The Best Bites of 2021 in Marseille, France - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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For the first five months of 2021, eating out in Marseille was limited to takeout due to France’s strict Covid-19 measures. Some chefs managed to make magic in to-go boxes. Others became sandwich maestros – including 3-Michelin-starred chef Alexandria Mazzia, who launched a food truck with croque-monsieurs. When we craved company, we’d bring an oh-so-Marseille anchovy pizza and a bottle of rosé to the beach for a convivial picnic.

On May 19, restaurants were finally permitted to offer outdoor dining. Resuscitated, Marseille felt like one big alfresco party, with temporary terrasses sprouting in parking spaces, abandoned alleys, even staircases. After the full opening on June 9, the city exploded. In addition to the locals living it up, there was an influx of Parisians who had relocated south after being cooped up in the pricey capital during the pandemic. Plus, we had a swell of summer tourists even greater than 2020.

A slew of new tables was there to welcome the rush. Certain neighborhoods like Cours Julien and Chave became flush with dining offerings. Established restaurateurs, like Parpaing qui Flotte and La Mercerie, expanded. Thankfully, most of our favorite spots weathered the storm thanks to government aid. Many are still dealing with staff shortages, a problem worldwide.

Intriguingly, France’s great dining amour begat Europe’s highest vaccine rate when President Macron required a health pass (vaccination or negative Covid test) for eating out starting August 9. During the first week, our pass sanitaire was scanned at every Marseille restaurant. Soon after, the checks became less and less frequent. The Marseillais’ rebellious nature – and zest for socializing – as strong as ever.

Here’s a recap of my best bites of the year, from a seafaring burger to a fancy fish meal.

Fish burger at Limmat

In February, a friend and fellow food writer came to Marseille to research an article on the food scene. With the restaurants closed for in-person dining, we had to get creative. Luckily, the pandemic had made local chefs seasoned at takeout-friendly options. Like Lili Gadola at Limmat.

The young chef had built a loyal following for her locavore plates that teemed with local fish and seasonal vegetables from the farmer’s market nearby. She still offered these dishes during the pandemic – but it was her fish burger that got us hooked. On a housemade poppy-seed brioche bun, she stacked a moist merlu (hake) filet, freshly plucked purple and green frisée, and a generous slather of sweet & sour mayo. In a separate container – to keep the burger intact – she put a vinegary, purple cabbage salad and sweet potato fries topped with garlicky aioli.

Everything was deliciously fresh, for we dined just steps away besides Vespas on a cement bench at Cours Julien. The oft bustling courtyard was mellow on this wintry day. But it wasn’t too cold to enjoy our grub. When in-person dining re-opened in May, Limmat scored one of the quirkiest patios in town: the colorful Cours Julien staircase. Becoming one of the best outdoor tables for 2021.

Eating out at Eaux de Mars (or Everything at Eaux de Mars)

After a seven-month ban from eating out, Marseillais were chomping at the bit to return to restaurants. I was torn at where to eat first. An old favorite? A new place on my “to try” list? The answer was chosen for me when my girlfriend, Marion, invited me to lunch at Eaux de Mars. I had been eager to visit this Longchamp spot since its opening. My friends had given it unanimously positive reviews, a rarity for the opinionated French. And one of my favorite chefs had claimed it was “the best food in town.”

We were sat at a sunny patio table. Unaccustomed to going out, Marion forgot her sunglasses. The woman at the table besides us offered to switch places, her tank top a sign that she was eager to catch some rays. With her kind gesture, we were off to a good start. When the waitress took our order, both Marion and I went for the 3-course plat, entrée and dessert, ready to make the most of this homecoming meal.

To start, I had warm, grilled zucchini draped over cool pelardon, local goat cheese. A delightful mix of textures, especially when topped with crunchy granola and squash seeds. Next up were plump, juicy kefta (spicy meatballs), Chef Noémie’s nod to Marseille’s Armenian and Lebanese community. They were accompanied by roasted potatoes and pickled onions, beet ketchup and garlic sauce – all made in house. For dessert, I savored the moistest hazelnut olive oil cake topped with whipped cream and tangerine slices.

