Marché Moderne Madness--And Redemption

A couple of weeks ago I ranted about the fact that my husband and I had to wait 20 minutes for a table at Marché Moderne on a Saturday night, despite having a reservation.

When he saw my post, chef Florent Marneau had the decency to email me and apologize...

It's a testament to Marneau that Marché Moderne remains so popular during this economy. After all, it's not even that new (it celebrates two years at the end of April)--and it's in a deeply uncool, hard-to-find location on the top floor of a mall. The open kitchen, with its wood-burning oven, is surely a factor in the wait times--it helps to generate a lively, welcoming atmosphere, but if the chef's a local celebrity (check) and a visible (and hardworking!) presence (check), diners inevitably want to meet and greet him...

Still, as I mentioned at the time, the food was outstanding compensation. Now for more detail.

The lengthy menu is a fussy eater's dream-come-true, with oysters, fish, tarts, salads, lamb, pork, beef and chicken. There are even à la carte pickle and charcuterie selections, while the lunchtime menu includes "boutique sandwiches" such as fennel and coriander [cilantro] crusted ahi tuna on pane rustico.  Beat that, Subway!

Vegetarians may have a hard time finding something to eat, but when the food's this good, they might be tempted to break their commitments anyway.

Culinary influences come from all over--Japan, Spain, Scandinavia, and, of course, Marneau's native France. Dishes are creative without going overboard, although you'd have to be pretty adventurous to try (or even pronounce) the likes of sweetbread schnitzel with braisé de tomate et fondu de Reggiano and Pedro Ximénez vinegar jus.

The meal kicked off well with an appetizer of Japanese hamachi (yellowtail). The delicate flavor of the fish was enlivened by a coriander vinaigrette and a touch of punchy yuzu kosho.
Our other starter, Boston and mâche lettuce with Onetik cheese, honey-fried pecans, walnut vinaigrette, Concord grapes, Cassis gastrique and Zante currants, pulled off the difficult feat of making a combination of salad ingredients seem more than the sum of its parts. It was generously sized yet very light--which was just as well, given that I'd chosen braised beef short ribs for my entrée.

The ribs were a perfect winter dish, the quality and tenderness of the Four Story Hill meat shining through. In the broth swam
roasted fingerling potatoes, cremini mushrooms, bacon and cipollini onions. This is the kind of recipe you could easily attempt yourself for a dinner party: it sounds impressive but is actually very easy to make, provided you have a spare few hours.

A second main course, a lamb tagine special, was another winner. It was beautifully presented with a trio of accompaniments: houmous, mint sauce and a pungent chermoula. From the fresh dates in the couscous to the incredibly tender lamb, Marneau's insistence on impeccable ingredients was evident. And, for once, "medium rare" meant exactly that--kudos to the chef for not overcooking it.

Entrées are good-sized, but not massive. I could have easily got a box for the last rib, but somehow the thought of stone-cold stew for Sunday brunch just didn't do it for me.

Our friendly server practically begged us to order the cheese selection for dessert, claiming it was outstanding. It did appeal--although a few more non-French varieties would improve the range, in my opinion. However, we only had eyes (and bellies) for the warm Valrhona chocolate and truffle cake. As with the rest of the meal, presentation was key: the cake sat in minimalist fashion on a long white plate, next to an inviting dollop of rich cream and another of silky coco-mango ice-cream. (The deft hand behind these and the other desserts on the menu is Florent's wife, and restaurant co-owner, Amelia). The molten center of the cake was unleashed at the first touch of the fork, and it was all over in seconds. Sublime.

So were there any disappointments? Not with the food. Service was a little harried in places-- bread arrived at the same time as the appetizers, and the appetizer plates were still on the table when the entrées arrived, but these are minor niggles. A bigger one is that there's only one restroom per gender, but we're guessing that that's an issue of space constraints.

The atmosphere was buzzy, and although we were seated behind a large group celebrating a birthday, they were a civilized bunch, so we hardly noticed.

Of course, food this good doesn't come cheap ($158 in this instance), but if you choose wisely you can limit the dent in your wallet. Soup is just $7, and an entrée of moules-frites is a reasonable $18. Alternatively, come at lunchtime and snag the three-course fixed-price Spontanée menu for $20--a bargain. I also love the fact that, in addition to a top-notch, wide-ranging wine list, there's a BYOB policy (albeit with a corkage fee). Further damage limitation.

We wish we could eat like this every day--or at least rustle up something similar at home. Marché Moderne's cooking classes are unfortunately sold out, but keep an eye out for other events, such as Mothers Day ($39 for a three-course meal, May 10), and, to mark two years at South Coast Plaza, Market Nights, which will feature a replica of a European-style open market on the rooftop patio and a four-course tasting menu, $75 (March 29 and 30). The website promises details of the menus soon.

Marché Moderne, South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Suite 3001 (The Penthouse, by Nordstrom), Costa Mesa, (714) 434-7900

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