Editor’s note: We’re celebrating another year of excellent backstreets eating by reflecting on our favorite meals of 2019. Starting things off is a dispatch from Alexis Steinman, our Marseille bureau chief.
This year began with a bang, when Marseille nabbed a coveted spot on the New York Times’ “52 Places To Go in 2019” list. Written by food writer Alexander Lobrano, the blurb lauded the city’s ever-expanding food scene.
Throughout 2019, new restaurants opened, captained by chefs who trained at local tables, first-timers emboldened by the city’s entrepreneurial energy and Parisians seeking sun and the easygoing vibes that go along with it. The edible offerings spilled into the street, with pétanque (a French game of boules) parties fed by food trucks, markets featuring local purveyors and the super-sized yearlong MPG 2019 festival that celebrated a gastronomic year in Provence, complete with dinners, expos and soirées centered on food.
Yet as Marseille swelled with more eating options and an increase in tourism, the classics of wood-fired pizza and fresh-from-the-sea shellfish were as beloved as ever. A sign that this 2,600-year-old port is firmly anchored in tradition – and that no-fuss cooking is still the locals’ preferred way to dine.
Here were some of my favorite bites that I savored across this sprawling city, from the beach to a secret garden.
Oursins in Sausset-les-Pins
Picturesque coves and coastal villages stretch along the Côte Bleue, a short (and stunning) train ride away from Marseille. Packed in the summer with beachgoers from near and far, the winter is the season for seafood, especially oursins, the local sea urchins. The best, and most festive, way to taste them is at an oursinade.
In January, we joined the crowds in Sausset-les-Pins, which hosts their Fêtes de la Mer every Sunday of the month. You can choose your own crustacean adventure: book a table on the patio of one of the boardwalk restaurants or buy a platter of seafood from one of the fishermen or poissoniers (fishmongers) to have a makeshift picnic. We opted for the latter, grabbing bread from a nearby market and convincing one of the restaurants to sell us a bottle of local white.
Sprawled on the big limestone boulders along the port, we slurped briny oysters, dunked bulots (whelks) into aioli, and scooped the tasty urchins with plastic forks. Unlike the yellow uni found in Japanese sushi restaurants, the Mediterranean oursins are bright orange, with a sweetness that makes them more approachable than their pungent Asian relatives.
A marching band provided an upbeat soundtrack as it wove through the throngs. Since it was a wonderfully balmy day, some people took post-prandial naps beside us, sunning like seals on the rocks. We were lucky to have my boyfriend’s place a stumble away for our siesta.
David Mijoba’s Farm-to-Table Cuisine at Jogging
I first fell for David Mijoba’s food at an idyllic winery dinner. Next to rows of grenache grapes, he seared tuna steaks and the prettiest purple eggplants on cast iron grills. At the time, he was chef at Bistro CAM. Now, he cooks at events and pop-ups while he hunts for his own brick-and-mortar space.
In June, he was in residence at Jogging, a hip fashion boutique whose back patio becomes an al fresco bistro each summer. Returning to the culinary roots of the building’s former tenant, a butcher, the secret garden has become a stage for talented toques to preview plates they’ll serve at their future restaurants. Its verdant outdoor kitchen is a dream setting for the farm-to-table Mijoba, and for a ladies’ lunch with my chic friends.
As amicable as he is adept, Mijoba brought us a few slivers of poutargue (the local delicacy of dried red mullet eggs) to welcome us. While the zucchini flowers stuffed with roast eggplant and split pea falafel were veggies at their finest, I can’t stop thinking about my omnivorous main, a version of veal with mushrooms: How the decadent broth had the richness of a million mushrooms (cèpes) with the lightness of foam, and the most tender braised veal (veau) melted inside its caramelized crust.
We saved room to share the Reine Jane tart with mirabelle sorbet, a double feature of summer plums. Slicing and sautéing solo beneath the garden’s plane tree, nature-loving Mijoba seemed right at home. I can’t wait to see where he ends up in 2020.
Seiches à la Provençale at Bar Nautic
One of the tried and true dining rules is that fresh fish tastes better when paired with a waterfront view. When you get to arrive to the restaurant by boat, it’s downright sublime.
To make the most of a visit by my brother and his family in June, we rented a boat to tour the turquoise coves of the Calanques National Park. Concerned about my fair-skinned niece becoming a lobster in the sun, we booked a shady lunch at Bar Nautic, a fish shack found at the mouth of the Calanques de Morgiou.
