Friday, August 13, 2010

O.C. Calling: Marché Moderne and Roman Cucina

How do you enjoy wine in triple-digit heat? Set the A/C to Siberia – or head to the beach.

When you travel to Orange County, don't miss the chance to quench your thirst for great wine coupled with outstanding food at Marché Moderne. Located on the third level of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the modern French bistro offers an intriguing selection of wines by the six-ounce glass or three-ounce taste. Take the by-the-glass option to savor as many dishes as you can from chef/owners Florent and Amelia Marneau’s menu.

Besides oysters, charcuterie, cheese plates and what they call “everything pickle,” the Marneaus offer special summer dishes from Santa Monica and Orange County farmers’ markets. Dive into the briny sweetness of Malpeque oysters, served with a traditional and ginger mignonette for starters. Opt for a classic pairing with Muscadet or go with Sancerre Vincent Delaporte, Chavignol 2008 from the Loire.

On a recent visit, the standout dish was a tagine of Merguez with two kinds of shrimp, chermoula, raisins, lemon confit, harissa, almonds, mint emulsion, dates and Ras el hanout, a blend of North African spices. The savory flavors paired beautifully with a refreshing rosé from Sardegna, Argiolas Serra Lori Isola dei Nuraghi Rosato, 2009. This cool refresher blends Cannonau, the Sard version of Grenache, with Carignano (Cariñan) and two Sardinian grapes, Monica and Bovale Sardo.

Other winners from the talented Marneau duo are their homemade duck terrine, shaved black summer truffle tart, octopus salad with Lomo ham and Moscovy duck leg confit.

The wait staff is knowledgeable and efficient. Ask for a comfy booth near the open kitchen or watch the fashion show go by at lunch from the patio. Despite its mall location (between Canali and Louis Vuitton, near Nordstrom's), Marché Moderne offers a cozy, metro atmosphere with cuisine on par with destination bistros in New York or San Francisco.

For a completely different experience, head to Roman Cucina in Sunset Beach. Popular with the surfer crowd as well as families, this casual Italian restaurant has expanded its menu to include pasta-less entrees for carbo-phobes. Just be sure someone at your table has the sense to order the special, always a winner. Start with calamari, perfectly crisped and tender. A forkful of pasta or sausage with marinara will bring back memories of Sunday dinner and nonna's gravy. We think we caught the telltale near-sweet creaminess and silky texture of Polly-O ricotta in their lasagne and other pasta dishes, too.

Besides Martini Mondays, Roman Cucina also offers Wine Wednesdays with no corkage fees and half-off wines at all four of their southland locations. Even though the food is always solid, the wine list could benefit from a few more selections. Our bottle of Planeta 2008 Cerasuolo, a blend of Sicilian grapes Nero d'Avola and Frappato, made a great pairing for red-sauced dishes we sampled.

Then there's the cannoli. This is one dessert worth saving room for, but rich enough for the table to share. The fresh, crisp shell is stuffed with a ricotta-based filling that could've come from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Gotta be that Polly-O.

If you can't make it to cooler climes this week, no sweat. Drop in at Palm Desert's new 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro from 5 to 10 PM for their three-course wine-pairing Sunday dinner for only $25. Menu and wines change weekly. The San Diego-based 3rd Corner is a great addition to the desert's food and wine scene, a cool refuge for a hot August week.

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