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Rue Fontange is a narrow street with small, inspired businesses that seem to complement one another. The vitrine of Vinyl is lavishly covered in white-marker script, through which we can still see wine, records, and meals by Oumalala (now serving here); across the street is Gallery Charivari, which when we visited was featuring Syrian artist Khaled Dawwa’s astonishing sculptures from his Compressés series, different takes on a heavy man slouching into a chair; further along lies the fine book selection of Histoire de l’oeil, with its garden and cabanon out back, a small red shed we can also see if we walk straight through Caterine restaurant next door to its dining patio, which feels like a continuum of the same garden.

After knocking around this inventive corner of Marseille’s Notre-Dame-du-Mont neighborhood, it seemed fitting to wander into Caterine for lunch. A relatively new restaurant, it opened a year and a half ago during the pandemic, and still maintains a take-out service. We thought it may drizzle, so we took a table inside. Its long, narrow interior mirrors those of neighboring businesses, all housed in small trois fenêtres Marseillais buildings – the city’s three-window version of brownstones. Caterine’s family-style tables are separated from the equally spacious kitchen by a long, wide counter. We get to watch the bustle and chatter of chefs Marie Dijon and Eugénie Cenatiempo, along with their coworkers, as they prepare our food. Once ready, they call us or smile in our direction, and place on the counter our orders served on large, rimmed trays. Whether sitting inside or out, we set our own places and bus our tables, placing the trays on a large cafeteria rack once we are done, taking us back to school days. Here we briefly experience the back kitchen’s heady aromas, emanating from large roasters of appetizing vegetables and other creations, put together by a young interne, the chefs and assistants, who move comfortably through the kitchen, back to front.

Clearly, a founding concept of Caterine is to intermingle: gourmet cuisine and canteen, dining area and kitchen, diners and chefs (we notice how they sometimes munch along with us, as in some high cuisine Parisian restaurants with an open kitchen). The food is high quality, beautifully presented. A two-course meal with wine costs around 30 euros per person, and three courses with wine nearly 40 euros. Even so, we fetch our water glasses, forks, and spoons, and we all dine in close proximity. Caterine, then, brings two worlds together, with high-end food served in a personable place, where chefs and staff members come around to the front of the counter pour faire la bise (kisses on both cheeks) with friends stopping by to get a meal. The atmosphere is warm, and it is decidedly fascinating to watch the goings-on of this professional kitchen as we chat and dine.

Few restaurants interpret the farm-to-table movement quite like Caterine. Dijon muses that her aunts, parents, and “that whole generation” were always peeling, coring, discarding, and finally cooking up only a portion of their fresh produce. To our surprise, the roasted scallions set artfully over our squid, both lightly charred, are whole – not only unpeeled but including the roots. Other accompanying vegetables, like fennel, seasoned and roasted, are also left as untransformed as possible. Dijon and Cenatiempo, good friends who both trained at Marseille’s Bonneveine culinary school, take “waste not want not” to new heights. Ecologically-minded, they cook the whole food, motivated by the goodness of their fresh produce. Cenatiempo likes to make broths in-house, for example, from leftover vegetable parts.

We ordered a petillant, lightly bubbly orange wine from Caterine’s small, select list, made from seven cépages, or grape varieties. We gladly picked up a basket of sourdough bread to nibble on while we sipped our wine and waited for our meals. The roasted squid we ordered, so delicious, was not necessarily the only center of interest in our dishes. In the French culinary tradition, the seafood or meat remains center-stage, and all else is accompaniment. But we found all sorts of hidden treasures in our squid dishes, sprinkled with just the right amount of hot pepper flakes to make it all addictive: garlicky potato purée, a roasted orange half (along with the fennel and scallions), a peanut sauce, a broth reduction of smoked fish and clams, a condiment of ginger, pastis, “and…almond, I think it is,” adds Cenatiempo, trying to recall the details of what we ate.

They change the menu once a week, and cook up something new once they check with distributors to find out what is available. But they rarely ever repeat exact dishes, and have few recipes written down. The beautiful mold of orange flan topped with homemade candied orange peel is one Caterine classique they did write down. Good: served with coffee for dessert, it was so delicate and satisfying that we plan to stake it out again soon.

When asked what cuisines and places have influenced them, Dijon and Cenatiempo answer, simply, “Marseille” – implying that they can adapt what they wish from the different home cuisines in this immigrant city where they both grew up. Dijon cooked in a hotel in Essouara, Morocco, and loved the town, but otherwise they have always tried out different cuisines all around them in Marseille. After culinary school, the two chefs took different routes – Marie cooking in étoilée venues, and Eugene taking on Marseille bistros, but their current creations at Caterine “resemble Marseille,” as Marie puts it. Indeed, Caterine embodies Marseillaise nouvelle cuisine: free, colorful and with zing.

Jenine AbboushiMedi Musso

Published on April 25, 2023

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