COSTA MESA, Calif., May 1, 2014 – Marche’ Moderne is Florent and Amelia Marneau’s modern French culinary temple of haute cuisine disguised as a high end bistro. Both Gayot and Zagat rate it as one of the top restaurants in all of Los Angeles, and it more than lives up to its stellar reputation.
With Florent conducting the festivities from center stage in the open kitchen like a gastronomical Gustavo Dudemal, Marche’ Moderne is an extraordinary dining experience well worth making a special trip for.
Located in the extremely upscale South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, it commands a perch on the third floor just outside of Nordstrom’s and across from Dior and Tiffany. Imagine the aura of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in an enclosed space, with Cartier down the hall, and the location doesn’t seem that odd.
The key is a vivid dining experience that transcends the traditional in favor of innovative dishes that are immediately timeless. Florent Marneau creates a fiery palate of unique ingredients tempered with the restraint of delicate flavors brought to life.
Gourmets flock to be in the presence of a great chef who is actually at the center of his kitchen, personally turning out the evening’s dinner before your eyes.
His wife Amelia Marneau is the pastry chef extraordinaire, but also Florent’s indispensable partner in all aspects of both the restaurant and in life. They each followed separate paths for years as rising stars in Orange County, finally combining their professional talents 6 years ago by opening Marche’ Moderne.
Fine dining in Orange County has never been the same since, as foodies have beaten a path to their door, and critics have extolled the joys of their cuisine.
The restaurant is divided into a beautifully appointed dining room with elegant banquets, hard wood floors and rich dark colors. It leads onto a more casually designed but spacious patio area with a series of booths and tables under a retractable roof that can reveal the sky on warm summer nights.
At the apex of one end of the dining room is the open kitchen. Florent is at center stage, in the spotlight, as he finishes each and every dish before it is served.
An amuse bouche of Caribbean conch starts the evening with flair, the conch meaty and tender, enhanced by celery, chorizo and smoked paprika. Oysters du jour are hearty and fresh, changing with the season, with two simple mignonettes for dipping. The heirloom baby beet salad is a wonder, whole beets sourced from a local farm, lovingly presented alongside a basil and fresh goat milk panna cotta.
A generous portion of New Zealand abalone tempura over an heirloom tomato risotto is head spinning, the abalone immaculately tender, while the risotto is deliciously light and rich. Roast Spanish octopus is a fabulous counterpoint, mouthwatering and flavorful, in a beautiful jus de citron.
“Ris de veau” sweetbreads sautéed a la provencale with dates, apricot, and a fresh coriander sauce verte is spectacular, a plump burst of flavor with a crispy outer shell. A 2010 Littorai Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from winemaker of the year Ted Lemon is a more than worthy complement. It blends seamlessly with the rack of Sonoma lamb in a French feta cheese pomme aligot.
Braised short rib with cipollini onions and cremini mushrooms served in a steaming pot is nothing short of a revelation. This is an exquisite signature dish, stewed in its own sumptuous juices. A final course of Brittany sole Meniere with a polenta fontina is a triumphant, classic demonstration of tender delicate flavor.
Then it is Amelia Marneau’s turn to shine with a stunning series of desert courses. A tarte of braeburn apple and crème d’amande and a fleur de sel caramel is wonderful, a glaze of tender sweet fruit that entices without overwhelming. Beignets with a butterscotch pot de crème transcends all concepts of delight, truly so lovely it is tempting to order more than one.
Starters and appetizers are a relatively reasonable $15 to $25, and most entrees run around $40. Appetizer portions tend toward smaller plates, while entrees are graciously ample, and sampling a variety of courses over the span of several hours is highly recommended. At Marche’ Moderne a great meal becomes a meaningful experience of culinary joy that cries out to be embraced, and ultimately revisited.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles
All photos by Alison Reynolds