On the patio above the tiny port peppered with colorful wooden boats, we ordered a Mediterranean feast fresh from the sea. My nieces opted for squid ink pasta that turned their mouths hilariously black, while my brother, his wife and I shared grilled sardines and seiches à la provençale. Swimming in garlic and parsley just as we had done in the salt water before, the squid was sublime.
The adults cooled off with glasses of white wine from nearby Cassis – chilled with ice cubes per southern custom – while the kids devoured artisanal ice cream. As we dined, a sweaty fisherman arrived, proudly clutching his catch – a shark-like dogfish – between his two hands. No doubt a sneak preview for the plat du jour that evening.
Chorizo Pizza at Pizza Titi
It was a sweaty night in July, too hot to turn on the stove. Between family visits and visits to my boyfriend’s dad in the hospital, we were also exhausted. “Let’s go to L’Estaque,” he suggested, the seaside neighborhood ideal for an in-town escape.
My plan to take the RTM ferry – the public transit boat that goes from the Vieux Port to L’Estaque for €5 (the cheapest boat ride in town) – was thwarted by the mistral winds. So, my beau scooped me up to drive to Marseille’s northern tip. The moment we saw the bright red and yellow Pizza Titi truck, our dinner plans were sealed.
Parked by the marina and main drag of the fishing village of L’Estaque, Pizza Titi serves up wood-fired pizzas – yes, there’s a wood-fired pizza oven in their truck, a common set-up in Marseille – to a steady stream of locals every night. We ordered a chorizo pie from Thierry, grabbed cans of beer from the Carrefour market, and found a place along the esplanade where we could dangle our feet above the water.
As we munched oozing Emmenthal and chorizo slices, kids cannonballed fully clothed into the water and men dangled fishing lines, perched on their plastic buckets as makeshift stools. For an encore to this summertime street scene, the sky turned pink as we polished off the last slices. Another meal à la bonne franquette (no fuss) that proved less is more in Marseille. Especially when the Mediterranean is in plain sight.
Mousakhan Chicken at Mouné
A fan of za’atar, baba ghanoush, and all things Levantine, I made a beeline to this Lebanese cantine the week it opened in September. The first to arrive, I was immediately greeted by Mouné’s smiling owner, Serje, who excitedly responded in English the second he spotted my accent. “I rarely have a chance to speak English in Marseille,” he said, explaining that he learned French when wooing his partner, Nadja, who is also the chef at Mouné.
Joined by two marseillais friends who happened to be Anglophone (to Serje’s delight), we ordered almost every dish on the small menu, which has both the familiar (mouhamarra, red pepper and walnut purée) and dishes to discover (meshi selek, stuffed chard). The hit of the table was the plat du jour: mousakhan. This Palestinian roast chicken was coated in dried sumac berries with a lemony tang and served on a thin flatbread to soak up the juices. I was envious of my friend’s order – luckily he had adopted my American practice of sharing.
Nadja came out to see what we thought, the new chef genuinely eager for our opinion as she tested out recipes. With Serje proudly hugging her and her mom, who was helping in the kitchen, you could feel the love – in the food and throughout the restaurant. This warmth has been a common ingredient in the batch of new restaurateurs in Marseille, a sign that it hasn’t lost its southern charm as it expands.
Just before leaving, Serje gave me a tiny tinfoil package filled with sumac. Sharing the joy of cooking, from their table to mine.
Bun Rieu at Nguyen-Hoang
Since moving to Marseille in 2017, I’ve had Nguyen-Hoang on my to-try list. November’s cold snap and a pestering cold lured me to the family-run, lunch-only spot, searching the comforting pho that had soothed me as a Seattleite. My friend and I arrived early to avoid the usual lines, which tend to be longer when the outdoor tables are shut for the season.
Having not had Vietnamese food for ages, we wanted to stuff our faces with everything on the menu. The owner urged us to get the daily special: bun rieu. New to us both, the soup came with loads of fresh crab, slivers of pork, and rice noodles in a porky tomato broth. Loaded Mediterranean crab and Provencal tomatoes, the locavore soup was apt for slurping near the sea, especially when paired with crispy shrimp ravioli and a blistered báhn xèo shrimp crepe that we wrapped with mint, jalapeno and lettuce to dip in tangy nuoc cham fish sauce.
When we went next door to pay (customers can only move between the two separate dining rooms by going outside), the owner’s son asked us how we ended up at Nguyen Hoang. “I saw you on Instagram,” I replied, clarifying that in spite of our American accents, we were locals, not tourists. He explained that ever since their mention in (another) NYT piece in October, they’ve had a wave of Anglophones visit. He was flattered by the international recognition – and at Marseille’s new role on the world’s stage.
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