Forget poodles carried by facelifted matrons – Marseille is the feisty French Riviera, gritty rather than glam. Despite its own splendid facelift, this is France’s brashest and most boisterous city.
As a boys’ town, Marseille celebrates macho food, from wine-soaked beef stews to barely-dead seafood. Stylish restaurants lie cheek-by-jowl with lip-smacking bouillabaisse bistrots and brain-sozzling pastis bars.
Since its recent revamp, this rough diamond is looking more polished. From the ravishingly restored Old Port to the sleek gourmet restaurants, the city has never glittered more brightly.
Yet Marseille will never be a tame, pastel-coloured Riviera resort. The Marseillais prefer pastis to pastels and pooches, downing intoxicating aniseed-based aperitifs as a prelude to yet another macho fish stew.
Bouillabaisse is the city symbol. In Le Miramar restaurant, chef Christian Buffa can teach you his secret recipe. Chef Buffa is a traditionalist, so the grandiose fish stew is savoured by the quayside, with diners seated on plush burgundy banquettes.
The rich soup is served in a crouton-topped tureen, along with a plate of fish prepared before your eyes, and is accompanied by a Provençal garlic and saffron rouille sauce. One secret is to drizzle the soup with pastis before serving and according to Buffa, it’s not cheap.
“A real bouillabaisse uses at least four kinds of fish,” he says. “We use six to three kilos of rockfish, monkfish, John Dory, red mullet, at €30 (US$32) a kilo.” So what’s in the cheap versions I’ve spotted? Buffa shrugs – as if to suggest it’s sea slugs. Book foodie tours and cooking classes at the Marseille tourist office (+33 4 86 09 50 34; www.marseille-tourisme.com).
The stunning landscape of Marseille
Even though you can get a bouillabaisse hamburger and a bouillabaisse milkshake, Marseille is not just about the fish. Tripe and tapenade (olive spread) are also typical, as are stuffed vegetables, basil-infused soupe au pistouand aïoli, a main course eaten with a sauce of garlic, oil, egg yolks and lemon juice.
The most beguiling foodie trails explore the Old Port and Le Panier. Marseille’s ancient quarter, Le Panier, once the biggest red-light district in the Mediterranean, rises up in a tangle of steep alleys behind the port. Tiny craft shops and cafés are crammed into crooked spaces. The largely pedestrianised Vieux Port has been the stomach of the city for two-and-a-half millennia.
Tuck into boat-shaped, orange-blossom-flavoured biscuits blessed by the archbishop every February at Four des Navettes bakery (136 Rue Sainte; +33 4 91 33 32 12; www.fourdesnavettes.com). Then it’s time for a Provençal rosé or a powerful slug of pastis in Cours Estienne d’Orves, once an arsenal for thirsty galley slaves.
Consider coming for the June European football championships, which will be staged in Marseille. This football-mad city knows how to celebrate the southern lifestyle. Non-footy fans should come back for the cool creeks, fearsome seafood, funky architecture and fun people. You might even meet the mayor over a bouillabaisse.
Jean-Claude Gaudin, mayor of Marseille for the last 20 years, must be doing something right – even if he simply says: “Loving Marseille is like loving life.” The mayor, as big-hearted as the city, wisecracks: “There are only two kinds of people in the world – the Marseillais – and those who wish they were.”
Alexandre Mazzia is the hottest new chef on the block, a madcap magician recently rewarded with his first Michelin star. Combinations like “fusion” and “flowers” may provoke panic in some diners, but suspend your disbelief and ready yourself for such taste explosions as “nasturtium leaf, crabmeat, eggnog, cucumber, lemon caviar and wasabi”.
The restaurant, set in a chic residential neighbourhood, reveals a minimalist mix of smoky slate and wood. Zen meets Le Corbusier brutalism beside a show kitchen where the tortured Mazzia toils away. Adventurous, architectural dishes are assembled at the table. Set menus are replaced by culinary forays to the far reaches of safety.
The cooking is a cutting-edge fusion of French, Nordic and Asian, with tasting menus encompassing six to 16 small dishes. Often compared with the trailblazing Pierre Gagnaire, Mazzia recently won Gault & Millau’s prestigious “Tomorrow’s Greats” award, and “Best Restaurant in Provence and the Riviera”.
