It was a very stormy morning, leaving the streets and Café Français des Arts empty. The atmospheric greeting was warm, but strange and uncomfortably open. The interior is best described as French-countryside-meets-restaurant-warehouse. Tables are draped in cloths featuring a cursive writing design, adding a touch of Parisian class, but red pleather (plastic-leather) chairs detract from the authenticity. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the entire staff speaking French. Fascinating watercolors line the wall — produced by the owner — and offer a door-sized peephole look at various scenes in Bozeman. Altogether, the atmosphere is eccentric but feels purposeful — not confused.
Upon entering, a glowing display case serves as a focal point and boasts a number of mesmerizing pastries. Beautifully ornate tarts sit alongside irresistible eclairs. Apple puff pastries and apricot turnovers accompany lemon meringue — and the lot are enough to get your heart racing with the thrill of losing self-control.
I began with a chocolate croissant fresh out of the oven. It was exquisite — spectacularly fluffy with a perfect, thin crunch on the outside. Immediately, my mouth was overtaken by warm, smooth liquid chocolate coating every taste bud. It was best described as a religious experience.
My Crêpe Madame — filled with bacon and swiss cheese and topped with egg — was underwhelming at first but I soon came to realize that this was, in fact, what made it so perfect. Packaged inside the perfectly rectangular crêpe was a collection of sweet and savory flavors that begged the closest attention. The bacon was refreshingly mild — not overwhelmingly salty or overpowering. Bacon did, of course, dominate the bites containing it. However, there are just a few strips in the crêpe to allow for the appreciation of the other fine flavors. The texture is just as important and was unique and outside the typical consistencies we’re used to in North America.
To further increase my carb intake for the day, I snacked on an apple puff pastry. The lattice-topped confection was almost more savory than sweet, bringing the apple flavor to the front. It created an experience that highlighted the primary but nuanced flavors typically muted by the added sweetness in American pastries.
It’s important to note just how much the flavors and cuisine philosophies between France and the U.S. differ. In the eclair I tried, the outer shell was firm, the chocolate was delicious but not overwhelming, and the cream inside was outstanding. The cream itself highlights that difference in food culture. Our foods tend to be overpoweringly sweet, but sugar is not so prominent in pastries at Café Français. Instead, owner Françoise Manigault focuses on flavor. The cream tasted like it was crafted right on the Loire River — its flavor was so unique and outside of the range of American gustatory norms that it’s impossible to describe.
[pullquote align=”right”]Our foods tend to be overpoweringly sweet, but sugar is not so prominent in pastries at Café Français. Instead, owner Françoise Manigault focuses on flavor. – Matt Williams[/pullquote]
Françoise Manigault — who established Café Français des Arts in 2011 and continues to run it today — grew up in the small community of Olivet in the Loire Valley of north-central France. “I always cooked,” she said. “It’s our culture.” Manigault started baking at seven years old. “I would make all of this cake and bring it to school and sell it to the kids to make some money. I liked to do that.” After attending college for psychology and working as a therapist for many years, she changed course and moved to Bozeman, starting Café Français. “I came back to what I did when I was very young,” reminisced Manigault.
Café Français des Arts is located on South Tracy, less than a block from Main Street. It’s a prime but largely unnoticed location that unfortunately doesn’t seem to get much traffic. But I implore you to seek out Françoise’s cafe and sample her cuisine. I recommend that you get there early — they tend to sell out of the best stuff by midday and it’s certainly worth it to try some pastries right out of the oven.