By Mike Hale, Monterey Herald
For generations in the United States fine dining always spoke with a French accent, the nose pointed slightly upward, the mouth curled into a hint of a sneer. Even restaurants without classic French food shared DNA with this influential mother cuisine.
But then in 2008 the economy tanked, tastes began to change (along with our very definition of fine dining) and baby boomers — long the restaurant’s financial base — began to grey.
When the smoke cleared, the French bistro had survived unscathed. The casual, dressed-down comfort food palace never fell out of style. Its classic cuisine — coq au vin, pâté, confit de canard, steak bordelaise — seemed fresh and exciting, notably among the younger set. Pommes frites were not just French fries. Poulet rôti was somehow a step up from roast chicken. Escargot was now an Instagram star. And “rosé all day” became a rallying cry — especially for millennials.
Proving this point daily is Bistro Moulin in Monterey. Led by chef-owner Didier Dutertre and wine director Coco Manni, Bistro Moulin celebrates 10 years just above the tourist buzz of Cannery Row.
With its consistently delicious food, an impressive 4.5 Yelp score and an ability to charm both locals and tourists, Bistro Moulin finds success in its consistency and, yes, predictability.
Today the menu bears a striking resemblance to the menu on Day 1 — the day Dutertre turned 50, following a noteworthy stint leading the kitchen at Carmel’s renowned Casanova.
“We have a good product and are consistent with what we do,” said Dutertre, born and raised in Normandy, France. “I love seeing younger people come in here, trying escargot for the first time, drinking wine.”
Bistro Moulin attracts diners seeking the newest thing — even if it’s an old thing.
“The reviews tell the story,” Manni said. “(Diners) are happy with service and of course the food. We are not a stuffy French place. We’re a casual bistro but the food seems upscale.”
Manni has been with the restaurant all these 10 years, save one when she earned her sommelier certification and traveled through Europe’s finest wine regions.
“You learn theory in school but you learn so much more by going to the vineyards and meeting the winemaker and tasting at the source,” she said. “It imprints on you. That’s the type of passion we bring to the job. It’s fun.”
The wine list is a fascinating read, providing an education beyond Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Manni works hard to source exciting (yes, trendy) varietals such as Grüner, Vermentino, Savoie Blanc, Marsannay, and Rosé from Provence. The list also includes a who’s-who and a what’s-what of the local wine world, too.
While her daughter Robin works the front of the house, Manni enjoys working the tables, talking about wine, and helping ensure the best experience for diners.
“We’re small and intimate in the sense that we are taking care of them, showing them that we really care,” she said.
Intimate (and frenzied) best describes the kitchen. Dutertre is a working chef, touching all the food in the tiny exhibition kitchen.
“It has to perfect every time,” he said.
And it is. His famous Parisienne gnocchi lives in daydreams of those who try it. His seemingly simple moules frites (mussels and fries) flies out of the kitchen, diners sopping up every drop of broth with crusty French bread. And no local chef has a more deft hand with fish (his seared sea bass with beurre blanc and celery purée belongs in someone’s hall of fame).
Dutertre is a Frenchman through and through, but he expands the borders of French food a bit, labeling Bistro Moulin as “European food.” That means you will also find cannelloni and a “tapas” platter with grilled eggplant and Italian sausage.
But make no mistake, this is a French bistro, from the small tables, the cafe curtains, the sounds of French jazz, to the quiet, head-down French chef in the kitchen. It oozes romance (if you want a Valentine’s Day table you better call today), and the food stands the test of time.
Joyeux anniversaire, Bistro Moulin. Here’s to another 10 years. Please don’t change.