Framed by a fuchsia blaze of bougainvillea, with olive trees in big terra cotta pots out front, the small sunny terrace at the Café des Epices is filled with pistachio- and raspberry-colored 1950s chairs and retro metal tables—a perfect postcard of Provence. And as I discovered during an excellent lunch there a few weeks ago, it’s also one of the best contemporary bistros in the south of France. Chef Arnaud Carton de Grammont’s cooking is inventive, generous and precise.
We arrived late, but the waiter was welcoming, and he later revealed a sly sense of humor and an ambition to open his own bistrot à vins someday. Celebrating our escape from rainy Paris, we sipped chilled rosé from the Ile de Porquerolles and decided we’d eat the entire lunch menu—easy enough, since we were two and the blackboard menu at noon offers only two starters, two main dishes and two desserts. First courses of marinated, organically grown leeks with a slice of mushroom-filled “cake” and grilled eggplant topped with melted goat cheese and garnished with garlicky, freshly made tapenade were delicious, market-driven cooking at its best. Next came turbot with a delicious purée inspired by Catalan escalivada (eggplant, peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil), and slow-roasted pork with girolles and a purée of butternut squash.
But if the meal was delightful, the real surprise was the location: right in the center of Marseille, just behind the beautiful Hôtel de Ville and a few blocks from its charming Vieux Port, the city’s most popular tourist destination, which for many years has been lined with mediocre restaurants peddling identikit menus of second-rate bouillabaisse, pizza and salads.
The thicket of tourist tables is still there, but the intriguing fact is that no other city in France has changed its gastronomic tune more dramatically than Marseille in the last few years. The hawking cries of the fishmongers selling the local catch-of-the-day on the stone quays of the Vieux Port used to announce the city’s preference for hearty, homey traditional Provençal bouillabaisse and fish soup. Now, at his elegant Michelin one-star restaurant Une Table au Sud overlooking the harbor, young chef Lionel Lévy is proposing a “Bouille-Abaisse milkshake”—a delicate layered creation of mousse, potatoes and fish.
And his is only one of a terrific constellation of stylish restaurants and smaller bistrots serving inventive, contemporary French cooking in this city that has never had a serious culinary reputation. I remember chatting with Lévy, who had been part of the Alain Ducasse stable for six years, just after he opened Une Table au Sud in 1999 (he received one star in 2004). “When I told my chef friends I was opening a restaurant in Marseille, they said I was crazy,” he noted. “They said there was no money there, and that the locals didn’t care about good food.” As it turned out, they were wrong on both counts—not only has Lévy thrived in Marseille, he now has a second restaurant, La Virgule, with a charming terrace and a perfect view of the Vieux Port. It’s become a huge hit for its delicious and very reasonable market cooking—typical dishes include fleurs de courgettes farcies à la Brousse de Rove (fresh sheep cheese) avec tartare de tomates and sea bass filet with buttered potatoes and crystallized lemon, or calamars sautés avec légumes méditerranéens.
The restaurant scene in Marseille is booming, and it’s a delicious reflection of how this ancient port city is currently creating a prosperous, multifaceted and decidedly multiethnic future for itself. In the 19th century, Marseille was—along with Chicago—one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 spurred its economy, and it thrived as the commercial and maritime hub of France’s African and Asian colonial empire. Then World War II and the seismic sociological and economic disruptions that followed the dissolution of that empire put the city on a long course of steady decline. The nadir had been reached in the 1970s, when I first glimpsed the city as a backpacking student on a train down from Paris. I loved the splendor of the railroad station, the Gare Saint Charles, and I was intrigued by the North African teashops I could see from the train, but the city merited barely more than a few paragraphs in my guidebook, and I went on to Nice.
But I had grown up in New England at a time when the brick mills in its hardworking factory towns were going dark, and I lived in New York during its dire days in the late 1970s, so I’ve always had an eccentric soft spot for cities that are down on their luck, which is why I decided to visit Marseille for a long weekend just after I moved to France in 1986.
“Marseille!” exclaimed my kindly Spanish concierge when I told her of my plans. “C’est surtout pas pour vous. Il faut aller à Cannes, mais surtout pas à Marseille.” I understood why she reacted so vehemently, of course. In those days, the city was still decidedly mal famée, associated with endless strikes in its once thriving port, petty crime, the Mafia, and a whole catalog of urban ills. But its history fascinated me—the oldest city in France, it was founded by Phocian Greeks around 600 BC—and I love the ethnic chaos and brawny character of port cities. So I went anyway, and I loved it.