The chef doesn’t depend upon the tired staples of truffles and foie gras to make his case for gastronomic pre-eminence. Bring on the suckling pig with aubergine and meat broth or “crispbread with vegetables, iodine balm, pepper, shiso, marinated trout roe and smoked milk”.
9 Rue François Rocca; +33 4 91 24 83 63; www.alexandremazzia.com
A masterly chef is at the helm of the InterContinental Marseille, set in an historic building on the port’s north side. The cooking is as shipshape as the hotel and is also closely connected with the sea. The seafood dishes start in the fish market in the Vieux Port, with the menu changing according to the tides and seasons.
Lionel Levy served time with Alain Ducasse and is currently striving for his second Michelin star. The bouillabaisse consommé is a nod to the city’s gutsiest dish and comes with raw and cooked seafood, ranging from grilled rockfish to mussels, baby clams and squid.
Levy’s signature dish, the bouillabaisse milkshake, is served as a starter in the hotel brasserie, Les Fenêtres. Here, his playfulness is reined in but the creativity survives: red mullet comes with a black-olive dip and potato crunch. A star dessert is the Sixty-nine Percent Dark Chocolate, its nutty bitterness enhanced by hazelnut ice cream.
The chef’s motto is “Mediterranean gastronomy true to the spirit of Marseille”. The dishes deliver: unfussy but full of flavour, they are matched by warm, unsnobbish service and seductive views towards the city’s beloved basilica.
InterContinental Marseille - Hotel Dieu, 1 Daviel Square; +33 4 13 42 43 43; www.ihg.com
Le Petit Nice - Passedat
Gérald Passédat is Marseille’s only three-Michelin-starred chef and is busy carving out a small Mediterranean seafood empire here. His flagship is this neoclassical family villa beside the sea. It boasts of being “five minutes from the city centre but 100 kilometres from the noisiness”.
Wrap-around windows frame the Mediterranean, Passédat’s daily inspiration. The catch comes straight from the boat to the kitchen, with 65 types of fish in all, from seabream to moray eel. As a chef at the top of his game, Passédat prizes instinct, intensity and the iodine-infused flavours of the sea.
His bouillabaisse is a three-part tribute to his birthplace: shellfish as a prelude, then fish in broth followed by deep-water fish in a rockfish soup. Provençal vegetables feature highly while the butter-free, palate-cleansing desserts favour exotic fruit concoctions.
The adjoining Le Bar 1917 serves classic food, such as Provençal-style oven-roasted fish or even posh fish and chips. In the port area, the chef also runs a cookery school and several other restaurants, including Le Môle Passedat at the Mucem, a panoramic restaurant in the Museum of Mediterranean Civilisations.
Anse de Maldormé, Corniche JF Kennedy; +33 4 91 59 25 92; www.passedat.fr
Une Table, Au Sud
Ludovic Turac is the new kid on the block, a local boy who won his spurs in some of the best Parisian restaurants before being tempted back home. Marseille’s culinary merry-go-round saw Lionel Levy leave Une Table, Au Sud for Alcyone, with Turac installed in his former kitchens.
After less than two years in this hotspot, the 27-year-old chef has been awarded his first Michelin star, becoming this year’s youngest Michelin-starred chef. Seafood might reign supreme but the Mediterranean hinterland is reflected in the zesty Provençal vegetables and aromatic olive oil, as well as in meat from the southern Alps.
The setting is charming, overlooking the Vieux Port and La Bonne Mère, “the good mother”, the lofty neo-Byzantine basilica that is considered the city guardian. The intimate, family mood is not manufactured: the chef’s wife, Karine, acts as both sommelier and maître d’.
As for the wine list, rather than slavishly stocking the big names, the sommelier prefers to cultivate the winemakers themselves, including Provençal estates. A Saturday-morning cookery course, including food and wine pairing, is the perfect introduction to southern French cuisine – and, best of all, ends with a convivial Provençal feast.
2 Quai du Port; +33 4 91 90 63 53; www.unetableausud.com