Once the stomping ground of sailors and the Corsican mafia, Marseille’s oldest district, Le Panier, has evolved into a tourist hub and creative neighborhood. Its winding streets are peppered with ateliers (like blade smiths, chocolatiers and painters) and the 17th-century facades are canvases for colorful murals. One of them, a powerful black-and-white image of a couple kissing, faces the funky cantine and concept store, Ahwash. Its owner, Amar, commissioned the Alberto Ruce work – a sign of the artistic energy infused throughout his unique place.
Named for the traditional Berber dance in which men and women mix together, Ahwash is a blend of Amar’s worlds – of Morocco and France, of art and cooking. “Eating here is like coming to my house,” he smiles, serving tagines to patrons sitting at vintage tables topped with glowing candles, their dripping wax embodying the restaurant’s romantic and relaxed ambiance.
Everything at Ahwash has a story behind it. Amar’s mom’s cooking inspires the chicken tagine that sings with preserved lemons, turmeric, ginger and cumin. The Tamegroute green clay dishes for sale were sourced on a desert trip near Zagora. A pair of chairs are upholstered in cowhide that the fervent traveler bought in a Marrakesh souk. Even the bathroom door tells a tale, scribbled with the poignant Rudyard Kipling poem, “How to be a Man.”
Pasted between pages of old French comic books, Ahwash’s menu is Moroccan mingled with flavors of France.
Before this chapter of running a restaurant, Amar had various gigs. The self-proclaimed “Berber from Paris” was a sales manager, an insurance salesman and had worked every job in the restaurant business, from dishwasher to cook. His daughter sparked his transition to restaurant owner when she asked him to explain what he did for a living for a school project.
While telling her all about the insurance industry, he realized he wanted more out of life, and to have his work be aligned with his core values: sharing, creating, curiosity, passion, open-mindedness, conviviality and authenticity. These are the ingredients that feed Amar’s soul and his oh-so-personal restaurant that he built from scratch – literally – after a six-month restoration of the old space.
Pasted between pages of old French comic books, Ahwash’s menu is Moroccan mingled with flavors of France. Comforting mains include tagines and the incredibly tender mechoui, slow-roasted lamb shank. Thanks to the wood-fired grill, a leftover from the building’s former life as a chaudronniere (coppersmith), the grilled sardines, merguez and house-made kefta (spiced ground beef patties) are deliciously cooked over open flames.
You get to choose your own accompaniment. Don’t miss the chouckchouka, paprika-spiced sautéed peppers and tomatoes that are similar to Provencal ratatouille, or the decadent Parmesan mashed potatoes that evoke the Parisian bistros of Amar’s past. Bouchara helps him in the kitchen, a cook he chose by “feeling” not by culinary experience. As is the way this romantic rolls.
Alongside the giant communal table and in the attached store, you’ll find goods that Amar brings back from his adventures. Mouth-blown glasses – verre beldi – made from recycled glass, broken-in leather weekender bags, and Chabi Chic argan oil shampoo. French needlepoint bags and leather boots scooped up at French flea markets. You can even buy most of the furniture – except for those pieces t0 which Amar is sentimentally attached.
Ahwash is also ideal for a mint tea or a drink when strolling Le Panier or visiting the nearby Vielle Charité. Savor your beverage perched at the bar, or in the back room reclining on Moroccan pillows around a glass-topped piano. A dreamy setting when the fire is lit.
If you can, call in advance to confirm Amar isn’t off on his latest Moroccan adventure. When you reserve, you’ll arrive to a table with a personalized place card – a stone with your name written on it. We have never felt so welcome.
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