The true jewels of South Coast Plaza. Photo by Jonathan Ho
The true jewels of South Coast Plaza. Photo by Jonathan Ho

Moderne Love

Even with the recently ballyhooed grand opening of Bloomingdales, which seemed like a nonevent, South Coast Plaza has never excited this non-shopper. Despite additions to its ever-expanding store directory, Orange County's mecca for shopping and commercialism had always been just a mall to me.

This all changed after I ate lunch at the new restaurant that took over the space vacated by Troquet. I no longer consider South Coast Plaza just a mall. It is now a mall with Marché Moderne, one of the freshest, finest French bistros around.

On arriving, it seemed that the sumptuous, leather-appointed dining room would be the best area to sit. But al fresco on the terrace patio is really the place to dine.

Located on the roof, the patio is enclosed by the building's outer wall and a tall wooden fence. Sunlight pours in a deluge from the sky, while potted fruit trees dance in the breeze to the relaxed rhythms of bossa nova. You wouldn't think such a bucolic spot could exist two stories above Tiffany and steps away from Nordstrom, but it does.

We sat in comfortable wicker chairs under the shade of a private cabana. Next to me, a basil plant released its intoxicating aroma.

"Pinch me," I said to my dining companions as I absorbed the serenity. "It feels like I'm a thousand miles away from the mall."

Our server, a handsome lad with a charming French accent, was affable to a fault, doting on us like all good waiters should, whisking away empty plates and employing a crumb scraper to keep our linen tablecloth spotless between courses. Another employee made frequent stops at every table with freshly baked bread. With such professional service, one would expect the prices to be astronomical. And they are, with one notable exception: the three-course lunch that owner and chef Florent Marneau dubs "Spontanée."

For only $20, Spontanée includes a salad, main course and dessert. The selections change daily, but anything can appear, even duck, which is the main course during my visit. Roasted and sliced into tender pink medallions, the waterfowl steak is slightly gamy but thoroughly rich, especially when a sliver of meat comes with some of its crispy skin intact. Even meatier trumpet royale mushrooms, starchy cranberry beans and a summery pesto sauce round out the dish, which was preceded by a tart field green salad and followed by a banana-ice-cream-stuffed profiterole drizzled with chocolate.

But we couldn't resist ordering from the regular menu as well, particularly the section tantalizingly titled "Unusual." An appetizer of sea urchin roe wasn't so unusual (especially for rabid sushi connoisseurs) but enticing nonetheless. Its presentation in a wide margarita glass was intriguing. Even more amusing: The orange roe was held aloft by cubes of avocado like a champion in a victory parade. Beneath it, citrus juice and a fruity olive oil pooled in a sort of shimmering moat. The subtle sweetness of the sea urchin lost out to the tang of this liquid, but I couldn't stop myself from drinking every drop of that EVOO (that's for you Rachael Ray fans) like a fine sherry.

An even better appetizer is the poached langoustine spot prawns, accompanied by more of those fancy mushrooms and dribbled with browned butter. The supple meat eats like lobster, but with a sweeter and sassier personality.

Next, a plate of Malpeque oysters was delivered on a plate of crushed ice and flanked by two mignonettes, one from reduced wine and pesto, the other a citrusy, ginger-spiked blend. Each complemented the raw bivalve in its own way, but neither is really needed to enjoy it (a hearty and determined slurp is enough).

For our entrée, a plate of white salmon got a green color scheme: The English peas, wilted lettuce and a creamy, jade-green reduction were as easy on the eyes as they were on the palate. These supporting components were all understated, never overpowering the fish, but lifting it up, like an unseen backup singer would do for a headliner.

The opposite was true of the scallops, where bold flavors dominated and exotic ingredients abounded. Roasted eggplant, zucchini, chermoula, raisins, almond, harissa, cumin and other Moroccan spices smacked around the shellfish, and then our mouths—but in the nicest possible way. As if that weren't enough, the whole ensemble was put into a tagine (a traditional Moroccan cooking vessel) just so its conical lid could be ceremoniously removed with a flourish and a wink.

To nurture our tongues back to normalcy we tried the rose-petal ice cream and fresh strawberries for desert. It did the job, along with the crispy cookie that came with it.

After lunch—and an extraordinarily large bill—my companions and I left Marché Moderne for Bloomingdales to shop, which, despite chef Marneau's best efforts to lift my spirits, promptly bummed me out again.



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