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San Clemente Journal

Moulin Café, Parisian Charm in North Beach

Sep 03, 2019 10:08AM ● By Donia Moore

Owner, Laurent Vrignaud

by Donia Moore

Laurent Vrignaud crackles with energy, excitement, and determination. Laurent (pronounced Lohrahn) is the proprietaire of one of San Clemente’s newest restaurant treasures – Moulin, an authentic French Café that features the favorite dishes of his childhood in Montmartre, a district of Paris, France. 

Wandering into this café immediately brought me back to my first visit to Paris many years ago. As with typical French patisseries and cafes in Paris, a colorful, artistically arranged display of freshly baked pastries greets patrons there. Pastries so beautiful that I wanted to order one of everything! That urge was revived when I ventured into San Clemente’s Moulin the first time. The pastries are also elegantly showcased, and the selection of other desserts and sandwiches are equally appealing.

Just as important as the actual French dishes is the attention to detail that Laurent and his staff bring to the café. Order a coffee and you will get a delicious brew with a small square of chocolate and wrapped sugar cubes (my favorite). “It costs me 15 cents for the chocolate and sugar cubes, but where else do people get this significant French detail in Orange County? No one else offers this and my customers remember it.”

 In 1984, Laurent chose to leave France to make his home in California, and on April 1 of this year, Moulin exploded onto the San Clemente culinary scene. The café introduced San Clementeans to a combination of family recipes from his grandmother, mother, wife and brother – all of whom are talented French cooks. But Laurent didn’t stop with just the recipes. 

With his eye on providing clientele with the faithful French experience of his childhood, he has actually imported everything in his restaurants from France. This includes the French chefs who prepare the unforgettable menu items. French flour, French butter, French coffee, French Gruyere, French furnishings, French antiques, French baking ovens – you get the picture. If Laurent is anything, he’s refreshingly authentic, with no apologies. 

It is his unfailing attention to details that sets his cafes apart from other dining establishments. So you won’t find microwaves (“Croissants only come out of the oven once, and that is when they are baked every morning at 3 am”) flavored coffees, or variations on their menu items unless it is due to a diet requirement. “If one is going to go to a restaurant, one should not expect to change the menu. This is the French way. We will say ‘no’ to your request for us to make a burrito, but we will tell you much more nicely than someone in France would. We only have the ingredients to make the items on our menu,” he shared.

This attitude extends to his staff as well. When people come to him asking for a job, he asks them “What about a career?” It’s part of his strategy to offer young people a different mind-set about the level of dedication he looks for in new employees. He seldom hires anyone with restaurant experience, preferring to train them himself. One of the biggest challenges he has had with his cafes is accepting the dedication levels of the available work force. He says it is hard to find people who are genuinely interested in building a career. Although on the surface he may appear to be teaching them that drinks are always served on a tray, or that staff should not leave the serving area without cleaning off a table on their way out, his real lesson goes much deeper, helping them to develop the discipline required for living a successful life. Many of his staff members are students who come back to his restaurants during school breaks, eager to continue their training with him. As a result, the service is unfailingly excellent.

He currently owns four versions of Moulin: San Clemente; Newport Beach (the original and the largest); Laguna Beach; and soon to open (September 1, 2019) in Costa Mesa. A fifth is slated to open at 2 Ritz Carlton Drive in Dana Point in January 2020. He has no plan to franchise the cafes. He believes that he can only control the quality of the experience by keeping them family-run. 
His daughter occasionally helps out as needed. The décor, and sometimes the recipes, are often the province of his wife. She makes sure that Laurent’s two favorite dishes appear on all his restaurant menus: Le Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) and La Croque Madame (with the addition of an egg on top). “I ate at least one of these every day when I was a child,” says Laurent. He also still loves Apricot Tarts for dessert.

Although a long-time friend of Brussels Bistro owners, (also in San Clemente), Chef Thomas Crijns and restaurant entrepreneur Nicolas Servais, it was his love of surfing that drew Laurent to the area. He was active for 30 years in the action sports industry and loved the idea of living in a surfing town. He did have some restaurant experience, working in his grandparents’ market store in France and in a popular French restaurant in San Francisco. While he himself does not cook, he has been able to hire top French chefs to help him recreate a classic French café. 
When not overseeing one of the restaurants, he runs. As in marathons. As in New York- 10 years in a row; Boston – four times, and many others for a total of 40 so far.

His busy life doesn’t leave much time for reading, but he enjoys books on World War II history. A current favorite, Chasing Gold, is about a hidden cache of gold. “The Americans and the other Allied powers saved France during WW II - we are very grateful still to this day,” he said.
A fan of the internet, Laurent recently surfed the web for the agenda of the upcoming International Baking Convention in Las Vegas this September. He will be in the market for French baking ovens for his new cafes. He has also been researching stem less wine glasses.
“Thank you for the warm reception, San Clemente! We are beginning to cater special desserts for weddings and sandwiches for beach parties. Although our San Clemente location is open from 7 am to 3 pm, please join us at our other restaurants for a French Happy Hour from 5 pm - 7pm daily from July 5 to October 5 to celebrate our 5th anniversary. We offer wine, beer, appetizers and sweets for $5 each. Every Tuesday and Thursday, our other restaurants also offer a three-course prix fixe dinner for $29 per person.” And of course … don’t forget the fresh pastries and coffee. Open  Daily – 7am to 3pm120 Avenida Pico, San Clemente  (949)441-704.Visit other locations in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa (9/1), and Dana Point (January 2020) Call location for reservations and times.