To be sure, La Canebière, Marseille’s most famous street, was scruffy and lined with shuttered hotels and cafés, and the city was obviously the sort of place where you should watch your wallet. But its site is spectacular, and I was captivated by the faded grandeur of its 19th-century architecture and the bustling souk-like market streets around the rue d’Aubagne. I ate well, too, dutifully diving into my first bouillabaisse at the famous port restaurant Miramar and scarfing down a whole pizza at Chez Etienne, the legendary pizzeria in a back street in the charming urban beehive of Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest neighborhood.
But I’d certainly never have described Marseille as a gastronomic destination.
Visiting on and off over the course of the last twenty years, however, I’ve watched the city begin to stir. Les Docks, the 19th-century port buildings that were modeled on those in Liverpool, were renovated and converted into office space, which revitalized the Joliette quarter. La Belle de Mai, an old cigarette factory, became a cutting-edge arts center. With the 1995 election of mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, a variety of other innovative projects were launched, including ambitious center-city residential renovations. When the new TGV Méditerranée was launched in 2001, Marseille was suddenly only three hours by train from Paris, and the city got noticed again, especially by young bobos and, eventually, ambitious young chefs looking for an affordable place in the sun.
Their presence created a new restaurant-going public in the city, and, in a delicious circle, all over town hip new places started to open, catering to the new crowd’s love of bistronomie, or market-driven French bistrot cooking. Occupying a pretty old Provençal house in the residential Prado neighborhood, the recently opened Bistrot d’Edouard speaks volumes about how Marseille likes to eat these days. Chef Edouard Giribone offers a choice of Spanish-inspired tapas—roasted red peppers with garlic, anchovies, jamón ibérico with pan con tomate—along with a couple of main courses determined by what he finds in the market. His signature dish is fideo, the Catalan preparation of vermicelli cooked in fish stock and garnished with shellfish, and he offers a great selection of wines by the glass. “Marseille is embracing its Mediterranean identity again,” says Giribone, meaning that the city is hungry for foods from all of the countries that rim le Grand Bleu.
In a similar vein, the popular Les Akolytes, another hip small bistrot pulls a crowd that’s as young and stylish as the fans of the Bistrot d’Edouard, but coddles them with an assortment of reincarnated old-fashioned Provençal and Marseillais favorites like pieds et paquets (lamb tripe with bacon in a persillade sauce), l’os à moelle (marrowbone), and terrific desserts like runny dark-chocolate tarts with salted-caramel sauce.
If I’ve had many good meals at Lionel Lévy’s Une Table au Sud, it was a dinner at Lauracée two years ago that really tipped me off to what was going on in Marseille. My friend Remi, a native Marseillais who had recently returned home after a long time living in Paris, tipped me off. “C’est super bon,” he said, and he was right. Chef Christophe Négrel, who previously worked at l’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux de Provence and La Fenière in Lourmarin, wowed me: pumpkin soup with white truffles and grilled scallops, roasted Côte Ventoux pork with baby potatoes and crushed olives, nougat glacée with caramelized almonds and amarena cherries.
Aside from L’Epuisette, my long-time favorite Marseille restaurant, I’d never eaten so well in the city, and the food just got better over the course of subsequent visits. Octopus and white bean salad, risotto with grilled razor shell clams, pigeon roasted in honey and sherry—there was always something on the menu that left me elated. I finally met amiable chef Négrel and asked him, “Why Marseille?” “La ville bouge (the city’s on the move),” he said, adding that quantity and price were once as important as quality or creativity when the Marseillais chose a restaurant. “Now I think this city could really become seriously interested in food,” he added, a remark that came to mind when I was there a few weeks ago for the first Gastronomare festival, a weekend food fair sponsored by the Marseille-based Conservatoire International des Cuisines Méditerranéennes.
Five minutes before my train arrived in the city-center Gare Saint Charles, I caught a glimpse of a soaring metal-clad skyscraper off in the distance, a striking change in Marseille’s skyline of low terracotta tile roofs. The building, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is the new headquarters of French container shipping group CMA-CGM, and the flagship of a huge redevelopment of the city’s old docklands being masterminded by Marseille developer Marc Pietri. The plans also include another office building by leading French architect Jean Nouvel and two luxury residential highrises, an idea that a decade ago would have been almost as laughable as the idea of an international food festival in Marseilles.
