The Gossiping Gourmet: Up for a spontaneous lunch?

One of the best bargains in Orange County is the lunchtime prix fixe "Spontanee" menu at Marche Moderne in South Coast Plaza. It is also, in my opinion, the best restaurant in the O.C.

The excellent three-course meal costs only $25. The meal usually begins with soup or salad and ends in dessert, with a choice of two main courses in the middle. The menu changes daily.

My favorite dining companion ordered the "Spontanee" menu, and I opted for two appetizers and a dessert. The first course was a brilliant composed salad of baby artichokes, tomatoes and frisee lettuce topped with shaved coppa ham and dressed with a light Meyer lemon vinaigrette. A beautiful basil emulsion decorated the plate.

This was a wonderful starter to a delicious meal, salty, tart and crunchy, with perfectly fresh vegetables in a generous portion that could be a lunch in itself.

For an entrée, my companion selected the pork paillard. The slab of tender, juicy pork featured a crispy top crust. It was served with an emulsion of whole grain and Dijon mustard that added zest and a bit of texture and married deliciously with the pork.

Especially sweet, caramelized onions balanced the tart mustards, and some surprising potatoes finished the dish. They looked like regular little fingerlings but had a unique flavor — they had been pickled. I had never tasted anything like that before; they were great. A small salad of little gem lettuce provided a final light touch.

Dessert was a cream puff filled with pistachio crème, accompanied by a strawberry meringue and topped with whipped cream. The crème was good but didn't have much pistachio flavor.

Two of my favorite things in the culinary world these days are pork belly and octopus, so I was delighted to see both on the "pour commencer" list. The belly was very meaty, with just the right amount of fat and a lovely browned exterior. A marvelous preserved cherry and Maui onion jam provided, with its sweetness and hint of tartness, a nice contrast to the salty pork. Its finely chopped cherries and onions offered texture.

Beneath the pork was an a jus accented with Madeira. Alongside were some crunchy leaves of choux de Bruxelles (Brussels sprouts) that were so good I was longing for more.

The tender octopus was roasted and served in a chorizo emulsion with thin shavings of spicy, salty chorizo on top. Crisp celery and little potato cubes rested in the emulsion and soaked up flavor. A drizzle of good olive oil and some jus de citron completed this very tasty dish.

Molten chocolate cake is ubiquitous these days. It seems to be on almost every dessert menu, no matter the cuisine. This was just an ordinary one. The chocolate and cake were good, but nothing distinguished it. Chocolate sauce, whipped cream and coconut mango gelato came on the side, but I couldn't really discern the flavors of mango or coconut.

As we were enjoying our meal, we noticed that someone at a nearby table was eating a banh mi sandwich. I was sorry that I was much too full to order it. These traditional Vietnamese sandwiches are a favorite of mine, and I like them enough to drive to Westminster for a good one.

Served on a long French baguette that is usually made in-house, they feature cold cuts such as sliced pork, picked vegetables, cilantro and hot chilis.

I will definitely be back to Marche to try one. I am quite sure it will be a cut above the rest. The restaurant fills them with Dungeness crab, seared rare ahi, crisp pork belly, sautéed white shrimp or veal head cheese terrine.

You really can't go wrong, whatever you choose to eat, at this wonderful restaurant.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Marche Moderne

Where: 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa (penthouse South Coast Plaza)

When: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sundays

Prices:

Appetizers: $7 to $34

Salads and entrées: $7 to $36

Desserts: $8 to $12

Wine:

Bottles: $40 to $76

By the glass: $11 to $25

Corkage fee: $15 for first bottle, $25 for subsequent ones, four bottles maximum per table

Information: (714) 434-7900 or http://www.marchemoderne.nethttp://www.marchemoderne.net

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