Moore Square’s French Bistro
by Dean McCord
photographs by Keith Isaacs
It sounds like a pitch for a new sitcom: three relative strangers go to work at a brand new restaurant. After a couple of weeks, the owner decides he doesn’t want to be in the restaurant business after all. He gives the employees this line: “I’d like to sell you the restaurant (and another space), but here’s the thing. You have one day to decide.”
Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that’s exactly how Royale, the Moore Square French-American bistro that opened last November and now ranks as one of Raleigh’s hottest restaurants, came to be.
Will Jeffers, Jesse Bardyn, and Jeff Seizer, the three co-workers at Moore Square’s short-lived Cafe Lucarne who suddenly found themselves business partners, didn’t waste time coming up with a plan.
“We didn’t have anyone bankrolling us,” Seizer recalls.
“We barely knew each other,” Jeffers adds, “but we weren’t about to walk away.”
Jeffers, who had already had success as a partner in Raleigh’s popular restaurant Stanbury, envisioned a French bistro, but one with a lighter, more playful touch. Seizer, a veteran of upscale restaurants in New York including Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, was all in. So was Bardyn, former head baker at Asheville’s City Bakery. They brainstormed: “How do we take something really old-school and make it fun?” Seizer recalls. “Take classic dishes like duck a l’orange or beef Wellington, dishes that have been lost, and reinvent them and make them fun again? How do we make French food but make it our own?”
They figured it out quickly, and word spread just as fast. The menu they created is classic, but with a twist. It offers traditional French bistro offerings like steak frites and moules frites (including all-you-can-eat mussels on Tuesdays), alongside less-predictable items like fried duck wings “a l’orange” with a sauce that’s been kicked up with sriracha. You can order a burger, but it’s prepared sous vide (vacuum-sealed and cooked in a heated water bath), finished on a flattop, served on a locally baked English muffin, topped with Gruyere, and accompanied with Royale sauce, a black pepper steak sauce perfect for dipping.
Bardyn’s desserts might sound simple, but he has secrets up his sleeve. Two different puddings are available, along with tarts, profiteroles, and a hot fudge sundae that becomes extraordinary with the richest, most incredible vanilla ice cream around and toppings of sprinkles and potato chips. The News & Observer’s Greg Cox called the sundae “the perfect mix of tradition and surprise to put the finishing touches to a happy meal at Royale.”
Cox’s 3 ½ star rating, plus four and five star ratings on Zagat, Yelp, and Tripadvisor have kept the place humming. In addition to the cuisine, diners also credit Royale’s warm setting, which is particularly welcoming when the sun is pouring into the bank of windows along the building’s west side.
It was the good bones of the space itself that made getting Royale off the ground relatively easy. It didn’t need a ton of work, and its bare brick walls and spartan furnishings offered a bit of Bohemian flavor, which appealed to the trio. Jeffers, for one, was itching to open its doors. Coming off the success he’s had with his brother and a couple of other friends at Stanbury restaurant on North Blount Street, he was ready for a new challenge.
Jeffers had considered creating a wine bar/small plates place in Raleigh, but couldn’t find the right space or the right partners. Then he met Michael Hakan, owner of City Market, and saw an opportunity: Although Hakan wasn’t interested in a wine bar, he was looking for a partner to open a breakfast spot in City Market. Hakan told Jeffers that if he’d agree to the breakfast place (which became Cafe Lucarne), he’d give Jeffers the opportunity to create a wine bar or other project in a separate City Market property around the corner, where the restaurant Battistella’s had recently closed.
Jeffers jumped on the deal, and called Bardyn to ask if he’d be the chef at the breakfast place. The two had met several months earlier at a pop-up dinner and immediately hit it off. “My girlfriend was getting mad at me,” Jeffers recalled, “because I was spending more time talking to Jesse than I was to her.” The Asheville baker had recently moved to Raleigh to be closer to his wife’s family. He didn’t think twice: “Will had his foot in the door in a lot of places,” Bardyn recalls thinking, and he figured it would be a good opportunity to work with him.
They quickly got Cafe Lucarne up and running, offering straightforward breakfast and lunch options in spare surroundings; meanwhile, Jeffers was considering his options at the Battistella’s space. That’s when Seizer, with his experience at top New York restaurants, entered the scene. He’d moved to the Triangle in 2016 (also so his wife could be closer to home), was planning to open his own small restaurant in Durham, and was looking for work in the meantime. “I walked into Lucarne and Jesse and Will were sitting at a table, and I said, ‘Let’s start working,’ and literally the next day Will was teaching me how to do drywall and tiling in Royale.”
Seizer also started cooking at Lucarne, and quickly realized he’d found a kindred spirit in Jeffers: “I’m asking myself, ‘Who is this dude? He runs restaurants, he’s got a farm, I love this guy!’” It wasn’t long before he decided he’d rather cook in the place he was helping to build than start his own restaurant. “Will,” he told Jeffers, “I don’t want to do the thing in Durham. I want to stay here. Let me be the chef.”
A year later, they’re all friends and business partners who take the long view. They decided early on to close Cafe Lucarne to better focus on Royale, and plan to open it again, perhaps as a bar; in the meantime, Jeffers is finishing up his MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill, and enjoying building the restaurant all together. “My favorite thing about cooking in Raleigh,” Seizer says, “is that it is the most inviting restaurant scene I’ve ever worked in. Everyone is supportive of each other. There’s a lot of love in this town between the chefs and owners.” And among the owners themselves.
Royale Garlic Soup
This is a soup that is rich, thick, and filled with garlic. A lot of garlic: One quart of it! The peeling of the garlic and the multiple rounds of blanching make this a labor-intensive recipe, but the effort is worth it.
1 quart peeled garlic
2 cups canola oil
1 quart whole milk
1 cup cream
2 sprigs thyme
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Split the garlic evenly into two pots. Cover the garlic in one pot with water and the garlic in the other pot with the canola oil. Bring the water and garlic pot to a boil. Strain out the water, keeping the garlic in the pot. Repeat 3 times to remove the strong flavor. Heat the pot with the oil and garlic over medium-low heat until the garlic is golden brown and soft. Strain the oil from the garlic, keeping the garlic for the soup and the garlic-infused oil for another use. Combine both garlics in a pot with the milk, cream, and thyme. Bring to a light boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove thyme and blend with a stick blender until the mixture is very smooth. If too thick, add a bit more cream. Season with salt and white pepper to taste.
Classic Mussels (moules)
Mussels are a classic dish that are often served with French fries (or frites). This simple and classic preparation is great for any occasion, leaving a broth that is meant to be soaked up by lots of bread.
1 pound Prince Edward Island mussels
1 fresno chile, or any other hot pepper you like
1 bulb fennel
2 cloves garlic
1 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
3 cups dry white wine
1/4 pound (one stick) unsalted butter
2 sprigs of tarragon, leaves only
2 sprigs parsley, minced
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Wash mussels under cold water until very clean. Remove any stringy “beards” coming out of the shells. Thinly slice all the vegetables In a large hot pan that can be covered, add a splash of vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter to the pan. Heat until butter is melted. Add all vegetables to the pan and cook until they are translucent. Add the cleaned mussels to the pan for 30 seconds. Add the white wine, and cook for 1 minute. Add the chicken stock and cover. Once mussels are all opened, add the remaining butter, the tarragon, and the parsley. Stir until butter is melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grilled bread to soak up all the juices.