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A month ago, I moved into to my new place in Marseille’s La Plaine neighborhood. After the moving truck drove off, leaving me with stacks of boxes and furniture and no food yet in the refrigerator, I ventured out in my dusty jeans to find a place to eat some lunch in the neighborhood. On Rue Saint-Pierre, I passed Oumalala with its homey, hand-written signs offering vegetarian, organic cuisine, and I paused at the door. The olive green, ochre, and turquoise interior, lunchtime-lit candles and small vases of flowers garnishing the tables, the beautiful woman serving food, talking to customers, all pulled me in.

I joined a shared table, and realized I had met one of the diners at a dinner party months before. We started to chat, and I met another man sitting at our table who immigrated from Lebanon and opened a “Mediterranean, and not just Lebanese” restaurant on the square in La Plaine. Soon, the conversation included all the tables at Oumalala, and the owner, Marie Martinery, and her son Antonin behind the counter joined in, talking and joking with us while serving food.

I glanced at the chalkboard and realized the menu contains a single main dish and desert, or the option to order a sandwich. I ordered the cooked food. “I thought so, and in fact I am already serving you,” Marie remarks, placing in front of me a colorful, fragrant plate. “I just look like a main-meal-at-lunchtime kind of person?” I teased, and tasted the steaming chickpea puree with garlic, lemon juice, spices, topped with mixed greens and maple syrup-spiked herbal dressing. The dish included whole baby pea pods, and roasted potatoes marinated in olive oil with a Levantine and Indian spice mix Marie discovered in Saladin, a spice store on Boulevard Canébiere. She passed the jar of orange powder for me to examine, and I guessed it was a mix of ground cumin, sumac, turmeric, and maybe mustard seed. The raw and cooked layers of the dish, at turns warm, soft, crisp and cool, made for a simple, fresh, and satisfying meal.

Dessert was a vegan pudding with fresh berries with a hint of cardamom and orange blossom water. When I ordered a portion, Marie handed it to a couple next to me with a little dog sleeping under the table, and they, in turn, passed it to me, Marie smiling at her unorthodox serving practice. Eating at Oumalala feels like being invited to a friend’s house for dinner.

Fun, interesting conversation turned in the room, and at one point we got Marie to talk of her early theater conservatory training in Belgium, her acting career in Paris, then a move with her then live-in love to Arbois in the Jura to have their babies and to live near nature and celebrated countryside eateries. She eventually started to cook in a local restaurant and was “discovered” by a producer, launching a second acting career. Much later, she started another new life in Marseille and opened up Oumalala just two years ago. No advertising at all, she relies on word of mouth. Her business is gaining one customer at a time, and Marie notes that she finds this method authentic and more secure than the buzz created by media publicity, which often fizzles out in under a year.

Eating at Oumalala feels like being invited to a friend’s house for dinner.

Marie believes in an organic, almost philosophical approach to food preparation, and in openness, creativity, and community. While we ate, I noticed how people from the neighborhood stop in for takeout. Marie hands them food in porcelain plates, and I watched them making off up the street with their meals, as if they’re crossing a dining room to find a seat, apparently used to this (“I find 1-euro plates in the brocantes, the flea markets,” she explains her zero-waste method).

She dares to experiment in a country of relatively conservative eaters (as it goes in some societies with cuisines gastronomiques, people risk cultivating self-satisfied palettes). Yet Marseille’s historically ethnic and social mix, as well as its southern, Mediterranean identity, seems to make for a good playground for culinary experimentation. Inexpensive commercial rents are key, enabling the freedom and time needed for restauranteurs to innovate. The other night, Marie tells us, she made apples oven-caramelized in luscious blue cheese, served with perfumed rice and accompanied with Florian’s selection of white wine (he runs Oumalala’s wine and cheese tasting evenings twice a week). “It was so delicious!” Marie exclaimed, and her son and Florian nod in agreement. “But it is exhausting to be creative for every meal, and I obviously have a repertoire too, but I often invent meals like this with my customers. If it works, I later make it for my family – if I can make out how to reproduce it.” We all laugh at her inverse, insouciant practice (isn’t she supposed to experiment at home first?).

She explains that she has no car, lives in the neighborhood, and buys provisions from the famous Cours Julian Wednesday morning market or from Adele’s on Boulevard Chave. The whole operation seems homey, unfettered. Florian invited me to come present some of my fiction one night at the wine bar, and they regularly host live music and sometimes storytellers. The latest experiment (“le dernier,” as they say teasingly in French), is that Marie plans to collaborate with her San Franciscan neighbor up the street, Alissa Edelman, who just opened up a feminist sex shop. They plan to occasionally organize “des repas erotiques,” erotic meals. “Is this an idea born of your friendship?” I inquire. Marie explained that in fact she got the idea from her mother, who decades ago opened an elegant sex shop in the neighborhood where Marie grew up in Brussels, and later added a restaurant next door, partly combining the two businesses with much success. She says her tiny mother taught her how to stick to her guns and follow-through with ideas that may seem outlandish at first or even encounter social resistance, but often turn out to bring business to an entire neighborhood later, as was the case with her mother’s venture.

Oumalala is decidedly an experience as much as a restaurant with delicious food, a way of living for a few hours as a welcomed local – a part of the house party and happy conversation. I decided to go back for dinner sometime soon with friends, hoping to catch one of Marie’s crazy recipe creation days that she said tend to fall in the latter half of the week (“or sometimes randomly,” she quips).

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Jenine AbboushiMarion Péhée

Published on May 11, 2022

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