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An Extra Course: Presenting the Best of Fifi’s Best

Executive dining columnist Fifi Chao announced her retirement in this column last month with a joyous romp through “the past 26 ½ years, the best dining years in Orange County’s history.”

Here we excerpt portions of Fifi’s reviews of her favorite restaurants, chefs and restaurateurs—a tribute to the inimitable Fifi and the people she wrote about, with updates and perspective.

June 29, 2015 Chef of the Year, Alan Greely, Golden Truffle, Costa Mesa

“ … No chef has consistently impressed me more over a few decades, and still does, than Alan Greeley, the chef and owner of Golden Truffle in Costa Mesa. This special guy is my pick for Chef of the Year because he thinks globally about food, and he makes culinary memories for all of us.

Go to the restaurant’s website, and the first thing you see is his quote, ‘The best of all worlds.’ It is. Dining anytime at Golden Truffle will bring you an international, soulfully cultural experience like no other. Asian, European, Latin, Caribbean and subcontinent dishes pop onto his menus beside his modern American specialties, and in being so good at what he does, he trumps every other dining experience around.

One evening, I had dinner at Golden Truffle with two very discriminating palates, businessmen of note who are like walking encyclopedias of fine dining. They are acquainted with chefs who cook the most fabulous food, and they are experts in trends as they come and go. One made the statement that Alan Greeley is the most talented chef in Southern California, and the other agreed. I don’t have nearly their combined experience, but comparing among restaurants where I’ve had my best dining experiences, I chimed in as a third concurring voice.

Serious chefs change their menus seasonally. Alan Greeley is so spontaneous, he changes menu items constantly, some things daily, depending on some fantastic meat, seafood or produce that he was not expecting from purveyors or at the farmers market.

Somewhere along the line, I asked Alan where his recipes come from. His answer, and I found out he wasn’t kidding, was that a lot of it happens in the mornings when he’s going to work on his motorcycle with the wind in his face and his food thoughts flowing freely …

One thing, though, we must all face: He often gets an idea for a dish customers will ooh and aah about when they eat it, but when we ask when he’ll have that dish on the menu again, he can’t give an answer. He never writes down a recipe and sometimes does not recall how he made a past dish. So we go merrily along and keep getting our culinary kicks anew …”

Alan Greeley opened Golden Truffle 37 years ago; it closed in August.

May 28, 2007 – Marche Moderne,
South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa

“… It’s always fun watching a fine chef who has been working for someone else open his own restaurant. Liberated to rely completely on his own culinary soul, it’s like watching a bird fly free. In this case it’s two chefs, husband and wife, who have worked for others while gaining their acclaim along the way. They are now bubbling with joy at their new venture.

Florent Marneau had been executive chef at Pinot Provence since it opened nine years ago. His wife, Amelia, a pastry chef, last had charmed us with her sweet creations at Bayside. They left their respective jobs at the end of last year to take over the space that had housed Troquet.

Now Florent is presenting regional French dishes without Americanizing them, and Amelia is making the desserts and hosting the clientele …

In the ‘unusual’ section are razor clams steamed with Florent’s own spice selection and sweetbreads with lightly curried rapini. We ordered the tender sweetbreads one evening, which were slightly tinged with the flavors of minced parsley and garlic.

One section is simply called ‘morels,’ because that is the mushroom of the moment. Florent is using them in his short ribs, John Dory and free-range rabbit. I had the rabbit, a braised loin that was quite reminiscent of my French grandmother’s version. Being such a French place, the cheese selections alone could make me a happy diner with only a glass of red wine and chunks of his crusty bread …”

Marneau on Fifi

We just saw Fifi a couple weeks ago for dinner!

Amelia and I and the entire crew have been so close to her over the years. …

She has a way about her [which] reminds us of Julia Child—her voice and demeanor and amazing joie de vivre. …

Her food writing style is avec une grande legerete—“with great lightness”

It’s an honor for us to know her … she will be missed.

Sincerement, Florent

Marche Moderne relocated to Crystal Cove in Newport Beach last month

July 3, 2011 Restaurateur of the Year, Joe Manzella, Taps, Catch (Brea, Irvine, Anaheim, Corona)

“… Manzella is one of Orange County’s most successful independent restaurateurs. With three restaurants—Taps Fish House & Brewery in Brea, a second Taps in Corona and The Catch in Anaheim—he commands a mini empire of close to 400 employees and $20 million in annual sales.

It wasn’t always that way.

Raised in Palos Verdes, a star soccer player through high school and college at Arizona State, Manzella landed at Xerox Corp. after graduating. He excelled in sales.

But after seven years, a deep passion for food and hospitality prompted him to leave the corporate world after his father agreed to back him in a restaurant venture.

Manzella’s vision was based on what he loved about certain New Orleans, Seattle and San Francisco dining spots—a big warehouse-type restaurant that would be comfortable, charming and inviting, yet upscale—and specialize in seafood and artisan quality beers. Plus he wanted to have a knock-your-socks-off Sunday brunch.

It took more than four years and almost insurmountable obstacles. In 1999, Taps debuted in downtown Brea to lines out the door …

More than anyone in the county, Manzella’s prescience in the mid-1990s that locally crafted, high-quality artisan beers would become big was right on target.

Taps’ enormous success combines great food, drink, soulful New Orleans ambiance and service—all overseen by Manzella to ensure it meets his exacting standards …”

Joe Manzella added the third Taps at The Marketplace in Irvine in 2015.

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