During the next few days, I barely had time to get to all of the highly praised new places that have opened in the city within the last year or so. An excellent lunch at Le Moment, a trendy new place just off the Rue Nationale, gave me a chance to wonder at how completely this formerly soot-stained Haussmanian boulevard leading down to the docks has been transformed. The section of the street leading to the Place Sadi Carnot is now lined with stylish boutiques—an amazing change from the pawn shops, kebab stands and internet cafes that once occupied the turf—while the rest of the street accommodates a sleek new tramway.
At Le Moment, a two-story space with a Miami Beach look—soap-bubble style lighting fixtures in a white dining room decorated with modern art—chef Christian Ernst plays to a packed house with dishes like millefeuille of scallops and spinach with peanut and preserved-lemon crumble, or his clever modern take on roast lamb—lamb chops stuffed with Rove cheese and en brochette with rosemary. Nearby, I love stopping in for a coffee at the Café Parisien, one of the most beautiful examples of Belle Epoque architecture in Marseille—the wedding-cake moldings are magnificent, and the place is now a hip bistro-café with better-than-average food.
The real finds of this most recent trip, however, were Le Petit Port and Le Café Populaire in the spiffed-up rue Paradis. For years anyone who wanted to do serious shopping headed north to Aix-en-Provence, but now Rue Paradis has emerged as Marseille’s very own Madison Avenue, with a flock of terrific one-of-a-kind boutiques sharing space with internationally famous luxury brand names.
The city’s new beau monde stops by here for lunch or dinner at Le Café Populaire, a beautiful, light-filled space with an open kitchen up front and a very pretty dining room, with a hip decor of industrial lamps and funky flea-market furniture, that overlooks the courtyard garden of the trendy clothing shop next door. We couldn’t resist trying the traditional Provençal treat called panisse (lightly fried bars of chickpea flour) with olives. We followed with caponata (a Sicilian specialty of sautéed eggplant, onions and peppers garnished with plump capers and pine nuts, served at room temperature), grilled sea bass and paccheri alla Siciliana (pasta pockets in eggplant sauce). When I asked the waitress how the squid was prepared, she said that it was grilled in olive oil. “With garlic?” I inquired hopefully. “Non,” she said, adding that the ladies who lunch don’t like garlic—an aversion I found absolutely astonishing in Mediterranean Marseille.
My last night in town, I went to dinner at Le Petit Port, a new address that had been recommended by at least a dozen people during my stay. It’s a pricey cab ride from the center city to Les Goudes, the nonchalantly charming fishing village on the city’s western edge, but the chatty cab driver only confirmed everything I’d been happily picking up during the weekend. “Ici on adore manger,” he said, “et il y a tant de si bons nouveaux restaurants à Marseille” (Here we love to eat, and there are so many good new restaurants in the city). Le Petit Port occupies an old stone boathouse overlooking a pretty little harbor gouged out of the rocky littoral. On a Saturday night, the main room was packed to the rafters with a huge crowd summoned to celebrate someone’s birthday, and we were relegated to a quiet side room with a handful of hungry locals. Things got off to an excellent start with a €20 bottle of white Bouches du Rhône, and after studying the chalkboard menu, we ordered supions (squid) sautéed with garlic and parsley and mixed antipasti of grilled vegetables and a sea bass for two, cooked in a thick crust of rock salt. To my delight, the squid was crisply seared but tender and redolent of garlic, the grilled vegetables were impeccable and the fish was exquisite. No one could describe this meal as cutting edge by a long stretch, and that’s what made me so happy. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—teetering on the cusp of a seriously hip new identity in the 21st century, Marseille remains an endearingly gruff sort of place with a big heart. What’s changed is that it suddenly has an avidly gastronomic palate, a happy reflection of its newly recovered self-confidence and allure. Now’s the time to enjoy the city during this moment of evanescent perfection before it disappears.
Alexander Lobrano’s book Hungry for Paris is published by Random House. website
Le Café des Epices 4 rue Lacydon, 04.91.91.22.69. Lunch €28, dinner €40
Une Table au Sud 2 quai du Port, 04.91.90.63.53. €65. website
Chez Etienne 43 rue de Lorette, 04.91.54.76.33. €30
Le Bistrot d’Edouard 8 rue Jean Mermoz, 04.91.71.16.52. €35
Lauracée 96 rue Grignan, 04.91.33.63.36. €40
L’Epuisette 156 rue Vallon des Auffes, 04.91.52.17.82. €70. website
Le Café Parisien 1 place Sadi Carnot, 04.91.90.05.77. €30.
Le Café Populaire 110 rue Paradis, 04.91.02.53.96. €35
Le Petit Port Lieu dit L’Escalette, Les Goudes, 04.91.72.20.00.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of France Today.
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