How many ways can you say restaurant in French? Bistro, troquet, brasserie, and more for a total of about 20 words I know. Who knew that bouillon was one of them? Not me. When Bouillon opened in Newport Beach in October, I learned bouillons are Paris-specific dining establishments with deep working-class roots that reach back to 1855. The eateries were once ubiquitous, then scarce, and now are in revival mode. Today the operational formula remains the same—an all-day menu of traditional fare at painless prices, no substitutions, no reservations, and snappy service in a colossal space.
Paris native and serial restaurateur Laurent Vrigand fashioned Bouillon after Paris’ Bouillon Chartier (est. 1896), where he often dined with his grandfather at the Montparnasse location in the 1980s. Bouillon is his personal homage to that time and place—it clearly shares all the appealing attributes, albeit on a smaller scale.
Most recently the home of Juliette and before that Pascal Olhats’ kitchen of legend, the 60-seat space has been brightened with windows and fetching accoutrements Vrigand imports from Paris. There is no host stand up front—after all, no reservations. A sharp-eyed staffer opens the wide glass door, sweeping you in with a welcome and a choice of seating options. Two- and four-top tables dominate, girded by archetypal rattan bistro chairs. Six stools at a zinc bar beckon solo diners in the mood to chat, as it’s central to staff action. The menu opens with textbook starters, a nostalgic primer of French dishes first imported for us by Julia Child. Oven-hot escargot radiating fresh garlic and dripping with parsley-green butter seem petite when plucked from their stoneware platter, but hey, they’re 11 bucks. They get the job done and leave room for more choice items such oeufs mayonnaise: deviled egg halves made with fresh, yolk-heavy mayonnaise (and yes, you’ll taste the difference). Or steamed leeks doused with gentle balsamic vinaigrette, a warm salad of sorts.
Just $11 buys a mythic salade frisée aux lardons, curly pale greens with smoked bacon nuggets and a freshly poached egg still warm enough to wilt the greens and their light coat of sherry vinegar dressing. Should you need, slices of hyper-fresh baguette can supply cleanup. Also from the starving student category comes a beefy soupe à l’oignon that’s revelatory. When Vrigand insisted it was a separate version from what’s served next door at his Moulin, for the same price, I had to test them back-to-back: He’s as honest as he is passionate about Bouillon’s cooking. The broth was more complex, with a rounder mouthfeel, and the cheese was richer, less stringy, and easier to eat. Even the croutons tasted crustier, more brawny.
Entrees read like a French prescription for extra-strength comfort. Coq au vin, blanquette de veau, and, of course, the steak au poivre frites. No wonder the 8-ounce steak is a top seller; it’s deftly grilled to medium-rare with a ramekin of silky green peppercorn sauce riding shotgun, a tidy green salad, and a jumble of hot skinny fries. It’s a square meal on a big round plate sporting Bouillon’s windmill badge.
Beef bourguignon is the long-simmered ambrosia our busy lives rarely have time to duplicate. It’s a dreamy stew of lean beef braised in stock and full-bodied red wine until it falls apart, plus mushrooms and onions ladled over al dente pappardelle. Time is also the luxury ingredient in luscious duck confit married with browned onions and fingerlings in a subtle orange glaze.
Tian Provençal is an earnest nod to vegetarians and the best side dish of the year. It’s fancy ratatouille in a terrine of slow-baked layers finished with a quick scorch for texture on top. It’s terrific.
Dessert options are select but mighty. Profiteroles are top-notch and near impossible to quit. If you can or must stray, head straight for the île flottante, the classic island of cool airy meringue in a pool of milky custard. The middling chocolate mousse is out of its league in this company. A canny list of all French wines is the true sleeper find here, at beyond fair prices. This must be a play for all those French-speaking regulars who claimed Moulin as a their watering hole eight years ago when it opened.
We might be centuries behind France when it comes to dining out, but Bouillon is out to catch us up with the concept of righteous French cooking in a convivial setting we can drop in now, later, and, most important, often.
1000 N. Bristol, Newport Beach
5 BEST DISHES
- Soupe à l’oignon
- Tian Provençal
- Beef bourguignon
- Canard à l’orange
- Starters, $7 to $10
- Entrees, $18 to $25
- Desserts, $8 to $10
Bouillon and sister Moulin locations sell or use 1,600 fresh baguettes a week.