On the Line: Laurent Vrignaud of Moulin Bistro, Part One

Rookie
Rookie
Photo courtesy Moulin Bistro

On opening day, I visited Moulin Bistro with friends for dessert. We were the only non-French people there. From the vibe to the cuisine, Moulin felt as authentic as any cafe I strolled passed last year. It was no surprise when Laurent announced plans to expand the space. They appear to be on schedule with the build-out, so what better time to question the self-proclaimed rookie restauranteur than the present.

Why did you create Moulin? I grew up in Montmartre, a very down-to-earth district in Paris, and moved to California to surf when I was 18. During the next 30 years (while I was in the action sports business), I always told people that I was going to open a traditional bistro like the ones I missed back home. I wanted it to be full of big display cases packed with beautiful foods, just like places I would pass by when I walked home from school as a kid. But really, I just wanted to create a French man cave for my friends and I to hang out.

You decided to open a restaurant with no experience in this industry. How did you compensate for the lack of experience? I surrounded myself with experts. I had a very particular vision for Moulin, which was to create a bistro as authentic as any bistro in France. But in order to pull it off, I knew I had to surround myself with experts. The three people who run the kitchen (the chef, baker and pastry maker) have almost 100 years of French culinary experience among them.

Why do you think Moulin does well? People say that Moulin makes them feel like they are actually in Paris, just without the jet lag and the expensive plane ticket. What we are serving is basic French food in a basic environment, just like any bistro back home, and we have a lot of fun doing it. We're not putting a twist on anything. It's like Converse shoes; the reason I like Converse is that it is classic. It never goes out of style. I wear them, and my 12-year-old daughter wears them. And that's the kind of French food we're serving here -- the kind that never goes out of style.

Your earliest food memory: Having coquillette with jambon (small macaroni pasta with diced ham) and Gruyère cheese. I ate it all the time as a kid. And when I became a dad 13 years ago, I started making it for my daughter. We still make it sometimes on weekends.

Will there be anything new offered when the bistro expands this summer? More food! More beautiful, artisan foods. There will be an entire bread wall, and more classic pastries. Plus more cheese and charcuterie. There will be more of everyone's favorite French foods. And we'll have new things too, such as waffles and locally-made ice cream.

Most frequently asked question by guests. What restaurant were you at before here? People find it hard to believe that a 50-year-old guy is a newcomer to the restaurant business.

Tell us about your Tuesday and Thursday night dinners. Every Tuesday is our three-course Chef's Dinner (appetizer, main and dessert) for $25. Everyone enjoys the same menu, and it is served to everyone at 7 p.m. On Thursdays, we serve a classic entrecôte steak frites with green salad, steak and unlimited frites, also for $25. On those nights, it's a little tight and a little noisy, but it has to be that way in order to be authentically French.

Name one thing people didn't tell you about owning a restaurant? The brutality. You have to be physically and emotionally fit to be in this business or you'll be taken down.

One food you can't live without and why: Apricot jam and honey. I put honey in everything.

What are your best sellers? Our most popular dishes are the Croque Madame and Croque Monsieur, le jambon beurre baguette sandwich (classic ham, butter and lettuce), grilled salmon and the rotisserie chicken. But our number one top seller is the celery root salad. Most people didn't know what it was when we opened, but now we have to make it three times a day.

Name one person (living or dead) that you'd like to dine with at Moulin? My grandfather. He was the ultimate example of how to be a good man.

What's your advice for someone opening a restaurant? Don't.

Other than Moulin, where do you take out-of-town guests? Bamboo Bistro in Corona del Mar. It's a relaxed hole-in-the-wall that serves great, authentic food.

You're making breakfast. What are you having? Granola with fruit, yogurt and honey.

What would be your last meal on Earth? Croque Madame.

Moulin Bistro is located at 1000 Bristol St N, Newport Beach, (949) 346-1043; www.moulinbistro.com.

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