In the past three years, Florent Marneau and wife Amelia have built Marche Moderne into what may be the very best restaurant in Orange County. They clearly deserve credit for demonstrating a mastery of seasonal French cooking, and kudos to the couple for deciding that isn’t enough. Each year, they create a limited edition concept to coincide with Marche Moderne’s anniversary. Last year, they transformed the patio into a French market, and this year, the Marneaus decided to transport diners to Spain, offering a 100% new dinner menu from April 22 – May 1, with none of the dishes ever to be seen again.
Through the windows of the third floor restaurant, we could see signs for Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin. South Coast Plaza is an upscale shopping Mecca for many Southern Californians, and these two stores were prime evidence why that’s the case. In the restaurant, the crowd was mixed, with couples, a number of double daters and at least a few “Real Housewives” in training. Flamenco music filled the air and the women of Marche Moderne wore roses in their hair. On weekends, the Marneaus planned to feature Flamenco dancers, but not on opening night. Instead, we proceeded to our parade of cazuelas, the clay dishes popular in Spain.
The Marneaus went all-in with their Spanish gambit, featuring seven Spanish wines by the glass, 15 tapas, platters of Spanish jamon and chorizo, Spanish cheeses like Idiazabal de navaro Maduro, several variations on paella and more.
The two of us were invited to experience Spain at Marche Moderne. We each started with a cup of sangria ($5). This was a deluxe version, two types of Tempranillo and a sweet Shiraz fortified with Brandy and Cointreau. The fruits were a little more interesting than normal, including fresh citrus segments, crisp apple and the seldom seen fig.
The menu invited us to play “Spanish roulette” with a dish of Fried Green Pimientos ($3). If the plate was a gun, the chamber would have been empty, since none of the peppers fired spicy. Still, the blistered peppers had plenty of flavor.
Langoustine ($20) with octopus was terrific, featuring sweet lobster-like langoustine plated with saffron froth and basil sauce that had the creamy consistency of guacamole. The langoustine was very good, but it was the octopus that sent this dish into orbit. Coils of tentacle were treated with rock salt and roasted in the wood-burning oven until the exterior was nice and crispy, yet the interior remained juicy. Marneau prefers almond wood, 75% for its ability to produce high heat, 25% for flavor.
Chistorra ($7) turned out to be firm cuts of spicy paprika-stained sausage, inspired by Basque country. The sausage topped two kinds of smoky white beans. The topper: roquette, a wilted wild baby arugula.
Morcilla ($9) with shrimp and saffron foam was another dish that over-delivered on its menu description. Rich cuts of blood sausage paired especially well with the shell-on prawn and sweet, supple rock shrimp.
Marneau produced a superlative dish of roasted cauliflower ($6), two tones lavished with tangy shaved arbequina olives, sweet thin-sliced dates and fresh corander salsa verde. If ever there was a dish that could convert a carnivore, this is it.
Our final small plate was a Chilled Marcona Almond and sweet garlic soup ($7), floating with the prized Spanish almonds. The soup had some bite from the garlic, but it was mellow compared to the whole cloves we encountered in the paella. At this stage of the meal, it probably wasn’t a good idea to go with a cold dish. Then again, the relatively simple soup served as a palate cleanser before our aggressively flavored paella.
Paella was certainly a showstopper, a large pan of toothsome La Bomba rice cooked with homemade Nora paste, shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, shavings of chorizo Bilbao and chorizo Soria, homemade pickled Chipiron, Piquillo pepper, garlic cloves and spring fava beans, all stained with La Mancha saffron and cooked in a langoustine broth. The paella was available with smoked Paprika and sherry marinated chicken, Maine lobster and langoustines, Snake River Farms pork shank, or our choice, scallops and monkfish ($28). The scallops were tweeners, mid-sized versions that fell between diver and bay that still remained sweet and tender. The fillets of monkfish, sometimes known as poor man’s lobster, took even better to the spices. There was no mushy rice here. This was clearly one of the better versions of paella that you’ll find in Southern California, not that you’ll find it after May 1.
Dessert is Amelia Marneau’s domain. Her Apple Gateau Basque ($10) was moist within, with a nice baked crust. The accompanying dollop of Sherry ice cream was just as aggressive as I’d hoped, though I could have done without the apple gelee. Whipped cream punctuated the plate, along with Pedro Ximenex and a crispy apple chip that garnished the ice cream like a sail.
Clementine Soup ($10) was an inventive play on chilled fruit soup, served in a martini glass, floating with spheres of yogurt and honey. The glass was decorated with vertical spires of spun sugar. On the side, orange blossom permeated a dish of sugar-dusted donuts.
Classic Creme Catalane ($10) was scented with lime and a touch of cinnamon. The Spanish take on creme brulee was torched, topped with tart citrus segments and a single stick of macadamia nut shortbread that bridged the rims of the cazuela.
After the dinner, Florent Marneau said the goal of the meal was to “try to keep it simple but elegant.” He shrugged off the idea of opening a restaurant around the concept, saying people would question a Spanish restaurant from a French chef. Maybe…until they tasted the food. Amelia said that for their fourth anniversary, they plan to take Marche Moderne to Italy. Even with all the Italian restaurants in Costa Mesa, I imagine they’d still stand out.
Note: Marche Moderne hosted this dinner.