This is the taste of France, the memory of so many bistros and bouchons and picnics beside the road. The rillettes taste as authentic as the terrine, fatty and delicious smeared on a piece of toast with a little mustard cream. I take a sip of Chablis, savoring its stony minerality against the evocative funk of the charcuterie.
Florent Marneau, chef-owner of the new Marché Moderne in Costa Mesa, comes on full throttle with this bistro in the old Troquet space at South Coast Plaza. I've hauled a group of friends all the way from L.A. to Costa Mesa, and by the time we've finished our first courses, no one is complaining about the drive because it's clear this is probably the best bistro in Southern California.
Opened just this April, Marché Moderne takes the word moderne seriously. This is no rehashing of tired French clichés. If he does a classic, Marneau gives it his full attention, and often a smart twist of his own.
Kumamoto oysters on the half shell are chilled to the ideal temperature and served with a touch of ginger in the mignonette. Then there's also a stunning "cocktail" of raw sea urchin roe heaped into a martini glass with chunks of avocado in a lime-drenched vinaigrette and topped with julienned breakfast radish. The combination of flavors is brilliant -- and completely moderne.
In his element
Another night there's a special of cepes, gorgeous, egg-sized mushrooms, so fresh and pristine, he simply halved and sautéed them in butter to make a sumptuous first course. With ingredients like this, Marneau knows enough not to sublimate the flavors with a heavy sauce.
A native of Fontainebleau southeast of Paris, Marneau was longtime chef at Pinot Provence (part of the Patina Group) across from South Coast Plaza, and before that he was chef de cuisine at Aubergine and Pascal, both in Newport Beach. But here in his own restaurant, with his wife Amelia as pastry chef and a hand-picked staff, some of whom have worked with him before, his cooking is fresh and uncomplicated -- modern.
I love his chilled foie gras with a hint of sweet spices set on thin slices of roasted pineapple splashed with a little Sauternes. The unctuous foie gras is fabulous against the fresh acidity and sweetness of the pineapple, the flavors clear and direct.
Another tour de force is his scallop tagine, which comes in a small glazed tagine pot with a conical lid. Remove the lid and the enticing scent of cumin and other Moroccan spices floats over the table. The meaty scallops come with soft, roasted eggplant and zucchini in a spice-laden sauce dotted with golden raisins, almonds and preserved lemons and fired with a touch of harissa. Langoustines poached in Echiré butter imported from France are delicious too with wild ramps and trumpet royale mushrooms.
At Marché Moderne, Marneau takes center stage in front of the wood-burning oven outlined in stone, turning out savory tarts. I was thrilled to see tarte flambé from Alsace on the menu. It is not, however, the classic thin-crusted tart. Yes, it does have the smear of crème fraîche and the caramelized onion, but instead of lardons, Marneau uses Wisconsin ham and includes a little cave-aged Gruyère cheese. His comes on a pillowy bread crust with a robust yeasty flavor, so he has, in a sense, reinvented the tarte flambé to suit his aesthetic.
His two other "tarts" are not quite pizzas, but very close. There's one topped with boudin noir (blood sausage) made by a Basque family in Chino, braised lettuce, red onion and a little cheese and raw apple; to my taste it has just a little too much going on. The one with La Quercia's superb prosciutto Americano on top, along with some imported mozzarella, tomato, basil and olive oil and a garnish of asparagus, works the best with the crust.
These are big enough for four to share as an appetizer; at lunch they could easily be the main event.
The location is a bit odd, to be sure. But I felt the same way when Troquet was here. It's up on the third floor of the Nordstrom wing of South Coast Plaza, but the restaurant does have an outdoor patio open to the sky. And once you're inside, you'd think it was Galeries Lafayette over there rather than Nordstrom, the room looks so completely French -- with the double row of banquettes down the middle and a tall vase of pussywillows or cherry blossoms placed on top. Near the door there's a sweet little bar where the Marneaus are pouring 40 or so wines by the glass. And white-clothed tables are lined up against the smoked glass French doors.
The salads are better than most of what you'd get in France, the greens fresher and more abundant. Even the lovely basic salad of market greens is made with the kitchen's full attention, the lettuce tossed with some cucumber and avocado in a beautifully modulated Champagne vinegar and walnut oil dressing sprinkled with chives.
Beet salad is goosed with orange and goat cheese, then garnished with pine nuts and basil.
Marché's salade composée plays off the ubiquitous chopped salad idea, but this one embraces hearts of palm, P'tit Basque cheese and pale green fresh garbanzo beans, along with the usual tomatoes and ham.
Marneau writes a good menu; when it comes to main courses, I want to order everything. My eye goes straight to the two dishes "in the style of coq au vin" -- rabbit or short ribs.
A light touch