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Florent, Amelia Marneau Relocated and ‘Reimagined’

For more than two decades, Fifi Chao carefully and lovingly honored select individuals in Orange County’s culinary world by naming a chef of the year and restaurateur of the year in her Executive Dining Column.

In keeping with that tradition, I’m pleased to announce that Florent and Amelia Marneau of Marche Moderne have been named our 2018 chefs of the year, and that Russ Bendel, owner of Vine, Ironwood and Olea, is restaurateur of the year.

When Executive Chef Florent and Pastry Chef Amelia opened Marche Moderne inside South Coast Plaza in 2007, Fifi said that dining there was “as close to being in France as possible.” Diners and critics agreed. The restaurant soon became renowned as one of the best French eateries in Southern California, an automatic descriptor that’s just as apt today.

Fifi also noted at the time that the culinary duo was “bubbling with joy at their new venture.”

That description still applies, since Florent and Amelia closed Marche early last year, only to reopen the restaurant in September in the old Tamarind of London space in the Crystal Cove Shopping Center in Newport Coast.

The revamped restaurant features an exhibition kitchen with an expansive window that allows patrons to watch the gastronomic theatrics from their white-tablecloth booths and tables, an 11-seat bar with a gray quartzite countertop holding Marche’s elegant Cruvinet wine dispenser, and a comfortable canopied patio, all making up the picture of an upscale yet comfortable French eatery.

Most important, the cuisine and chefs seem re-energized by the new space.

“After we closed the other restaurant, we looked at what we had done in the past and started to reflect on that,” Florent told me last fall when Marche reopened. “We’ve reimagined the menu and added a bunch of new stuff and a little bit of what people are used to. We are not going to stop doing what we do, we’re just going to elevate the whole experience.”

Amelia added, “We did a lot of R&D while we were closed. We researched, we traveled, we saw so many things we did not have time for at the old restaurant. We were inspired.”

Inspiration Point

Inspired is a perfect description of the Marche menu, which is classic, unfussy, French. Florent told me he has a binder with 3,000 recipes, and it seems like half of them are on his new menu, which is extensive yet somehow necessary to cover the range of dishes he delights in making.

Some of the recipes date to his days cooking at Pinot Provence, Aubergine and Pascal’s. One is his braised rabbit a la moutarde, which he created in 1991 while working under the skilled tutelage of Chef Pascal Olhats, also a Fifi honoree.

“I will never forget the time he worked by my side,” recalled Chef Pascal when I asked him about Florent.

“The rabbit is a typical French dish and was part of the menu at Pascal. It is a braised rabbit finished in cream and Dijon mustard. It’s a classic that takes hours to prepare. Florent had this dish on his station when he worked at Pascal. It was a dish he did not forget, and I am proud it is part of his menu at Marche Moderne. I appreciate his respect for traditions, and I mutually respect him as a friend, chef and colleague. He is a passionate, talented chef with one goal in mind: perfection.”

Perfection has crossed my mind several times when dining at Marche. I’ve savored the sensational braised rabbit, swooned over the perfect coq au vin, and fairly marveled at every other dish I’ve tried. Most memorable might have been one of Florent’s nightly fall specials: a dégustation of heirloom squash that included acorn squash soup with brown butter foam, brûléed honey nut squash, and mangalitsa prosciutto tartine. The dish was pretty and had fall flavors bursting from every morsel.

Another dish I’ve ordered more than once: a tasting of butters fleur de sel, yuzu, buckwheat, smoked sat salt, and espelette served with slices of rustic bread.

Last month, fellow foodie Shelly Zavala and I popped into Marche for dessert, an experience we’re still talking about. Amelia, also a very buoyant hostess, was trained at Le Cordon Bleu, and her decadent creations are true works of art that delight the eye and the palate.

On weekends, she offers a classic Napoleon dessert, which I asked her to describe while Shelly and I dug into the dish. We learned it’s a caramel mousseline Napoleon. Between each layer of puffed pastry is a caramel mousseline, plus apricot jam. She adds Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, caramelized apples and drizzles of caramel sauce. Even chocoholic Shelly loved the delightful dessert.

I’m still working my way through the lengthy list of dishes, and having a wonderful time doing so. Once I complete my culinary journey, I’ll happily make a second trip through the memorable menus of Florent and Amelia Marneau. n

Open nightly, 5-10 p.m.; 7862 Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (714) 434-7900, marchemoderne.net

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