At likeminded spots in town, a 3-course lunch starts at 24 euros and has smaller portions. Eaux de Mars’ €20 tab made it even more divine – though we’d have paid double for such delicious grub.

Squid and sea bass at Chez Michel

Reservations often need to be made a month in advance at this iconic fish restaurant. Particularly for the coveted French institution of Sunday lunch. Yet, after our plans to dine outdoors got drenched by the rain, my boyfriend and I popped inside in hopes of a table. Ironically, the surprise downpour played in our favor, for “a couple had to cancel after getting soaked,” explained the maître’ D. “Luckily, I have a table for two.”

He sat us beneath the colorful murals of fishermen docked at the Calanques. Chez Michel has served bouillabaisse and freshly caught delights since 1946. My friend’s parents dined here on their wedding night and their 40th anniversary. The legendary restaurant has lured notable stars for decades – the photo collage on the wall shows Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Aznavour and the like. Our waiter, with his white hair matching his crisp, white blazer, has served them all.

He brought over a shimmering silver loup (sea bass) for our approval. As the chef cooked it on the grill, we nibbled on crostini slathered in rouille (saffron-scented aioli) and squid sautéed in garlic and parsley, a beloved Marseille classic. We sipped on my boyfriend’s favorite white, Château de Pibarnon, from nearby Bandol.  After presenting our whole grilled fish, our waiter deftly fileted it tableside, handing us plates of the succulent fish. As is Provencal tradition, we simply drizzled olive oil and squeezed lemon on top.

Like bouillabaisse, many mythical Marseille restaurants don’t live up to their reputation. Thankfully, Chez Michel bucked that trend. Next time, I’ll even order our famous fish stew.

Pan bagnat at Bar des Amis

The beachside neighborhood of Pointe-Rouge is far from my house. Yet, it also is home to one of my favorite bars du quartiers, Bar des Amis. To nudge myself across town, I need to have a reason – a hike in the Calanques or shopping second-hand wares at nearby Emmaus. When my friend, Vérane Frédiani, was having a signing for her fantastic Marseille Cuisine le Monde (finally a book that celebrates Marseille cuisine!), I jumped at the chance to go.

Bar des Amis is the local bar you wished you had in your neighborhood. Super friendly staff, convivial ambiance, and open nonstop day and night for food and drink. In fact, owners Ivan and Mélanie used to frequent the bar before buying it in 2019. They kept the local vibe while upping the food ante from peanuts and chips. Born in Nice, Ivan was passionate about serving the best pan bagnat in Marseille at BDA.

Here, the niçoise sandwich is at its finest. A fresh bun is slathered with olive oil, then stuffed with sliced hard-boiled egg, canned tuna, anchovies, sliced radishes, celery, tomato, onion and olives. The mix of crunchy raw veggies, briny fish and salty egg makes for the most appealing sandwich. Especially when enjoyed with the sunset over the Mediterranean.

Mantous and Chez Romain et Marion

As I approached Chez Romain and Marion, the pink sign had disappeared out front. I worried they had succumbed to the pandemic. Thankfully, I saw Romain serving customers inside. He explained the sign was just getting fixed.

Romain runs this tiny corner Afghan spot with his mom, Myriam. (The only part his sister, Marion, plays in the restaurant is in its name). Here, the menu consists of whatever Myriam cooks up in the sliver of a kitchen behind the dining room. We were lucky that day, for Myriam had made mantous, beef-stuffed ravioli topped with a tasty yogurt dill sauce. We savored them alongside beef meatballs in tomato sauce, yellow lentils, and white rice.

When we sopped our plate clean with pita bread, Romain asked if we wanted seconds. My friend immediately responded “yes,” patting her pregnant belly. Stuffed, I asked for mantous only, unable to resist the tender ravioli. Nor, the pistachio flan for dessert. As we left, we paused at the white tile wall at the entrance. It was tagged with colorful messages, like at a bathroom stall, yet instead of crude words, customers have scrawled “yum”, “delicious as always,” and “thanks, momma.”

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