great power in my life. It chases away sleep and it gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.”
Moh Kend, a Moroccan banker with advanced degrees in math and finance, is pulling fresh espresso from behind Café Balzac’s counter. He and his wife, Fatima Zindine, co-founded Café Balzac. Arrive after 11 a.m. and Zindine is there making crepes.
“I’m a banker with Deutsche Bank,” Kend said. “I took three months off to help her. Zindine used to live in Dubai. She had a couple of creperies in Dubai.”
Living in Los Angeles since 2005, Kend said the Moroccan couple have been together seven years and have a 10-month-old daughter, Lena Anais.
Fatima was in Casablanca, and Kend, a native of the capital, Rabat, was on vacation there. A lawyer whose firm does business with Deutsche Bank, Fatima’s sister introduced the couple.
A three-year long-distance, international courtship ensued, as Zindine returned to her creperies in Dubai and Kend resumed his banking position in Los Angeles. “We dated in Italy and Hong Kong,” he recalled wistfully.
After three years, the couple married. Zindine joined Kend in Southern California, and they initially lived in Irvine. Intending to re-establish Zindine’s crepe operation there, a lack of viable and affordable locations in Orange County led the couple back to Los Angeles and specifically Downtown. They settled on a larger nearby location and were in escrow when the pandemic lockdown arrived in March. They quickly pulled out of the deal.
Uncertain of the pandemic’s course, they found a more viable location at Hill Street and Olympic Boulevard and signed a lease in April for the expansive 1,200-square-foot space and began renovations. In the meantime, Zindine noticed their current stall at The Bloc was occupied by a convenience store that was underutilizing the space.
A chance, serendipitous encounter with the stall’s owner resulted in the Café Balzac’s debut at The Bloc during the first week of December — just as the county banned outdoor dining again.
Meanwhile, work continued on the originally intended location on Olympic and Hill. They had already invested $130,000 in the renovation.
“I’m not going to just throw it out,” Kend said. “It’s a different concept.”
Conceived as an art gallery and café, the new space will accommodate outdoor patio seating and a cozy interior with couches and armchairs. Depending on the pace of permitting, look for the launch in March or April.
Just before 11 a.m., Zindine arrived at the shop and immediately installed herself at the circular crepe iron. The couple exchanged notes with each other in fluent French. Asked what language they speak at home, Zindine smiled and replied, “We start with Arabic and finish with French.”
Like her sister, Zindine is a lawyer and initially moved to Dubai for an internship at her sister’s firm. Soon, it became clear that law was not her true calling. Two successful creperies over two years were the result.
As she began to prepare the menu’s Italian crepe ($9.50), a molten, savory toss of provolone, prosciutto and arugula, Kend said Zindine’s culinary instincts and crepe-making techniques come from home.
“In Morocco, it’s a family thing,” he said. “At least once a week, we do it at home; mostly the sweet ones.”
Introduced during France’s occupation of Morocco, crepe-making is a traditional and tasty remnant of Morocco’s colonial past.
The menu at Café Balzac is simple. Besides the usual espresso drinks and fresh orange juice, there are columns of nine sweet crepes and seven savory preparations. The sweet side ranges from a classic Suzette of sprinkled sugar and lemon juice ($6) through Nutella or caramel with fruit variations. A Nutella crepe with fresh strawberries and bananas tops out at $8.50.
The savory crepe options start with the Quatre Fromages ($8), filled with a mixture of mozzarella, provolone, gruyere and cheddar cheeses. Ham or turkey with cheese ($8.50); spinach or mushrooms with cheese ($8.50); and the aforementioned Italian crepe offer more choices. The DTLA crepe, a combination of salmon, gruyere and spinach ($9.50), is a final standout on the small menu.
Zindine’s crepes have already attained local popularity. By noon, she was fielding orders from neighborhood regulars. One such Downtown denizen — Natashia Miyazaki — chatted cheerily with Kend as she waited for her order. Over the iron with expertly practiced turns, Fatima carefully flipped and folded the steaming crepe to form. Miyazaki co-owns and operates the café No Ghost Bears, farther east on Eighth and Santee. Watching Zindine’s technique, she exclaimed, “It’s hard to find a good crepe in this town.”