Moulin, a new bistro in the shadow of John Wayne Airport, is filling up fast with folks chattering in French. Only 10 minutes before, the unfussy dining room was empty. But it’s 7 p.m. Tuesday, and time for the restaurant’s Chef’s Dinner, a $25 prix fixe meal that lures carloads of scarf-sporting French ex-pats and Francophiles. Clearly, this is the place to be for those who share a love of that country.
Open since September, Moulin is the passion project of Paris native Laurent Vrignaud. After 30 years in the action-sports industry, he’s living his longtime dream of owning an authentic bistro, serving the classics, selling oven-fresh baguettes, and peddling wines and other French pantry items. And though he moved to the U.S. in 1984, he imbues Moulin with France at every step. Many members of the staff are ex-pats as well, including baker Patrick Sigaud from Marseille, and pastry chef Jeoffrey Offer from Toulouse. And kitchen equipment and vintage furniture are French imports, too.
Come on a sunny day for a breakfast croissant, a grab-and-go sandwich at lunch, or a drowsy Sunday brunch and you’ll find the umbrella-shaded patio quite populated. Only dinner or inclement weather drives folks into the 40-seat dining room. Moulin is the second tenant (Juliette was the first) to finally flesh out this strip mall inhabited for years by Pascal Olhat’s epicerie and Traditions by Pascal restaurant. Thanks to a down-to-the-studs remodel, the space feels airy and new. The golden croissants, take-away salads, pre-made sandwiches, and alluring pastries are displayed like treasures in the sprawling glass case, and the choices make for enticing window shopping.
It’s obviously a work in progress by a first-time restaurant owner, as the place feels slightly different on every visit. Hours and offerings can change. And though dinner is served only on Tuesdays, it’s necessary to call that day to reserve a seat and see what’s on the three-course menu. The website often is a week or more behind. More than once, I fell in lust with a plat du jour whose week had come and gone.
But if you choose your Tuesday wisely, ooh la la. One night’s meal begins with a generous bowl of delicately nuanced cream of tomato with basil soup. It’s not mind-blowing, but so welcome on a cold, rainy evening. Next, a sautéed filet of fresh salmon over a warm buttery nest of mushrooms, skinny asparagus, tender peas, and greens. Every element boasts distinct flavors, despite the humble presentation. Only the large portions say California. Our glasses of house red are not so great, but with the fair corkage of $10, I’ll happily bring my own next time. To finish, we tuck into the not-too-sweet pear tart, with a tender crust and a trace of almond paste. I now see why the room doesn’t have a single empty table.
Lunch is more erratic. My Jambon Beurre sandwich is so bread-heavy as to be off-putting. A peek inside shows plenty of house-made ham, but its mild flavor is clobbered by the excess bread. La Salade Nicoise is more on point, with its classic build of canned tuna, crisp green beans, sliced eggs, anchovies, and those namesake Provencal olives.
Croque Monsieur, a top-selling ham and Emmental cheese sandwich with a coating of broiler-bubbled béchamel sauce, also suffers from the “off” proportion of filling to bread. Hungry for a traditional light lunch? You can’t go wrong with authentically prepared salads sold by weight, so you can have earthy celery root remoulade, grated fresh carrots in vinaigrette, and tender green lentils, all on one plate. Plates of the day vary, too. One day’s herb-and-wine-braised lamb over pasta is the bistro exemplar—delectable fare from modest ingredients. But rotisserie chicken, a house specialty, is dryish on one visit, moist the next. Accompanying fries ooze savory chicken drippings, but they are mostly soft and heavy.
One reliable path is any dish that involves eggs. How French! From the soft egg atop the Croque Madame to the tender, thin L’Omelette Paysanne with browned onions, red potatoes, and bacon, eggs get deferential treatment. Quiche Lorraine also is commendable, especially if it’s nice and fresh. Expect the fresh-pressed orange juice to elevate any breakfast, which is served all day. And check out the dessert case for additional wonders, such as the fragile, icing-free Napoleon (California-style) studded with fat, juicy raspberries, or the impossibly weightless Brigitte Bardot cream-laced brioche, also known as tarte tropezienne.
Thursday is its own animal. Vrignaud dubs it Tous au Bistro, roughly translating to Everyone to the Bistro. Which means hanging out with friends over wine and a truncated menu pared to Croque Monsieur, roasted chicken, and the charcuterie plate. We are among eight other diners. Our charcuterie plate isn’t as sexy as the one on the website, and for $25, we should have gone next door to Juliette for nicer, albeit not French, nibbles. But that reasonable corkage is a bright spot.
Vrignaud gleefully adheres to the “French is better” principle. Diners are reminded that the French do pesto pasta “better than the Italians.” Don’t expect to find any Diet Coke in Moulin’s beverage case. And receipts show the total in dollars and euros. Why? Vrignaud says “because the French are always counting in their home currency.” Even if you don’t count in euros, Moulin is the most authentic foreign exchange program in Newport Beach.