When you have lived in both Europe and the US you recognize after some time that even so there are many small differences between these two parts of the world the overall regular life in the Western world is not such dramatically different depending on which side of the Atlantic you live. The languages and the sunshine duration might be different but in today’s globalized world most food and other goods are available everywhere and with all the social media and communication devices it’s more difficult to live an isolated life than not to be constantly contacted by somebody. But when we moved about ten years ago from Germany to California there was one thing which struck us early on as quite different in terms of lifestyle – the majority of the social life in California seems to be centered around shopping malls. This doesn’t mean that shopping malls are unknown in Europe but only a small minority of shops is located in them whereas the main social life happens in wide-stretched town centers which have often many different shopping streets with very diverse flairs. These are often closed for cars and meeting places for everybody – something we still miss quite often.
One advantage of such widespread town centers is the adequate availability of affordable renting space which benefits small and independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners. In contrast, in the US shopping malls often have higher rents which are less affordable for independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners. As a consequence the street picture is often dominated by large restaurant and apparel chains – but there are exceptions and it is possible to find a gem between all those look-alike restaurant chains.
Orange County is often considered to be one of the wealthiest and most extravagant parts of California and not surprisingly this is also reflected in its shopping malls. Some very renowned and upscale shopping malls are located in Orange County, like Fashion Island in Newport Beach and especially South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Not surprisingly this shopping mall also has a large variety of chain restaurants but also some unexpected independent restaurants including Marché Moderne, often mentioned as one if the not the best restaurant in OC.
Marché Moderne is owned and was started about three years ago by Florent and Amelia Marneau with her responsible for the sweet part of the menu as the pastry chef and him helming the kitchen. Both of them got their culinary education independently in France and decided to move to the US and work at different restaurants. Florent Marneau worked at Pascal and Aubergine in Newport Beach before working for Joachim Splichal at Patina and Pinot Providence. Amelia Marneau started her career in the US at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel before also moving to Aubergine where the pair met. After working for several years at the renowned Pinot Providence the pair decided to open its own restaurant and started Marché Moderne in 2007.
When you go to a restaurant you obviously expect that the regular menu has interesting dishes and is well executed. But at the same time the regular menu has to appeal to a large variety of customers which means that the dishes can’t be too unusual and risky. Since we prefer to have as creative dishes as possible and give chefs the opportunity to express their cooking philosophy we tend to more and more contact the restaurants and chefs before a visit and try to organize a tasting menu without any limitations to give the chef all creative freedom. When we approached Marché Moderne with the idea of a tasting menu they were open and interested and after some emails back and forth we agreed on a seven-course tasting menu.
Marché Moderne is located on the third floor of the South Coast Plaza close to Nordstrom. From the outside it looks not that different from bistros in France. The biggest difference is your surroundings – Oscar de la Renta and Louboutin shops instead of a French market square.
The inside has an elegant but not overly pretentious feeling which somehow reminded us faintly of Bouchon in Yountville. We were happy even though the restaurant was very well attended throughout the night that they gave us two a nice four top which overlooked one site of the restaurant.
And in our back we could see Chef Florent Marneau in the open kitchen.
Amuse Bouche: Lomo ham, manchego, crispy brussel sprouts. Lomo ham is Spanish dry cured pork loin which had a subtle flavor but wasn’t overwhelmed by the manchego. This Spanish inspired amuse bouche was a good starting signal for a culinary trip which should follow.
1st Course: Hamachi, yuzu sphere, soy vinaigrette, mango & jalapeno sorbet. Chef Marneau’s interpretation of a sashimi course – melt in your mouth hamachi with the expected flavor accompaniments but in unusual presentations. Since we both like ice cream we very much enjoyed the not too sweet but slightly spicy sorbet which was a great wasabi substitute.
2nd Course: Caramelized pork belly, langoustine prawns, soup a la Thai infused lemon grass. When the plate was brought to the table it just contained the pork belly and the langoustine prawn. The moment the server poured the soup on the plate you could immediately smell the flavorful aroma of the soup with the different spices and lemongrass. Both pork belly and prawns were perfectly cooked and could stand up against spices of the soup.
3rd Course: Brown butter roasted loup de mer, mint emulsion, raz el hanut, leeks and fresh coriander, tomato tartare parfume a l’huile de pistache. After two Asian inspired dishes Chef Marneau moved to another very strong dish this time North African influenced. Very moist loup de mer was accompanied by very light and fresh tasting vegetables. But what really elevated this dish were the different sauces and spices which nicely complemented the fish and vegetables but didn’t overwhelm them.
4th Course: Pan seared sweetbread, foie gras sauté et en cube, 1988 Armagnac scented au poivre sauce, morels and Virginia ramps. We like sweetbread and foie gras but you rarely have it this good in one dish. The sweetbread was very nicely prepared and it was good to see a preparation which didn’t use a thick layer of coating but focused solely on the flavor of the sweetbread. Both preparations of foie gras emphasized the distinctiveness of this special ingredient. Fresh morels, which compared to the dried ones only added a slight flavor, and the garlicky ramp perfected this typical French dish.
5th Course: Roasted lamb rib eye, piperade Basque, ragout of Aluvias and flageolet beans. The ragout of the two beans alone was very flavorful and with some bread to sop up the sauce would have made a great course. The tender medium-rare lamb and the piperade, a mixture of onion, garlic, peppers and tomatoes, boosted the Spanish influences of this alleged simple but impressive dish.
6th Course: Roasted duck breast, polenta fries, Pedro Jimenez & basil jus, larded figs. Chef Marneau has shown in the previous dishes that he knows how to cook meat au point and the duck breast was no exception – medium-rare, tender and flavorful. We really liked the polenta fries with their distinct corn flavor which went well with the sauce. The duck prosciutto-wrapped fig with its sweetness was a good balance for this dish.
7th Course: Degustation of mini dessert – Beignet minute macademia gelato, cannelé de Bordeaux & Chambord ice cream, praline millefeuille. We finished the night with a great assortment of French based desserts – very light and freshly made beignet, cannelé de Bordeaux with its caramelized shell which holds a warm interior scented with vanilla and dark rum and praline millefeuille. We started the tasting menu with some good sorbet in the first course and it was a fitting end to finish the night with two good flavored ice creams/gelati – raspberry flavored Chambord ice cream and macademia nut gelato which had also some white chocolate flavor.
We went to Marché Moderne with expectations for an interesting night but this tasting menu clearly exceeded our expectations. When we normally describe a tasting menu we often try to point to the best dishes of the night but at Marché Moderne this is hardly possible since all dishes came out very well executed with great creativity. The whole tasting menu showed a chef with strong roots in French techniques but who enjoyed using influences from all over the world. We really enjoyed that Chef Marneau decided to give the tasting menu an overarching theme of a culinary trip around the world. But he didn’t simply replicate dishes from different regions instead he very creatively used just influences from these countries to create his unique own dishes. And this evening also showed us again that giving a chef complete creative freedom by a spontané tasting menu gives you the best chance to really experience the true philosophy of a restaurant.
The pleasant dining experience didn’t stop at the kitchen. From the first time we contacted General Manager Alyssa McDiarmid to discuss the possibility of a tasting menu to an attentive service which served a well-balanced wine pairing (we in particular liked the champagne and white wines of the first few courses) to a very good and slowly paced tasting menu and some follow-up email after the evening including one from Chef Marneau, the restaurant was very professional but at the same time always welcoming.
The tasting menu at Marché Moderne was without doubt on the same level as some of our favorite restaurants in LA, like Hatfield’s or Bistro LQ, and it clearly shows why many consider this restaurant to be the best in OC. This won’t be the last tasting menu for us at Marché Moderne.
3333 Bristol StreetCosta Mesa, CA 92626-1837