If Noailles is known as the “belly of Marseille” for its fragrant food stalls, street food and markets, its neighbor Cours Julien is where locals fill their bellies sitting down. The street-art-splashed buildings house a smorgasbord of restaurants from every corner of the world, including the Ivory Coast, India, Palestine and Peru. Those on the tree-lined cours (avenue) for which the quarter is named get most attention thanks to their lively patios. Yet, there is gastronomic gold to be found on the side streets.
We must have passed by Kaz Kreol a dozen times. Sandwiched between snack bars on the climb to Cours Julien, we had assumed it was another fast-food joint. The sign out front even reads: restaurant rapide tropicale (tropical fast food.) But, when a friend tipped us off that this was a go-to for cuisine Antillais (West Indies cooking), we ventured inside. Giant jars of fruit-infused rum and a straw tiki bar with a “welcome” sign greeted us at the door. Behind it, in the open kitchen, stews simmered on the stove while a woman deftly stuffing boudin sausage on the counter. Nothing resembled fast food.
We soon learned that everything is made in house at Kaz (“house” in Créole) Kreol, from the achard (turmeric and ginger-marinated vegetables) to the petits pâtés Créoles (stuffed beef pastries.) “We don’t outsource anything,” asserts owner Yannick Frontier, pointing out how his accras (salt-cod fritters) aren’t perfect spheres, proof that they were made by hand. What’s more, each dish comes with an array of accompaniments, for a fantastic voyage across the Atlantic – and your plate.
Yannick’s roots are in Martinique. His parents came to France in the 1970s with the wave of other DOM (departement outre-mer – overseas department) residents seeking work and a better quality of life on the mainland. Eager to assimilate, his parents “forbade us to speak Créole at home and cooked French fare during the week.” Yet, on the weekends, his mother would cook flavorful island dishes, infusing her son with a love of cuisine Antillais.
Though Yannick is a Martiniquais, Kaz Kreol’s menu island hops across the French West Indies. “We are neither Martinique nor Guadalupe; we are Antillais,” he explains. Which means plenty of fish and salted cod, and zesty lime, mango and chile pepper. As a Creole cuisine, Antilles’ dishes are a blend of the diverse cultures that have passed through the islands: colombo (curry-spiced chicken) comes from India while alloko (fried plantains) were brought by West Africans. The Caribbean cuisine varies somewhat from the Indian Ocean’s Créole cuisine, though there are crossovers. For instance, the aforementioned accras. (Kaz Kreol’s are the best we’ve tasted in Marseille.)
They are part of the assiette mer, a seafaring combo plate for discovering many Créole flavors. It includes poisson mariné, vinegar-marinated whitefish browned crisp in a pan, alongside sauce chien, oil infused with chives, garlic and parsley that is a common fish condiment. Tasty sides include souskay mangue, diced mango, onion and lime, and féroce avocat, avocado, manioc flour, lime and chile pepper whipped into a delicious purée.
If you prefer meat, the assiette terre (“land” combo plate) comes with a beef stew and pâtés de boeuf, buttery pastries stuffed with ground beef. Popular in the Antilles for Christmas, Kaz Kreol makes these golden-brown beauties all year long – a must-order! Another comforting dish is gratin christophine, a creamy, cheesy casserole made with chayote, a gourd-like fruit used as a vegetable in the Caribbean.
Though Yannick is a Martiniquais, Kaz Kreol’s menu island hops across the French West Indies.
All the recipes are Yannick’s. Yet since he runs the front of the house, he has taught his cooks to recreate them – to “be his hands.” He does so with patience and expertise, having spent 15 years instructing culinary students in a continuing education program. This results in happy cooks and customers who get to eat the winning results.
This includes the bokit, sandwiches made with the most irresistible fried bread baked in house. We like the bokit morue, stuffed with shredded, marinated salt cod, lettuce, onion and tomato. Born in Guadeloupe in the 1960s, these sandwiches actually are descendants of Amerindian Johnny cakes. When a customer besides us orders his “spicy,” Yannick responds, “Are you sure?” The customer explains he’s from Île de Réunion, a Créole cousin, so is accustomed to heat. He better be, for Kaz Kreol’s hot sauce is made with some of the hottest peppers around, Scotch Bonnets. Called bondamanjak in the Antillais, their name – the rear end (bonda) of Madame Jacques (man jak) – comes from the similar plump shape of both the madame’s derrière and the pepper.
If you like heat, order the boudin antillais. The blood sausage is so wonderfully spiced, our friend who doesn’t like the French version can’t resist this recipe. We tasted them at dinner, when Kaz Kreol transforms into a tapas bar that encourages shared plates, Yannick’s preferred way of eating. We kicked off the night with rum drinks – ti’punch (lime, sugar, rum) and punch cacahuète (crushed peanuts and condensed milk) – welcome warmers on the blustery, winter night. Then, our waitress gave us a sheet to check off our desired dishes. We sampled fricassé de chatrou, simmered octopus and kabrit a l’antillaise. For the latter, Yannick breaks down a whole goat, roasts it, then slow cooks it in red wine and spices until super tender.
Making everything in house leaves little time to prepare dessert. Yannick refuses to make an exception to his from-scratch policy and buy them locally – “I can’t do things halfway,” he smiles – so the only dessert is a delicious coconut sorbet. You can also top off the meal island style with a rhum arrangée, fruit-infused rum – which the attentive owner will happily pour for regulars, or as a boozy apology to a customer when a cook forgot the sweet potato fries in a takeout order.
Kaz Kreol’s clientele varies. There are students from the nearby high school and music conservatory during the school year and tourists during the summer. Friends and familiar faces like to come on weekend nights. During one visit, a Trinidadian woman came seeking plantains. Yanick tells us that the city’s Central African immigrants appreciate his spiced food. “I’m here to share cooking with everyone, not just the Antillais.”
He’s smart to do so, for Marseille’s community of this particular brand of islanders is small since most relocate to Paris or Lyon. Yannick dreams of the reverse – moving to the Antilles. Yet, since work is scarce there, he has stayed put, opting to transplant island cuisine and culture here. The hardworking owner admits running a restaurant is challenging. He hasn’t had time to focus as much on the décor as he’d like. But, he brought coconut plants from Guadalupe in the front window. And he is transforming Kaz Kreol’s upstairs into a bar and intimate concert space. Carving a discreet island oasis amid the Cours Julien bustle, one bokit and boudin at a time.
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Published on February 07, 2022
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