Culinary Magic and Summertime Theatrics

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By Christopher Trela | NB Indy

There’s one thing you can always count on for summer: Pageant of the Masters.

Fellow NB Indy scribe Shelly Zavala and I had the opportunity to attend the production, and managed to squeeze in dinner before the show.

French Cuisine and American Art

Held every year in the Irvine Bowl on the Festival of Arts grounds, Pageant of the Masters is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year. It’s an admittedly unusual theatrical affair: real people are painted and dressed like those in famous paintings and sculptures, then placed into backdrops and made to stand still for 90 seconds while thousands of spectators ogle and applaud their efforts to recreate great art as tableaux vivants (“Living Pictures”).

"Catching Fish at the Beach" by Franz Bischof. Photo courtesy of Pageant of the Masters
“Catching Fish at the Beach” by Franz Bischof. Photo courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

We had tickets to the VIP preview night and, like we always do, opted for a pre-pageant dinner. We reasoned that a restaurant in the Crystal Cove Shopping Center would allow us to dine at our leisure before making the short drive to the Pageant.

Florent and Amelia Marneau opened MarchéModerne inside South Coast Plaza in 2007. The restaurant quickly earned a reputation as one of the best French restaurants in Southern California.

Florent (executive chef) and Amelia (pastry chef) closed their restaurant in early 2017, and last September reopened Marché Moderne in the Newport Coast shopping center, inside the old Tamarind of London space.

The cuisine, and the chefs, seem reenergized by the new space, and diners are flocking to Marché Moderne for its classy atmosphere and traditional French cuisine.

We started with a tasting of five different butters ($9) served with fresh baked rustic bread. Each pat of butter had unique flavors that made this simple start to our meal a culinary adventure.

The octopus at Marche Moderne. Photo by Chris Trela
The octopus at Marche Moderne. Photo by Chris Trela

More treats were to come. I ordered the inhouse mousse de canard with 10-year tawny port gelee and toast ($13). It came in a little jar and made my palate smile as I eagerly spread the decadent mixture on the toast points.

Shelly thought the wild Spanish octopus with chorizo emulsion ($17) was possibly the best she has ever tasted.

“The uniqueness and contrasts of the flavors they were using—it was so tender and reminded me of the best restaurants in Spain,” said Shelly. “They have such a great way of mixing flavors. Everything is such good quality.”

For entrees, Shelly ordered roasted Scottish salmon ($31) with potatoes, onion hash and a quail egg, while I opted for braised short ribs ($29), served in a small copper pot and ladled on to my dish by our server. The sauce was thick and rich, the meat tender enough to cut with a fork.

We were full and running short on time so had to skip dessert.

We found parking a short hike from the Pageant and easily made it to our seats before the lights went down.

This year’s theme is “Under the Sun,” a phrase which Pageant producer-director Diane Challis Davy said comes from Ecclesiastes.

"Cutting Glass" by San Clemente artist Gary Prettyman. Photo courtesy of Pageant of the Masters
“Cutting Glass” by San Clemente artist Gary Prettyman. Photo courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

“I think it serves us very well. I wanted the theme to express an awareness and appreciation of the beauty of nature, to focus on artists who choose to paint in the ‘open air’ and to acknowledge how French impressionism influenced artists around the world to record their own personal reflections.”

The evening included works by many of Laguna’s early masters, including Anna Hills, William Griffith, Rex Brandt, Julia Bracken Wendt, and Joseph Kleitsch.

Act one clocks in at over an hour and is packed with artwork that tells the story of how Laguna Beach came to be an arts colony.

Pageant scriptwriter Dan Duling said, “we’re taking a cue from two anniversaries this summer: the centennial celebration for the Laguna Art Museum, and the 85th anniversary of ‘living pictures’ here at the Festival of Arts. So, the history of Laguna’s art colony, first gallery, and Pageant traditions will get special attention.”

The script, voiced live by SCR Founding Artist Richard Doyle, illuminates the history and places the artwork in the proper context for audiences.

Act two is much shorter and makes a detour to Europe before ending with the traditional closing tableaux, “The Last Supper” by da Vinci.

The pageant has been adding more live movement over the years, and rather than detracting from the traditional presentation, the action adds another dimension and a sense of fun to the evening.

Pageant performances are nightly through Sept. 1. Tickets start at $15. More info: (800) 487-3378 or PageantTickets.com.

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