We went downtown for lunch. I keep thinking of the song from Little Shop of Horrors – “Downtown, where relationships are no go! Down on skid row!” It had been about a year since our last proper visit, and though I’ve been drawn to downtown since I first started coming here, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of it. When I first got here I’d take the subway down to the Walt Disney Concert Hall – I’d get off at Civic Center and walk up the steps into this blazing steel sunlight, and make sure I never looked up. Reverse vertigo, that is apparently the term.
Anyway, that part of downtown is all sheer tower blocks, mirrored and panicky, like huge razor blades cutting into the sky. So I would look either down or straight ahead, breathing in until I got to a traffic light and then latching on to someone who was also crossing the road, as if we were friends. I once did this all the way to the Central Library, (looking straight ahead without breathing, latching on) to see Alain de Botton give a talk on why Los Angeles is so badly designed and hostile to walkers. On my way back, now late at night, I felt myself being followed. By the time I got out at Hollywood & Highland I practically rushed head long into the stream of traffic, and found myself face to face with Joe’s Jeep into which I clambered, frothing my relief.
So it’s progress that now, some years on, I can walk around downtown and look up without my feet slipping around inside my shoes. There’s another downtown that’s quite different to those corporate mirrored facades that birds crash into, believing it’s sky. We were heading towards it – to Spring Street because we wanted to visit The Last Bookstore, now housed in an old bank, and all around us were old banks, dark and gutted it seemed, no lights on, the occasional towel flung out to dry as evidence of a transient life. The banks are in the Beaux Arts style, tall and flat-faced with lots of windows and there were lots of people here too, unlike the rest of LA which is glossily empty of pedestrians (as if we ruin it or something).
The Last Bookstore is definitely worth a visit if you like cavernous rooms bulging with books, a bank vault full of horror (stories), a tunnel made of hardbacks, another tunnel made of knitting yarn and a floor made of pennies. And seriously danceable music and crunchy leather chairs. I went in search of a place to pee and found Creperie Sans Frontiere in a little precinct that connected Spring Street and Broadway, the only place that would let me use their bathroom for free. “It’s hard to say yes and it’s hard to say no,” was the lady’s parting shot, as she gave me the key attached to an egg whisk. I took this to mean that she has to decide who she gives the key to and who to deny, and that she probably has this quandary quite often. I went back to tell Joe about it (‘Spring Street and 5th, Spring Street and 5th’) and found him with his feet up on a cracked leather pouffe in the Lit Crit section.
The crepes (‘galettes’ here) were huge triangles, rather like elephant’s ears. They were 100% buckwheat, which the owner said she edged towards gradually, until finally flinging herself entirely at the buckwheat’s mercy. The taste is rich and earthy, nutty, almost sour. It looks like burnt black earth. You imagine it will taste of an old hat, but actually it’s lovely with maple syrup and some goat’s cheese, maybe a few pecans or a fried egg. The owner had a tower of Nutella; I imagine it would be delicious with that too. We tried to decide where we were: Paris, New York or LA, or none of the above. Or all of the above, and ourselves in amongst it. Downtown is a trip.
When I made the crepes at home I made them smaller, almost like blinis, and found they were much easier to handle. Buckwheat is not wheat or even a grain, but the seed of a plant related to rhubarb (and sorrel), and it absorbs liquid much more than other flours. However, once cooked, it can take on flavours and textures well. Syrup and honey, nuts, soft cheeses, nut butters, jam, ice cream and sorbet. It’s also gluten-free and if you don’t tolerate cow’s milk (like me) then you can add a vast array of ‘milks’ to the batter. Here I used coconut milk.
Adapted from Arrowhead Mills & David Lebovitz
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) whole milk (or see above)
2-3 tablespoons of maple syrup or honey
A pinch of sea salt
1 1/2 cups (175g) of organic buckwheat flour
2 large eggs lightly beaten
Put the buckwheat flour in a mixing bowl with the salt, then make a well in the middle to which you add the milk and the eggs and the honey or maple syrup. Whisk continuously to create a thick batter. Buckwheat is more absorbent than other flours, so you may need to add more milk – aim for the consistency of heavy cream. Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes – this batter does better if chilled overnight and brought back to room temperature before frying.
Heat a dab of butter or a small glug of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet or frying pan over a medium heat, and brush some of it off with a paper towel (unless you like your crepes swimming, which I profess I do). Pour about a 1/4 cup of batter (about a ladleful) into the middle of the hot pan. The buckwheat batter (in my experience of now having eaten the crepes every day for the last seven days) will not move around much but stay where it is; don’t attempt to swirl it as it’ll resist. After a minute or two, flip it over and cook for about 30 seconds. Aim for dark, blistered and crispy. Pile them up on a plate and douse with maple syrup or rest some fried eggs on them. Fried eggs go very well, oddly, with buckwheat crepes – perhaps it’s the egg’s sweetness.