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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

Happily fluent in French

June 13, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

THE charcuterie on the wooden board in the center of the table is arranged as precisely as a Cezanne still-life. Fine slices of pink prosciutto are dropped like handkerchiefs. It's the excellent artisanal prosciutto Americano made from acorn-eating pigs by La Quercia in Iowa. Quarter-sized slices of Spanish chorizo streaked with paprika and crimson and white marbled salametto Toscano march across the board. They're all top-notch, but what grabs my attention are the rabbit rillettes and that thick slab of duck terrine, both house-made. I take a bite of terrine, and it has that rich, gamey taste of the real thing, rustic and earthy.

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 Marche 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, Marche Moderne takes the word moderne seriously. This is no rehashing of tired French cliches. 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 sauteed 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 Echire butter imported from France are delicious too with wild ramps and trumpet royale mushrooms.

At Marche 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 flambe from Alsace on the menu. It is not, however, the classic thin-crusted tart. Yes, it does have the smear of creme fraiche and the caramelized onion, but instead of lardons, Marneau uses Wisconsin ham and includes a little cave-aged Gruyere cheese. His comes on a pillowy bread crust with a robust yeasty flavor, so he has, in a sense, reinvented the tarte flambe 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.

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