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At the end of a long wooden table, a foursome passes colorful plates of food: mouthwatering meat dumplings in tomato sauce, sauteed zucchini topped with minty yogurt, and rice flecked with cumin. Sitting across from a refrigerator, below a row of fake potted plants and beside shelves stacked with mismatched plates, they could be dining at someone’s house. Which is, in fact, