Florent and Amelia Marneau's relocated Marché Moderne at Crystal Cove is an upgrade from the old digs at South Coast Plaza. When it finally opened here, with views of the Pacific Ocean, two months ago, it no longer felt as if it were suffocating under the chokehold of Nordstrom. It's as if the restaurant had been allowed to unbutton its shirt and inhale a lungful of coastal air.
You can do the same yourself when you eat on the al fresco patio or, in fact, anywhere inside. The whole dining room feels breezier and more open than its original location. This assumes, of course, you managed to secure a reservation weeks in advance. If you have a birthday or anniversary coming up, plan ahead at least a month.
While you're at it, you should save up a few bucks in anticipation of your meal here. Let's be honest: Unless you're part of the moneyed 1 percent that resides in this neighborhood of McMansions, French restaurants such as this are a special-occasion treat—a once-in-a-while thing. That will become evident when you see a menu that features not only oysters and Russian caviar as suggested starters, but also a tasting of Bordier butter. Yes, you have the option to pay extra for the butter you'll smear on your bread.
But it isn't just any butter. It comes in four flavors, including yuzu and espelette, and is made by a man named Jean-Yves Bordier of St. Malo, who is considered the Monet of the butter-making craft. And if a Frenchman such as Florent Marneau says his butter is better than your Land O'Lakes, you best believe it.
If the butter tasting is an unnecessary splurge, it's not because of the cost; it's because the complimentary basket of hot bread already comes with plenty of normal butter. And that bread is so good—sliced from a rustic loaf and with a crust that audibly crackles—you need an excuse to not finish the entire basket before the rest of your meal arrives. But you need to keep your appetite intact because Marneau's cooking is just as it was at South Coast. This is hearty bistro and French country fare that revels in the rich, the robust and the generously portioned.
Order the wild Spanish octopus appetizer, and it seems never-ending. With a spicy mayo-like substance, celery, potatoes, and chorizo in razor-thin slices and in chewy SlimJim-like morsels, the dish has more parts than a jigsaw puzzle. And as its flavors and textures explode in every recess of your mouth, you may not be able to decide whether it's too much too soon or just a training session for what's to come. And, yes, there are even more over-the-top dishes than this.
The Crispy Suckling Pig & Beans is listed under the charcuterie section, but it's more like a main entrée unto itself. More than that, it may be the first time a classically trained French chef has combined Filipino lechon kawali with cassoulet. Or at least that's what I thought it tasted like. Over a stew of flageolet beans, Marneau places a fatty hunk of deep-fried pork, which is cuffed by its crispy, rendered skin. The server told me the pork underwent a three-day process that included curing, pressing and cooking in its own fat. But you can't convince me it wasn't an homage to the Filipino pork delicacy few Americans know about. If not, then why did Marneau employ the distinctly Filipino citrus fruit called calamansi in its vinaigrette?
Marneau is much more deliberate on a menu section titled "Hommages." Here, the chef has resurrected dishes he cooked when he worked at Pascal Restaurant, Aubergine and Pinot Provence. Those restaurants are, of course, long gone—eclipsed by Marché Moderne itself when it burst onto the OC dining scene 10 years ago. But in identifying them by name, Marneau acknowledges not only that his restaurant bested its fancy French cuisine compatriots, but also that it now carries the torch for them.
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And it's in the traditionally French dishes that Marneau does this best. His coq au vin arrives still fuming in its copper cooking pot. Ordering it also allows you to witness how well the servers here serve. Along with folding your napkin when you're away from your seat, your server will spoon out a single portion from the pot to your heated plate. He starts by taking out a leg with meat near collapse, then a potato, a piece of pork belly, some mushrooms and a pearl onion. Finally, he tilts the pot to ladle out some of that long-simmered sauce made with red wine and butter. You eat it, marveling at its rustic simplicity. Before long, you end up as stuffed as a gavage duck. And what's more French than that?
Marché Moderne, 7862 Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (714) 434-7900; www.marchemoderne.net. Open daily, 5-10 p.m. Main courses, $26-$49. Full bar.