“We decided to take a leap of faith,” says Laura Magu, and in January 2016, she and her husband Paul opened Rêve in Lafayette.
“We have no investors,” she says, “it’s just us,” but in the five years Rêve has been open, it has developed a growing following for its French food and even survived the pandemic relatively intact.
One reason – as is true of any successful restaurant – is the quality of the food, and Parisian-raised Paul Magu is steeped in the traditions of French cooking. He has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, and also spent time at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francsico, all the while perfecting his craft.
“I have worked hard, for over 30 years,” he says, “mastering the art of French cooking. I take my craft very seriously.”
For example, consider how Magu cooks the humble carrot. “When I cook carrots, I don’t blanch them (soak them in boiling water). I cook them in a sauté pan with a minimum amount of seasoned water, drizzled with olive oil and covered with parchment paper until the liquid is evaporated.
“This allows the flavor of the carrot to stay in the carrot. When you blanch carrots, the flavor goes into the water, which gets tossed down the drain.”
“Our techniques,” he says, “are what set us apart.”
But while Paul is working hard in the small Rêve kitchen, Laura is running the front of the house with equal flair. A Concord High graduate, she got her first restaurant job at Walnut Creek’s Sorrento at age 16. “I worked my way through college in restaurants,” she says, and eventually moved into managerial positions – which helped her land a job at the Ritz-Carlton.
There, she met Paul and they were married in 2006. “We had two kids and moved back to Concord,” she says, “but we were both commuting. He would leave at 6:30 in the morning and get back between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. That wasn’t working for us.”
At the same time, they realized that were few French restaurants in the East Bay, and even fewer with French chefs – so when Philippe Chevalier decided to give up his lease at Chevalier in Lafayette, the Magus stepped in.
“It was a tight, tight budget,” says Laura. “We had to be very frugal and very creative.”
They kept the Chevalier phone number, for example, and “kind of inherited a customer base,” says Laura. But she also worked very hard to get as much media coverage as possible, and establish direct e-mail communication with Rêve’s customers – which proved to be crucial when the pandemic hit.
“I had 4,000 e-mails, and we knew DoorDash and other delivery services wouldn’t work for French food,” says Laura. They used their email list and worked on takeout meals that would meet Paul’s exacting standards, and managed to stay afloat. It didn’t hurt that Rêve has a large patio, which they expanded and used to full advantage.
But in the end it comes back to the food, and Paul Magu’s vision in the kitchen. “The French are proud of their food, and value their meal and their experience,” he says. “The chefs respect each ingredient and the people who produce it – the person who picked the apple needs to be shown respect as well.
“It’s a very different culture than American culture.”
That difference shows up on every dish at Rêve. “Everything I put on the plate is there for a reason, for flavor and texture,” Paul says. “Our scallop dish is garnished with artichoke chips, to add another dimension.”
Laura is equally adamant about the Rêve experience. “From my time at the Ritz-Carlton, I understand about service, about how the little things matter.”
Paul sums it up this way: “A meal is meant to be eaten at a table, enjoyed and appreciated” – and at Rêve, that’s exactly what happens.