When France’s confinement forced many businesses to shutter, certain Marseille restaurants, cafés and bars found a way to keep busy. Some made meals for healthcare workers or packed their dishes in to-go containers. Others became pick-up points for produce-filled paniers from local farms, or makeshift épiceries – topping tables with artisan foodstuffs, booze and flowers.
Like other cities across the globe, home cooking became the rage. A constant line snaked from the Monoprix on the sidewalk below my balcony. The owner of my organic market said they’ve never been busier since people had “more time to cook” and “less places to eat out.” I joined the culinary masses, making time-consuming comfort food like slow-roasted lamb and chicken stock. Monotonous tasks like peeling fava beans became meditative rather than annoying. To connect to my sister from afar, I baked carrot cake, banana bread and other American desserts.
The joy of cooking started to wane after two months. When the first phase of déconfinement was enacted on May 11, more restaurants began to offer takeout to weary home cooks. Marseillais started throwing intimate dinner parties, the hosts delighted to have new mouths to feed and the guests thankful to have a break from meal planning. Even more than the food, people were most excited to share – and to experience the joie de vivre of gathering around the table that is synonymous with French cuisine.
Marseillais started throwing intimate dinner parties, the hosts delighted to have new mouths to feed and the guests thankful to have a break from meal planning.
“I always direct people to the French word ‘restauration’, meaning to restore, from which the word restaurant comes,” writes Jay Rayner. The Observer’s feature food writer recently extolled how restaurants, particularly French ones, are much more than what you find on the plate. We also dine out for the ambiance, the décor and the service that implies “I’m here to look after you and make sure you leave happier than when you came in.”
As France’s second-largest city, Marseille teems with the French dining experiences that Rayner is dreaming of – though not in the clichéd bistro way. The Mediterranean port’s fish restaurants serve their daily catch just steps from where it was fished. The pizzerias are perfumed with wood-fired ovens that char our pies to perfection. Thanks to the city’s wealth of multicultural eateries, you don’t need a plane ticket to dine in Vietnam, Armenia or a Berber village.
On June 2, the second phase of life after Covid-19 begins as restaurants, bars and cafés will finally reopen. First up for me, a trip to Chez Etienne for the sautéed squid, vampire-killing salade a l’ail, anchovy pizza and the familiar sass of the waitstaff. Next stop, Boîte à Sardine, for Fabien’s energetic welcome and whatever Céline has cooked up (fingers crossed sardine boulettes or tuna tartare.) To see what other Marseillais have missed during lockdown, I asked chefs, food writers and restaurant owners to share what they’re craving.
Devaky Sivadasan is eager to eat at a place close to her heart. The bubbly owner of Mama Spice, a Marseille spice company that blends Provence and Indian flavors, discovered the cozy French bistro L’Arôme three months after she moved to Marseille. She instantly hit it off with chef Romain and his wife, a huge fan of India. It became “another home for me,” shares Devaky, “they even catered my wedding although they had never done anything like that before!” Romain was the first person to taste Mama Spice, which will soon open a restaurant/shop/cooking atelier in the 6ième. When asked what she wants to order first, Devaky enthuses, “um, everything.” But she eventually lands on the cromesqui, a breaded and fried croquette stuffed with ground beef, as her first bite.
Guilhem and Victoria, owners of the natural wine bar Le Bec du Coq, dream “multiple times a week of the pig’s feet at Shanghai Kitchen,” a popular Chinese spot on the Vieux Port. “It’s the ideal mix of an original texture and heavily-spiced flavor,” shares Victoria. “Plus, it’s impossible to cook at home.” The young couple also can’t wait for the couscous poisson (fish couscous) at Chez Yassine, the “not-to-miss Tunisian spot that lures Marseille foodies at every hour.” The couple continues: “Before or after a swim in the sea, we crave the harissa’s spice, the veggies’ freshness and the saltiness of the grilled fish.” They can’t imagine a better way to return to the city’s dining scene than sitting at Chez Yassine’s patio watching the street scene of the Rue d’Aubagne and, of course, the Marseillais, whom they’ve missed hosting in their cozy bar.
Another wine bar owner, Laetitia Pantalacci of Les Buvards, has her heart set on seafaring plates: “I’m yearning for the aioli at Une Table au Sud.” At this Michelin-starred spot, young chef Ludovic Turac reinterprets the southern French classic – the sauce is usually presented with a selection of seasonal vegetables and fish – as something more exquisite, with cod brandade, ribbons of veggies and garlicky mayo atop squid ink focaccia. Another garlicky dish on Laetitia’s must-eat list is a bourride, a bouillabaisse-style soup whose broth is flavored with aioli. Her favorite address for this dish is the Grand Bar des Goudes, where Marseillais spend languorous Sunday afternoons on the terrace above a small fishing port.
Perched at the southern tip of Marseille, the fishing village of Les Goudes tempts another Laetitia. Mademoiselle Visse’s table of choice is the Auberge de Corsair “Chez Paul” for “its warm welcome, its fantastic fresh fish and the ice-cold limoncello” that wraps up a meal. Having cooked throughout the confinement at beloved beachside hangout Bar des Amis, the young chef is looking forward to being “waited on, to letting someone else take charge of the menu and to lingering at a table for hours chatting” with her friends. Laetitia has plans to soft-open her first place, Ripaille, near Castellane, this week – which means limited time to eat out for now.
My friend, Clarisse, struggled to think of a first bite. The cook at Epicerie l’Idéal – who spent the last month of lockdown stocking the epicerie’s mouthwatering paniers – realized it’s because she’s craving a drink. And not just any sip, but a cocktail at Gaspard for “the bartender who knows me by name, the velvet stools, the hushed bar and the tiny wasabi nuts that accompany each drink.” Her first drink at one of the city’s best cocktail dens will be a Concombre Masqué (Masked Cucumber.) This G&T with cucumber, Szechuan pepper and basil was the bar’s bestseller even before the popularity of tonic drinks soared due to the false claims that they fought off the coronavirus.
But many are salivating for the food itself, highlighting the ingredient-driven nature of Provençal cuisine. Pierre Psaltis, who helms the Le Grand Pastis food blog, dreams of a meal that meanders between Marseille and Provence. He’d start dipping carrots into an anchoïade – the pungent anchovy spread served at apéro – made with glugs of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) olive oil from Aups. Next, the long-time food writer is “dying for a pan bagnat made with bread from my favorite boulangerie, Pain Pan, and slices of jambon cru from my local butcher, Greg.”
Pierre pairs his dream dinner with a bottle of rosé from my friend Régine Sumiere (Chateau Barbeyrolles) in St. Tropez. For dessert, he opts for Marseille’s popular panisses, chickpea fritters, but instead of salt, he’d sprinkle them with sugar. Though Pierre was the restaurant critic for La Provence for two decades and surely has a number of favorite spots, he’s hankering for a sunset picnic at the Bonne Mére, the city’s monumental church that boasts a 360-degree panoramic view. But he prefers the steps, rather than the grass, like many did during lockdown.
Editor’s note: As our cities begin reopening and adapting to the new normal in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, we are asking CB team members as well as chefs, journalists and food personalities to share the meal they are most looking forward to eating in our new “First Bites” series.
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