When the news hit that Amelia and Florent Marneau were uprooting their highly successful Marché Moderne restaurant from South Coast Plaza to move to Crystal Cove Shopping Center, I was puzzled. Why change the site of this much-acclaimed market-inspired French bistro?
Amelia Marneau, executive pastry chef, told me she and her husband wanted a change. Something new. Something fresh. Walking through the 4,200-square-foot restaurant a few days before the recent opening, I grasped their meaning.
Light flooded through the windows, many of which welcomed ocean breezes through bi-folding openings. The new spot has 25 more seats than the previous, and the tables are farther apart making it feel more spacious. An 11-seat bar shows off a gray quartzite countertop and a snazzy Cruvinet wine dispenser featuring a broad selection of French and California wines. Walls are Provencal-inspired stone, and the color theme is a mixed palette of neutral tones.
The glassed kitchen is the centerpiece with its gleaming white tile and pristine marble, showcasing the culinary action that surrounds the French Montague Kitchen Suite’s stoves. Florent Marneau, executive chef, says the setup allows chefs to detail every dish. “It’s like a finishing station where you can filter all details,” he said.
Up front, just inside the glass partition, a counter houses cold dishes that are ready for service and an inviting selection of charcuterie, including many that will be cut in the hefty Berkel slicer. The nighttime view of the busy workings inside the exhibition kitchen is positioned and illuminated in a way that its beauty can be seen by onlookers even in the parking lot.
As the project progressed, Marché fans became increasingly impatient; some even pressed their noses against the glass, flailing their arms to request the doors be opened. One eager enthusiast loudly revved the engine of his Harley motorcycle at the kitchen’s backdoor; the racket kept up until someone opened the door. The fellow voiced his concern that coq au vin would still be on the menu. He got that assurance and was on his way. (Certain dishes will remain indefinitely, Marché classics such as that wine-braised chicken dish and Amelia’s Chopped Salad.)
The Marneaus wanted everything to be perfect before they opened. They had a hiatus of seven months between closing and opening that included research in San Francisco and Paris.
“The bistro Allard from (Alain) Ducasse is so good, yet simple and so fresh,” Florent said about the Paris restaurant. “And I think that l’Arpege is the best Michelin star in Paris, not just because of the star. … The creativity there is insane, not complicated, but just amazing.”
During the months off spent planning, designing and menu developing, the couple kept key employees on the payroll, including chefs des cuisines Jeremy Correia and Auturo Castillo, plus General Manager Nadine Hotong and supervisor Tony Guzman. Maintaining their staff, something most restaurants struggle with, seems to be part of their success. Building loyalty is crucial to maintain consistency and as much as 70 percent of other staff have returned.
With perfection in mind, they are starting out slowly, accepting a limited number of reservations. The four-page menu offers well-loved dishes as well as many new selections. A quick look-through sparks hunger and makes decisions difficult. Everything sounds incredibly delicious. Highly skilled and passionate about creating innovative dishes filled with alluring tastes and textures, they prepare balanced, well-thought-out dishes that please the eye and palate.
Many dishes are categorized as “small plates.” Florent wanted to offer smaller portions to give guests the opportunity to sample refined fare for a lower price. The wild Spanish octopus served with chorizo emulsion, potatoes, celery, lemon, and the smoky flavor of Espelette pepper is $17 (you won’t find better octopus anywhere). Foie gras and chestnut-filled ravioli are served adrift in duck stock along with celery root confit for $21 (the stock is so deeply flavored, it made me hum). And yes, a beautifully cooked New Zealand langoustine rests atop sea urchin risotto that’s adorned with lacey green sea beans for $25 (the full flavors balanced perfectly).
In a different price category, my husband had the sautéed foie gras on toasted onion brioche with Calvados, diced apples, and pears, plus a topping of balsamic croustillant (lightly acidic flakey balsamic vinegar curls that Florent crafted through a magical process of dehydration). My sated mate said that it was worth every cent of $33.
Displayed in an enormous ice-filled pewter-hued bowl behind the kitchen’s front window, whole fish tempt guests with their super-fresh appeal.
“The whole market fish are selling like crazy,” Florent said. “We sold 40 whole bass in the first four services.”
Also included on the menu is a section titled “Hommages.” It pays tribute to Florent’s time spent in the kitchens of three Orange County restaurants: Aubergine, Pascal Restaurant, and Pinot Provence. There’s Lamb Couscous Royale from Pinot Provence, Mesquite Smoked Duck Breast with Rosé-Wine Vinegar and Honey from Aubergine, and Braised Rabbit a la Moutarde accompanied with hand-rolled noodles from Pascal Restaurant.
As for finales, there is an inviting list of domestic and imported cheeses, but it would be almost impossible to resist Amelia’s desserts. Her Mirabelle (French plum) tart with fig, pastry cream, and lemon verbena ice cream is scrumptious (the irresistible herbaceous ice cream was the perfect complement). The yellow Mirabelle plums, a specialty in France’s Lorraine region, will only be available for a short time; their season ends in late September.
And, of course, there are Amelia’s luscious interpretations of French macarons. The flavors and textures are extraordinary and their size, very generous—Lychee, Yuzu, Rose, and Raspberry Texture, the latter enriched with white chocolate feuilletine (crispy bits).
It was comforting to see Florent’s copper cookware made the transition to the new locale, the gleaming pots and skillets that he has owned since his teens. Some are in use, others hang on hooks. It’s good to see the old mix with the new.
Marché Moderne is located at 7862 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach (across from Javier’s). 714-434-7900
Open 7 days a week for dinner (no lunch), starting at 5 p.m. Valet is $6.
Later they will offer Sunday brunch. After the holidays, they will offer “Spontanée Dinner Menus” – three-course dinners for $38 served on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”