When I left France, I was certainly happy to return home, but there are a number of things I lamented over: The loss of the best pastries and baked goods in the world, saying farewell to having the best farmer’s market right outside my door, and having to swap out that certain joie de vivre when it comes to dining out, and replace it with chain restaurants who try to turn over tables as quickly as possible. I didn’t think I’d be able to feel that certain French feeling in a café again – that is, until I came to Moulin.
As the owner Laurent Vrignaud says, they’re not doing anything new or revolutionary, they’re simply doing what France has done for 100 years – and doing it really well – in Orange County, California.
Everything at Moulin – and I mean everything – is authentic.
From the imported French wines, unpasteurized cheeses and classic jambon-beurre baguette sandwiches, to the vinegar-mustard-seed salad dressing, rattan chairs and even the vintage signs that decorate the walls, this place transported me back to France, and not in a cheap, characatured way. I heard rapid-fire French being spoken left and right between Laurent and his staff (someone had misplaced a case of wine), and when I ordered an espresso it came with a tiny silver spoon, a piece of chocolate, and a cube of sugar, faithful to the Parisian way of serving espresso. It’s simple things like this that make this place feel truly Parisian.
I have visited more than one French café that claims to be authentic, only to find their quiches to be mushy and oversized, or their croissants not flaky or buttery enough, or their éclairs the size of a child’s whole arm. Places like this take the worst versions of French food, combine it with the worst tendencies of the American food industry, and what results is honestly deplorable (not naming any specific names here, but suffice it to say that Moulin goes 100 miles above and beyond almost all other French place I’ve tried so far in California).
Moulin’s pastry case is a beautiful sight to behold. One of the reasons I think their stuff is so darn good is because they actually import French flour. Ask my Dad, who spent two months without success attempting to re-create at home the perfect baguettes he fell in love with in Paris, and he’ll tell you that baking authentic French goodies is NOT a simple task, and things as seemingly unimportant as flour origin make all the difference. I’m not a baker, but there must be something different in French flour that can’t be found in American flour. Un certain je ne sais quoi…
Actually, there is a scientific explanation behind the differences in flour. If you want to know more, this blogger goes on a quest to find out more about French flour, and you can find lots more info if you Google it.
I indulged in a gorgeously flaky and golden pain aux raisins (raisin twist), as well as a beautifully stacked Saint-Honoré (a small tower of cream puffs, caramel toffee glaze, and whipped cream ). The sizes weren’t blown out of proportion for “American tastes,” they were just right. Heart-achingly perfect actually. The only thing that made this better was the babbling fountain in the middle of the terrace that serenaded me. Le sigh.
I sat down with owner Laurent to ask him a few questions about Moulin.
I was most curious about why and how he ended up in California. Born and raised in Montmartre in Paris, he came to California when he was 18 years old to surf, and basically never left. He had a long career in the action sports industry before turning his attentions to the world of food. Moulin is a little slice of his hometown – not Paris, but Montmartre, the once small hilltop village that still retains its own unique culture separate from the rest of the French capital. The boisterous atmosphere, red-checked tablecloths and mis-matched antique wooden chairs all feel distinctly “Montmartrian.”
I asked Laurent what he preferred most about Californian culture as opposed to Parisian.
He said, and I quote, “people are happier here!” The abundant sunshine means that Californians are not deficient in Vitamin D, making them generally more happy and positive than Parisians. I can tell you from experience that having to commute to work on foot through freezing cold rain or wind, then squeeze onto the overly-crowded and sweaty metro for 25 minutes, then brave the freezing cold once more, all under the gloom of a heavily overcast sky, is NOT a fun thing to do every day. For many Parisians, that’s the reality of their week, whereas most Californian commutes are infinitely more comfortable. Yeah, you may have to sit through traffic, but at least you have your own seat, you have an air conditioner and heater at your service, you have music and podcasts and audiobooks, and you have sunshine streaming through your windows. Even without a commute, living under dark gray skies for weeks on end in the winter is depressing.
The cultural differences between Paris and Southern California go much deeper than just, Californians are happier because of the weather. The American psyche tends to be more open, adventurous and pro-innovation, while the French outlook errs more on the side of rigidity and change-averse. There’s a feeling that in America, you can be whoever and whatever you want, wear whatever you want, express yourself more-or-less freely, while in France there is a specific proper way of doing almost everything. One of my French professors once told us that she came to America so that she could start a new career, because when she wanted to get certified to teach French, all the French schools she applied to wouldn’t take her seriously as an older woman. In America she never was never barred from pursuing education and a new life direction simply because of her age. One of the things I love most about the USA is our ability to reinvent ourselves at any point in time, and that people generally applaud the adventure, seeing it as bold and brave, while French people are more likely to find it bizarre and ridiculously naïve. (Disclaimer: Cultures are constantly changing, so one should never assume anything about a person until they get to know them. These are just things I’ve observed personally.)
For me, Moulin expertly combines French savoir faire with the lightheartedness of the Californian sunshine. It’s a wonderful mix.
In addition to serving food and pastries, Moulin is also an épicerie and traiteur. That means they sell French products like jars of little pickles, jam, and paté, and also prepared foods to-go like rotisserie chicken and cold salads. Now I know where I’m going to stock up for my next cheese and charcuterie plate!
If you ever find yourself in Orange County and you love all things French, COME TO MOULIN. They currently have two locations and – I’m not sure if this is a secret – they’re opening a third location very soon! I’m very excited for what’s in store for Laurent and his expanding Parisian community in Orange County, and I know I’ll be spending lots of time there in the years to come!
Moulin Newport Beach
1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach, CA
Moulin Laguna Beach
248 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, CA
PS: The Alliance Française holds intermediate French conversation classes at Moulin in Newport Beach every Friday at 3pm for $15 per session, and that includes a little text and vocabulary list. For more info and to RSVP, click here.