As a general rule, train stations are not where you go to find the best food in the Chicagoland area. However, when the Winnetka metra station decided to look for a food purveyor for its newly remodeled space, Rachel Beaudry had an inspired idea. Why not treat Winnetka commuters to an authentic French boulangerie, so that they could pick up a freshly baked croissant or baguette on their way to work? Beaudry approached Pierre Zimmerman, a fourth-generation baker and a longtime friend of her and her husband (who owns the French Pastry School in Chicago). She convinced him to do the baking, and Café Fleurette was born.
As I enter the Winnetka train station, fresh off the metra, the first thing I see is a small counter area, behind which rows of baguettes, croissants, and other French breads and pastries are clearly visible in wicker baskets. Beaudry greets me warmly, and we immediately get to chatting about her daily routine. Every day, she drives down to Zimmerman’s downtown bakery, La Fournette, where she picks up the breads and pastries she sells, and then opens Café Fleurette by six a.m. When I express amazement at such an early rising, she replies with infectious positivity, “Well it’s nice, because there’s no traffic on the highway at that time!” Remarkably, although it’s only 8:30, many of the baskets, which were completely full at 6, now only have one or two items left in them. It’s a testament to customers’ appreciation of a level of serious craftsmanship for baking and pastry making that is uniquely French, and rarely found in the United States. Beaudry remarks on how often customers who have spent time in France extol the boulangerie’s authenticity.
Deciding to experience it for myself, I first go for one of my personal favorites, the almond croissant. I can only describe it as a sublime study in balance. Beneath a perfectly light, flaky crust, the middle is moist and airy. The frangipane (almond paste) layer functions in perfect harmony with the rest of the croissant, giving it a lovely almond taste that is distinctly sweet, but not cloyingly so. It is also skillfully distributed so that the croissant maintains its airy structure, without becoming overly soggy (as is the danger with these treats). The beautifully presented layer of almonds and dusted powdered sugar on the outside provides it with a pleasant crunch.
Moving on to the breads, I ask Beaudry to tell me which is her personal favorite. She starts with the multigrain baguette, describing how it makes the perfect sandwich, then redoubles to clarify that she also loves the regular baguette and the miche sourdough, and that she couldn’t leave out the country bread or the olive fougasse. Finally, after animatedly describing the crust, flavor, and the ideal purposes for each of these in a way that makes me wish I had the stomach, money, and time to try them all, she admits that she really can’t pick a favorite. She tells me, “It’s easy for me to be passionate about [the breads], because I don’t make them.” However, there’s no doubt that this very evident passion, in addition to her immense knowledge of pain français, is a large part of what keeps customers coming back for more.
After choosing the multigrain baguette for my lunch later, I wonder whether I’ll also be able to carry another regular baguette in addition to it. Trying to assuage my indecision, she says “well, you’ve been to France. You know what a baguette tastes like.” Ultimately, overly tempted by the rave reviews of the baguettes that I’ve read online, I decided to go for it anyway. While it’s true that I do know what a baguette tastes like, I realize that I had forgotten what a truly authentic French baguette really tastes like. Freshly baked this morning, beneath the thin crust, it still has that light, airy softness so important to bakers who come from a country where the baguette is literally regulated by law. Trying the multigrain later on for lunch, I find it equally pleasing, with a hearty nuttiness that adds texture and depth of flavor. Beaudry relates to me that one of her customers told her that her son would now only eat his turkey sandwiches on this baguette. After fashioning my own turkey sandwich with it, I can’t help but sympathize.
Halfway through my time behind the counter at Café Fleurette, a customer asks for a macaron. As Beaudry takes out the array of small, brightly colored confections, I know immediately that I have to have one. I choose the pistachio. Smooth, sweet meringue with a lovely hint of pistachio melts in my mouth, perfectly complemented by a creamy ganache. It’s the French passion for sweets in a nutshell.
In total, I spend an hour speaking with Beaudry and watching her serve customers. By the end of this hour, I’m astonished at her memory as she greets every single customer by name, chatting with them convivially about their kids, job, or whatever else is on their minds this morning. It’s clear that her passion for people goes beyond just the duties of good service, because even after the customers walk out, she continues to tell me anecdotes about their lives. The brightening effect of her disposition is evident in her success in greatly improving the mood of a certain college student who rose (possibly for the first time since high school) before 7 a.m. that day. Speaking about the way Café Fleurette came about, she tells me, “I guess it was fate.” You can’t help but think she might be right, because it seems unlikely that anyone other than Beaudry herself could make the Café as she special as she has made it.
The boulangerie’s unique location makes it extremely accessible for Northwestern students. An outbound metra will take you straight to the Winnetka station in about 15 minutes. The café is perfect for a Saturday morning outing. Grab a croissant and some bread for later, and then browse the nearby shops of downtown Winnetka. You’ll be sure to experience a little bit of French perfection sans jetlag.
Address: 754 Elm St. Winnetka, IL 60093
Hours of Operation: Mon-Fri: 6am to 10am, 4pm to 6pm, Sat: 7am to 11am, Sun: closed