Thursday, July 14, 2011

Marché Moderne, Costa Mesa

When they told me that the restaurant is in the Penthouse, I imagined a spacious entry filled with voluptuous leather armchairs filled with scantily clad yet fashionable women hobnobbing with someone with a strong resemblance to Hugh Hefner. Getting there did nothing to reduce this feeling, since the place is located in the billionaire wing of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Almost all the stores are French, although nobody working in them is.

Instead, it just looked like the typical upscale restaurant. Hostess at the front, bar along the right side, open kitchen in the back separated from the main dining area by a low wall. A patio garden through the back doors. No high level interior design anywhere evident. The thing that struck me was how un-bistro like the place looked. Are we in a steakhouse or...? Is this truly the home of what some critics are calling the best French bistro food in Southern California, perhaps the entire state?

Some people equate French food (and the French in general) with snobbishness. Although it's totally untrue in France it seems to be a pernicious evil here in California at least as far as French restaurants go. In France, if you're willing to adventure into the food, fall backwards into the arms of the chef and let his food carry you like the crowd in a rock concert, you'll be fine and will likely be treated more than well. Our first impression was an unsmiling hostess who made every effort to avoid eye contact, as though we were some sort of soul stealing gypsies instead of simple voyagers in search of a great meal. She led us past the open kitchen where people were plating in front and cooking behind, with a glowing wood-burning oven taking center stage. Our table sat in the garden area, served by a waiter whose job was to keep forty people happy, an amazing feat of front house juggling if there ever was one.

After being seated, we noticed that the menus, housed in not especially hygenic looking holders, were placed directly on our clean napkins. So, a potential smorgasbord of microbes was sitting there, atop a formerly pristine napkin, just to achieve an effect of what? Adventure mixed with anxiety perhaps? Why not just lay the day's menu on top of the napkin without the unwashed, padded holder? We looked at each other, thinking the same thought: is this the microbe du jour?

Eventually, the waiter managed to stop by our table and answer some questions. At this point, I was already thinking that the back of the house would have to carry the day. Luckily, the waiter was well informed and able to guide us in our selections.

Two of us chose the prix fixe menu du jour: an emulsified salad mixing greens and fruit heavily laced with tarragon. One of us skipped the first course, instead opting to take occasional stabs at my charcuterie plate: rilletes, country style paté, dry salami, Spanish style chorizo, prosciutto. The rillettes were ground silky smooth, not the more chunky rendition typical of France. Kind of like a porky foie gras, but without so much four spice. The best item was the country style paté; enough texture for a good mouthfeel, rich with flavors that evolved on the palate.

Since the wines were more on the pricy side of things than not, we opted for a Cremant d'Alsace. If you're going to pay for a decent wine and you're celebrating, might as well go with something bubbly that will complement most dishes.

Our main courses would be fish with a curry sauce, scallops in black butter, duck breast with a gastrique sauce and a tagine with preserved lemons, merguez sausage, mint, crème fraîche shrimp and couscous. The duck breast was served with fresh morel mushrooms, baby turnips and spring onions, all coated in a gastrique sauce to perk things up a bit. The scallops came with sautéd brussel sprout leaves, the nuttiness of the sprouts playing a counterpoint to the richer beurre noire coating the seafood. The white fish with curry was, well, forgettable. Just white protein from the sea lacking any of its own assertiveness or flavor, carrying the curry sauce yet not taking part in the melody. The tagine brought different flavors with virtually every bite, since you could opt in or out of the mint sauce, spear a shrimp or a piece of merguez, perhaps rub in a bit of preserved lemon...

As the meal progressed, we chatted more and more with our waiter. As it turned out, he was from Durango. Not the ordinary place in Colorado, but the Durango near Copper River Canyon in Mexico. It turned out that the staff was mostly Spanish speaking, although the chef/owners are indeed French. It's always fun to go to a French restaurant and speak Spanish with foodies from far away lands. We also talked about restaurants in D.F. (a.k.a. Mexico City) and current trends in Mexican cuisine in Mexico.

The fancy, main menu desserts were an apple tart, thin-sliced apples served on crispy puff pastry, painted with a translucent glaze and something like a chocolate lava bomb. It arrived looking like a simple cocoa colored cylinder. When cut, flowing chocolate pahoehoe spreads onto the plate, solidifying as it cools. The prix fixe desserts were... I forgot to note them since they just couldn't hold a candle to the lava bomb or the apple tarte.

As we left, the chef-owner arrived. We ended up chatting a bit in French - he's from Fontainebleau, not far from where my brother in law used to live. A genuine French chef! So, a trilingual lunch that mixed the cuisines of France, Morocco (the tagine), Spain (the chorizo) and India (the curry). Fun.

Overall, it was an interesting meal, and worth the money. Any meal where I come away with at least three ideas is educational money well spent, and at the rate tuition is increasing in the community college, more and more a bargain. I've already used the salad dressing and gastrique, albeit in modified forms to work in different menus.

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