Cafe Francais Des Arts: OOH LA LA

Friday Jul. 1st, 2011

Get this straight: I like this place. A lot. So much, in fact, I awoke last week in a Virginia Beach hotel longing for one of the pastries from Café Francais. Stuck with an unappetizing assortment of chain restaurants, I opted-out of breakfast, rolled over and fantasized about nibbling on Napoleons, pain au chocolat, and tartes aux fruits; about ripping apart a flakey croissant and smearing it with astonishing French butter; about sipping a proper café au lait. (Café au lait, by the way, is only drunk in the morning, s’il vous plait.) With the ubiquitous golden arches scattered across my travel route that day, I even thought about lunch, foremost in my mind the wicked-good baguette Francois bakes…
She is Francois Manigault. She is from France. She has opened an amazing little café in downtown Bozeman…and you really need to meet this woman, this woman who fell in love with us. In preparation for your visit, repeat “hello” after me: “Bonjour, Madame.” (Bone-zhurrrr, Madahm.) This is how you greet someone in France, whether you’re in a meat market, a car dealership, or café. It’s the polite thing to do.

Anyway, as Francois shares her story, one viewing of A River Runs Through It and she knew in her French-to-the-bone genes that she would come here, that she would “die here.” And here she is, and are we ever lucky. Not only did she learn to bake her succulent goodies just for us, Francois is an artist—as demonstrated by dozens of striking paintings that adorn the walls. She also has an artist’s heart. There is a tenderness to her that comes from some deep, soulful place. Yet one taste of her baguette and you’d swear she is a wizard—alchemy has to be in play here: bread just does not taste this good, not here in Bozeman, not anywhere. “I cannot leeve wizzout French bread,” she says with passion, before explaining how it took six months to perfect her baguette. “It eez ze altitude zat gives ze baker problems,” she explained. I melt into a puddle every time I listen to her accent and ache for the chance to sit again in Mother St. Patrick of Charity’s French class like I did at Notre Dame so many thousands of years ago. Slap a piece of ham and some cheese between two slices of Francois’ baguette and you will claim you’ve never tasted ham and cheese before. Ditto salami or Brie. One happy customer told me the tuna sandwich creates spasms of delight.

To add to our delight, Francois offers much more than cookies and Napoleons and tarts. (Her “mousse au chocolat” is so rich you want to eat it in private.) Quiches, as well as sweet or succulent crepes complete her menu, along with requisite coffees and teas and sparkling French sodas.

And the croissants! (qua-sont) Though I use words to write, words cannot describe these light, buttery creations that cause all senses to surrender, that evoke satisfying sighs. The croissant in your hand—ohmygawd, add chocolate!—defies earthly definition. It is interplanetary, celestial.

There is no denying that Bozeman has several darn good coffee houses, and most offer excellent fare. Complete with Wi-Fi, Café Francais Des Arts is an outstanding addition to this town, one where you can practice the little French you remember from high school, one where you can sit at a bar and read a French newspaper (or the Bozeman Magazine), one where you can meet—and eat—the real deal. It never disappoints. Simply put, expect your tastebuds to snap to attention and prepare for an irresistible urge to salute the French flag.

Café Francais Des Arts is a big space that could use a bit of intimacy—something Francois intends to address if we don’t push her to exhaustion first. The price point here is on par with most other breakfast or lunch spots in town. Rather surprising, since many ingredients are imported for authenticity’s sake. (Note the chalkboard, where in true Euro-style a comma is used when displaying price: 3.10 becomes 3,10. Cute, non?)

And a word to those who have a bit of “ze attitude” about the French: get over it. Read history and be oh-so-surprised at how much the French helped us during our Revolution. Waay more than we know. Yeah, the French can be sensitive—especially when common courtesy is breached, ergo “hello” and “good-bye.” Beside the fact that this woman’s food is tres, tres tasty, remember: Francois came here because she likes us, likes this place we all call home. She came here to be our neighbor and friend. It wouldn’t hurt for us to be neighborly also, and meet and greet this intrepid woman. We don’t want to lose this café, Bozeman, but mostly we don’t want to lose her. Francois Manigault seems to be a solid addition to our community, a woman who has paid us the highest compliment: to love our country, to love our land, and to learn our language. Once you go to this café you will pledge to return; when you leave, it is again time for courtesy, so repeat “goodbye” after me: “Au revoir, Madame.” (Aw rehvua, madahm). I guarantee that in no time you’ll be asking how to say “more please!”– in any language.

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis.