I squint and feel transported to another world. The smell of fresh baking baguettes seduces me. In the distance, I hear the chattering of French accents. But when I open my eyes and see the snaking line of customers, I’m jolted back to reality. I am in Fairfield, Connecticut, standing at the counter of Isabelle et Vincent, arguably one of the best French bakeries this side of France.
Dressed in matching flour-dusted baker whites, the two bakers sit so close together at a table they seem entwined, as one. Passion for their craft, baking, takes a back seat because they first share another passion — for each other. “It was a coup de foudre as the French call it, love at first sight,” Isabelle Koenig says as she describes the moment, 18 years ago, when she first laid eyes on her now-husband Vincent. Suddenly they roar with laughter as they recount how two residents of Strasbourg, France found themselves in New England: “It was the winter of 2007, we packed up our 8- and 10-year-old children and moved to America to open a bakery.”
“We took a big risk,” Isabelle remembers. “We wanted adventure. We wanted a challenge.” The relocating part seemed crazy, but the bakery not as much: Vincent is a seventh-generation baker who had previously operated a successful family bakery in France.
They arrived in the dead of a cold, brutal Connecticut winter. They spoke very little English; no bank would give them a loan or mortgage, no landlord would rent them a space for the bakery. Finally a break occurred when they were offered a space in the bottom of what looks a picture-perfect white house. It was an unlikely spot, tucked just off Connecticut’s major highway I-95, on a busy main road and across from the Dairy Queen; if it weren’t for the huge printed sign in the front window that screams “French Bakery,” it would be easy to miss.
“We were happy to give our culture [to the town],” Isabelle says. “The customers taught me English and their American customs and in exchange we showed them our food.”
At the bakery, I spot the expected classic French desserts like chocolate mousse, Napoleons, mixed fruit tarts, palmiers, Paris-Brest. “We have never, ever been into an American bakery,” Vincent says. “Not once. I want no American influence; I want to be myself, an individual. We use the best flour, we want to be ourselves, we do what we like with a French touch.” Every March, the Koenigs revisit France for inspiration and always bring something new back with them.
But despite Vincent’s protestations, I notice some quirky twists on the traditional. There’s a vanilla pretzel, a quiche croque monsieur, and chocolate carrot cake, a chocolate baguette, even a pistachio and chocolate chip croissant. Vincent explains that while he always listens to the customer’s desires, it is essential for him to be unique. “The American palate is different, so we had to adapt.” Pastries heavy with the taste of almond paste never sell, but eclairs and colorful macaroons fly off the shelves.
But there is, he’ll say, once distinctly American dessert that Isabelle et Vincent will never offer: “I don’t make cheesecake,” Vincent says. That seems fair; I understand.
Isabelle et Vincent
1903 Post Rd.
Fairfield, CT 06824