One of the many charms of daily French life is the ability to eat and drink well without needing beaucoup bucks. The best place to put this in practice is at a bar à vin.
Since one never drinks alone in France – literally and figuratively – these bars always offer something to snack on. Sometimes, it’s simply a plate of cheese or charcuterie to soak up the wine. Other times there are more substantial plates that alone are worth a visit. The unpretentious Les Buvards, one of our favorite bars à vin in Marseille, exemplifies the latter – an impressive feat since the kitchen is barely wider than a wine barrel.
Fred Coachon and Laetitia Pantallaci’s place sits unassumingly on a corner a few blocks up from the Vieux Port. An oak barrel on which smokers balance their glasses clues you in that there’s vin to be found inside. If you speak French, the name is also a hint. Buvard is slang for someone who likes to drink, born from buvais (to drink) and the French word for blotting paper – though here it’s wine, not ink, to sop up.
As you enter, you’ll be welcomed by tempting scents of sautéing garlic and the delicious dish du jour that Fred is simmering in his enormous orange cocotte, the French essential for slow-cooked dishes. Grab a wooden table bookended by wine bottles or continue to the back bar, where regulars sip their wine next to vintage Billecart champagne ads and posters for indie wine festivals. Raven-haired Laetitia will help you settle in, flitting around the room with ease – as is fitting for a lady who “grew up behind the counter” with parents in the restaurant biz.
This is one of France’s pioneering natural wine spots (it opened in 2007, back before natural wine was trendy), but Fred refreshingly doesn’t shout that from the rooftops. In his eyes, he runs a bar à vin, period. A convivial place where he shares the wine savvy he has gathered from visiting wine fairs, befriending winemakers and working at Part des Anges, a once-iconic Marseille watering hole.
This is one of France’s pioneering natural wine spots…but Fred refreshingly doesn’t shout that from the rooftops.
The shelves are stocked with bottles of passionately crafted wine by small producers, and Fred and Laetitia are happy to guide you through the options, from the earthy Mourvedre from Bandol’s Château Saint-Anne to the lively Le Petit Tétu chardonnay from Bourgogne. And since they often know the winemakers personally, there’s a good chance they’ll provide a backstory as well. Like Sicily’s Aldo Viola, whose Syrah from the wind-swept hills of Trapani is as dynamic as his personality. Les Buvards is also a caviste (wine shop), so you can pick up a bottle for a picnic or a dinner party.
Fred’s cooking blends the hominess of a French grandmother with the pedigree of a culinary school graduate. Broiled duck hearts simply adorned with Maldon salt flakes. A generous wedge of house-made pâté de campagne, whose heft is lightened by an arugula salad. Instead of the usual squishy sausage links, the boudin is deliciously caramelized in a terrine alongside a transcendent purée of whipped potatoes.
Moreover, his friendliness with winemakers flavors these seasonal, locally sourced plates. Plump sabodet sausages are succulently braised in grape must (the skins, stems and juice from the first pressing) that the Beaujolais’ Marcel LaPierre gave him. Everything is prepared behind the bar in a bare-bones kitchen: a salamander (broiler oven), two induction burners, and a giant, enameled cast iron cocotte.
Though Marseille has just a handful of wine bars, Les Buvards remains relatively unknown in spite of its location near the busy port. This might be because the neighborhood is a no-man’s land at night. Yet after one visit, it’s hard to not become one of the regulars – wine lovers, industry folks and friends – who keep returning for the simple pleasures.
If you’re hankering for something late, they serve food up to 11 p.m. or until it runs out. And if you happen to be in town for Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November, come to their soirée to try tasty Gamay, which is far from the plonk that has stained the young wine’s reputation. Just one of the ways Les Buvards makes drinking wine more enjoyable.
This article was originally published on November 20, 2019.
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