Entrée NWA: Arsaga’s Espresso Café & Creperie

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 150 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — There is nothing plain about Arsaga’s new coffeehouse and creperie just north of Dickson Street, but it deserves this accolade in plain terms: The crepe-making haven is the best addition to Fayetteville’s downtown in years.
Just north of Dickson Street, the creperie pushes the border of the entertainment district a few hundred feet further out, along West Avenue, into the netherworld where, deprived of a doorstep on Dickson Street, many establishments have lived and died. The location occupied by the creperie has been a failed restaurant before, at least twice.
As recently as 2000, the building was a forgotten warehouse next to a forgotten train depot. It was occupied by a squatter who used the nearby railroad tracks to bring in old Pullman cars and refurbish them. The lot was gravel. Railcar axels and wheels and panels were strewn everywhere. Situated between the university and Fayetteville’s best collection of restaurants and bars, the place was essentially a junkyard.
Outside the creperie, there’s a sign of the times: Running past the building is the progressive dream of the new bike trail system. The path will soon connect to Benton County, home of the best new art museum in the world, and a phalanx of corporate achievers. The Razorback Greenway is built to be an environmentally friendly commuter route. But even if you don’t want to pedal dozens of miles to home or work, you will want to pedal to this new Arsaga’s.
At least, I saw plenty of people pedaling their way on a recent weekday morning. I was on the beautiful and modern back porch – there’s a beautiful and modern porch on the front, too – as rider after rider parked his bike and strolled into the creperie for pastries, crepes, and gourmet coffee. The experience is disorienting. For a moment, I thought I shouldn’t be telling people that I’m an American.

Much about the creperie feels Bohemian in a French countryside sort of way – how owner Cary Arsaga managed to pull that off in a Fayetteville train warehouse is a testament to his vision. Think what this guy could have done if he had been elected mayor! We’d finally get a Maginot line up against Springdale!

But the creperie does even more than offer French breakfasts and French ambiance. According to my wife, an academic who has used cafes as her living room for years – this is her favorite new place. Why? “There’s this little nerd ghetto in the back,” she said, noting a far room loaded with power strips for laptops and tables set up for groups and singles. That’s not a bad idea for a place just a few blocks from campus, and I expect to see a large portion of my family’s income devoted to bolstering the nerd ghetto.

But the crepes are the main attraction. Arsaga’s main crepe-maker, Daniel Estes, has spent a lot of time perfecting and experimenting with the dish. The result is an extraordinary array of inventive and flavorful food that is not only hard to find in this part of the world, but executed in world-class style.

Just to be sure, I brought along my wife, who lived in Europe for several years, as well as my mother-in-law, who is European. Swiss, to be exact. She knows crepes and coffee. Both were thrilled by what they found. The breakfast menu (served from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.) was limited: The Ozark crepe, with local artisan sausage, egg, mozzarella and roasted red peppers with crème fraiche on a cornmeal crepe; an egg and three-cheese cornmeal crepe with mozzarella, cheddar and Parmesan; and a blueberry ricotta crepe on a orange-blossom infused sweet crepe shell. There was a house vegetable crepe featuring fresh garden vegetables, and an assortment of pastries. A half crepe (which seemed to me more like an 80 percent crepe) goes for $6 or $7. A whole crepe is a few dollars more.

The lunch menu and Saturday brunch menus are far more extensive, and include a variety of sweet crepes that come with such niceties as Nutella, Citron, and Grand Marnier. There are also savory crepes, such as “monsieur” – akin to the sandwich. And a Thanksgiving-theme crepe made with turkey and mashed potatoes and green beans! Another offers house made ricotta, arugula, pine nuts and Kalamata olives. There are a few salads and a small but smart selection of spirits. I’ve heard the house mimosas are worthwhile.

Meanwhile, my wife ogled the coffees, which include eleven types of espresso – even the French can’t complain about that – and some interesting specialty coffees, such as an organic Ethiopian blend and a French Press coffee that comes out of a self-serve pump dispenser – just like the regular stuff.

We ordered and got comfortable in this Euro zone. From the owner we learned that the some of the herbs and vegetables are grown fresh right at the restaurant, in lovely plots along the bike trail. We soon saw for ourselves. Our crepes arrived, each with a side of potatoes boiled, buttered, and sprinkled with delicious fresh dill harvested right outside our booth. “These potatoes are to die for,” said my mother in law. Then she dunked them in the side of homemade ancho aioli, and as I saw her eyes roll back in her head I began to take her seriously.

My wife did the same.

“I want to take a bath in this,” she said. I wondered how that would go over in the nerd ghetto – could be a way to make our money back.

The half crepes we ordered were more than enough. And we each loved the separate flavors we ordered. My Ozark crepe was stuffed with some local sausage that was mildly spicy but full of flavor – almost tangy. The cornmeal crepe itself was fluffy and just eggy enough and was folded like a piece of origami art. Throughout were sweet little roasted red pepper bombs, which despite my natural instinct to serve my own best interest, I shared with the European women at the table. I felt gallant giving them up.

My wife’s egg and cheese crepe was good and hearty, if not the flavor sensation of the Ozark. My mother-in-law’s blueberry ricotta crepe was a clear winner, with the ricotta cheese inside a surprise hit. But the best part perhaps was the mascarpone cheese, mixed with whipped cream, on the side. This woman has been known to leave lipstick on her carton of whipped cream at home, and she almost did the same to her plate. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Europe, she thought the combination of “sweet crepes and potatoes was a bit odd, but it’s good.”

Her only real complaint – and it is one I share – was the lack of variety on the breakfast menu. Cary Arsaga later explained that a limited breakfast menu was all his staff could handle at the moment. While I certainly recommend this place for any time of day, to get the full effect of Arsaga’s creperie, you should go after 10 a.m., when the full menu opens up.

My feeling was confirmed when I asked my Swiss mother-in-law if she would bring a Swiss person here for crepes. She said she would. That’s a big deal. “But I’d take him after 10.”