Écume is French for sea foam. Modifying one letter, Ekume is also the Saint Victor neighborhood’s new restaurant gastronomique that summons (and is summoned by) the Mediterranean every day. Located near the end of Rue Sainte in Marseille, Ekume’s neighborhood includes a promontory with thrilling views of the waters, boats, coastline and the Vieux Port. The restaurant is also one block away from the 5th-century Saint Victor Abbey, with its evocative beauty and occasional evening concerts.
At first glance, Ekume, with its staid and comfortable décor in tan, beige, and slate blue, seems to correspond to the many bougie restaurants cropping up in the 7th and 8th arrondissements in recent years. The experience of dining at Ekume, however, offers the opportunity to contemplate how space itself can transform with imaginative cuisine, accents, personality, and hospitality. A first sign of this difference is embedded in the décor itself, a subtle placement of Panamanian papier-mâché masks at the bar, and one large mask at the kitchen counter. They are all the more beautiful for being set-off by a sober décor, to be discovered gradually as diners look around. The gastronomic and social experiences of Ekume conform to this model.
We sat down, and our waitress proposed two wine options by the glass. After the meal, none of us could recall the exact fusion of the red from Aix, soon overtaken, as we were, by the pure Syrah we did order (the Accroche Coeur 2021 of Crozes-Hermitage, Vigneron, Vallée du Rhone). Spicy and elegant, it was the most memorable glass of wine we sipped this year. An entrée in and of itself, accompanied by a small basket of whole-grain, sour dough slices. It brought to mind a Provençal elder’s maxim we had once heard: le vin, c’est un aliment – wine, after all, is a food.
The (real) entrée we ordered was a tartelette that housed marinated cubes of muge in a smooth, bright-orange sauce. It was the first time we ate marinated fish – distinct and firm in texture (in its velvety custard) – hidden in a tart. Chef Edgar Bosquez, who originates from Panama, explained that le muge has a poor reputation in Marseille, as folks think it is the fish that swims between boats in the Vieux Port. But it is actually a type of mullet, sourced from the Mediterranean since Roman times, and caught in the high seas by his friends in Le Grau-Du-Roi near Montpellier. Bosquez’s practice of marinating fish, experimenting with texture (cubing, slicing fine), comes from Latin American traditions (most famously ceviche). The tartelette was exceptionally delicious. The caviar-decorated veal that followed, served with jellied red cabbage, was tender, tasty, satisfying. And the deserts inspired us to scrape the bowls clean: a warm rice pudding with an intense, mango-gel topping, and a generous bowl of chocolate mousse with pepites and a surprise layer of raspberry-hibiscus mousse underneath. Both deserts were filling, yet light on the stomach.
By the time diners were ordering their coffees, the servers and chef were well integrated socially into the restaurant crowd. They also visit tables as they work, greeting, smiling, and sometimes briefly exchanging. Chef Edgar just would not stay in the kitchen, and the restaurant gained in magnetism as a result. He is such a nice, friendly fellow, in addition to being a lauded chef who just won the coveted Gault-Millau Jeune Talent (Young Talent) Award for 2022 (and whose restaurant even made it into the Michelin guide). Even so, the entire staff is laidback, creating a warm, family atmosphere. What could have been another stuffy, fancy restaurant, Ekume is a relaxed, sweet place that happens to have a superb cuisine.
Growing up, the chef lived in his grandparents’ home with his parents and siblings in Panama, eating fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. His grandmother was the main cook, as his mother and father worked outside the home (as a school teacher and architect, respectively). His mother was a good cook in her own right, specializing in making bouillon. His father fished with is buddies late Saturday nights, arriving in the wee hours Sunday mornings with his catch. And he always cooked Sunday lunch for the grande famille. His signature dish was “la folie” (crazy-delicious), exclaims Edgar: a traditional fish stew made with chunks of the fresh catch, with rice slow-cooked in bouillon until it was almost melted.
Edgar learned to cook and fish with his cousins early on, but he did not consider developing a career as a chef until he arrived in France at age 17. He had already started studying engineering in Panama when he joined a first cousin, like a sister to him, for what was supposed to be a three-month séjour in France. She convinced him that they should try culinary school and maybe hotel management, and later start a business together back in Panama. But he ended up really appreciating France, the culture and cuisine. He went to culinary school in Lyon, met his wife and married, and would go on to train with star chefs in Lyon, Paris and Marseille, where he finally settled before opening Ekume.
What guides his cooking is the freshness of “le produit,” the products, and he builds his creations around what he procures from sea and farmland (from friends and colleagues instead of distributors). He also has an histoire d’amour with lemon, and uses it frequently to give his cooking just the right balance. Because his creations depend on availability and freshness, he must experiment continuously. He is very instinctive, he insists, which makes him a confident, inspired improviser. “It’s much harder to experiment,” he remarks, but seems to thrive on this spontaneous approach. Recently, for example, he noticed that his fruit and vegetable provider had cases of gorgeous mirabelles. “I hope those are not sold, because they’re mine!” he declared. And from this treasure, he made many kinds of sauces and deserts, sweet and savory.
His cuisine has marked Panamanian accents, but does not limit himself to South American fusion, and focuses on the Mediterranean and Provence. Largely inspired by the new spirit of the cuisine Marseillaise, he also integrates Asian accents, or anything else he feels like trying out. Like the city, he resists rigid definitions, insisting on culinary freedom. “Is Ekume a gastro [gourmet restaurant]? A bistro? Mediterranean?” he says, shrugging, not caring to label his new venture.
But what he does insist on, aside from working with fresh food, is cultivating a people-centered restaurant. The driving values of Ekume are social: family, friends, and hospitality. The chefs and staff achieve this rapport with diners quite effortlessly. Ekume already has regulars that the chefs and staff treat like friends. “You see the table of five behind me?” he asks. “At the butcher’s this morning, I was enticed by a lovely flank of veal. I brought it back with me. When I saw this familiar group of take a table, I said to them, you can order from the menu, or I can make you a special dish with the veal I bought this morning.” Of course, they chose the veal, and he was able to cook up his passion for them, placing a large dish of sauce in the middle of the table. “We feel like we are eating at your home!” Edgar quotes them. Before joining our table, he and a server were standing next to them to chat, and before this, he was sitting with a couple two tables down, exchanging and laughing. When he joined our table, he casually ordered us a couple of coffees, and then a sous-chef exchanged with the German-speaking couple next to us as he passed by.
Ekume is one of a surprisingly short list of restaurants in Marseille with excellent seafood and fish creations. It is also an even rarer restaurant gastronomique with such a casual, friendly atmosphere, happily throwing traditional high cuisine decorum to the wind, imposing its preferred social practice of mingling with the diners. And guests keep coming back for more.
Published on May 10, 2023