Is Marseille France's next great food city ?
Une Table au Sud
In Alexander Lobrano’s new column, Eurofile, the author of “Hungry for Paris” writes about the best tables (and beds) on the continent.
Coming on strong as one of the hippest cities on the Mediterranean after years of being unfairly malfamé, Marseille — France’s second-largest city — is also rapidly emerging as one of the best places to eat in Gaul.
I’ve known and loved this endearing mutt of a town for more than 20 years, but could scarcely believe my eyes — or my palate — on my most recent visit. To be sure, there have always been good places to eat here, but what’s changed everything is an influx of talented and ambitious young chefs who are catering to a swelling cast of affluent, food-mad young professionals. So think bistronomie, or young contemporary French bistro cooking, but with a delicious Mediterranean accent.
Last Friday night, the oleander-sheltered vest-pocket terrace at the hip Bistrot d’Edouard was packed with a happy crowd of stylish thirtysomething local couples tucking into such terrific dishes as zucchini and eggplant à la plancha with fresh mint and coriander, and fideo, a Catalan preparation of stubby vermicelli cooked, paella-style, in squid ink and fish broth and garnished with tender rings of grilled squid and aioli made with fromage blanc.
“What I wanted to do is create a Mediterranean bistro,” the Bistrot’s amiable owner, Edouard Giribone, told me in reference to the very popular restaurant he opened last year in an old Provençal villa in the city’s Prado district. “Our cooking is inspired by countries all around the Mediterranean, and I’d like to think it’s a reflection of the fact that instead of being self-conscious and a little awkward about its identity as a city of immigrants, Marseille is now celebrating its amazing diversity.”
The next day, over an excellent lunch of panisses (fried chickpea-flour squares), sardines and grilled squid with mesclun at the trendy Café Populaire, I couldn’t help but muse on how much this city has changed since I first alighted at its impressive grand Gare Saint Charles. I had bullied my friends into coming to this ancient town, our third stop on a month-long InterRail-pass trip around Europe, in the late ’70s. Though I didn’t show my cards, I was on a mission: I dimly knew that the brawny port was famous for something called bouillabaisse, and I wanted to try some. So on our first night in town, we trudged down to the port to stalk a bowl of the legendary fish preparation. “It barely feels like France,” one of my friends said, reacting to an old Vietnamese lady selling pho from a street stand, the Arab women in flowing djellabas and the musical Creole of Comorians buying dried fish from an intriguingly exotic boutique that spilled onto the pavement with stalls of foods I’d never seen before and couldn’t identify. Even before we got to dinner at the ruinously expensive Miramar, I knew I loved Marseille.
The bouillabaisse was delicious (in those days — today I go to Peron or L’Epuisette when I want a bouillabaisse fix), as was the pizza at lunch the next afternoon at the famous Chez Etienne in the city’s souk-like Le Panier neighborhood. But, avid restaurant-menu reader that I am, I was bored within 48 hours and happy to head for Nice in search of socca, pissaladière and petits farcis.
Le Café des Epices
Today, any serious eater will need at least a long weekend to begin to put a dent in the terrific tables the city has to offer. The top of my list would certainly be Le Café des Epices, a tiny place a few streets in from Le Vieux Port, the city’s old harbor, near the Hotel de Ville. The chef, Arnaud Carton de Grammont, does a superb modern Provençal market menu that changes almost daily but runs to dishes like risotto with hazelnut-crusted veal sweetbreads or turbot with gremolata, sautéed artichokes and vanilla-spiked red cabbage.
The talented young chef Lionel Levy has a pair of not-to-be-missed restaurants, too: his one-star Une Table au Sud, which confounded local naysayers who doubted that Marseille would support such an ambitious gastronomic table when it opened in 2004 (don’t miss Levy’s riff on bouillabaisse), and La Virgule, a bistro offshoot with a great chalkboard menu and terrific views from its tiny terrace.
There’s also Lauracée, a first-rate Mediterranean bistro where Christophe Negrel, formerly of L’Oustau de la Baumanière in Les Baux and La Fenière in Lourmarin, does brilliant modern Provençal dishes like sea bream stuffed with grilled eggplant, and cherry clafoutis. I never go to Marseille without having a meal there.
I also make it a point to hit Sur le Pouce for its superb couscous, tagines and North African pastries, and love going to the very hip Les Akolytes for tapas. But my newest favorite is Le Comptoir Dugommier, a pretty, belle époque cafe reborn as a bistro with an eclectic menu that ranges from braised veal breast on lentils to more modish dishes like a delicious confit de canard with Thai spices on a bed of bean sprout, mango, mustard leaf, coriander and onion salad.
Almost no other place sums up Marseille’s miraculous transformation into a city with a bona fide gastronomic vocation better than the very sweet Le Débouché. This friendly little bistrot à vins on the recently smartened-up boulevard National showcases the work of local artists and serves a terrific menu du marché every day — maybe juicy pork spare ribs with ginger or scallops with garlic — and the chef, Helene Marcellini, offers a winning gastronomic manifesto on the restaurant’s Web site: “I love: olive oil, ginger, chocolate, cumin, almonds, garlic, curry, bahar and piment d’Espelette … and food that wriggles, is crusty, sparkles and appeals to the nostrils.” Twenty years ago, Marcellini’s cooking might have been a tough sell locally, but today she’s playing to a full house.
Cafe des Epices, 4 rue Lacydon; 011-33-4-91-91-22-69
Café Populaire, 110 rue Paradis; 011-33-4-91-02-53-96
Chez Etienne, 43 rue de Lorette; no phone
Lauracée, 96 rue Grignan; 011-33-4-91-33-63-36
Le Bistrot d’Edouard, 150 rue Jean Mermoz; 011-33-4-91-71-16-52
Le Comptoir Dugommier, 14 boulevard Dugommier; 011-33-4-91-62-21-21
Le Débouché, 3 boulevard National; 011-33-4-91-50-96-25
L’Epuisette, Vallon des Auffes; 011-33-4-91-52-17-82
Les Akolytes, 41 rue Papety; 011-33-4-91-59-17-10
Peron, 56 Corniche J.F. Kennedy; 011-33-4-91-52-17-29
Sur le Pouce, 2 rue Convalescent; 011-33-4-91-56-13-28
Une Table au Sud, 2 quai du Port; 011-33-4-91-90-63-53
La Virgule, 27 rue de la Loge; 011-33-4-91-90-91-11.
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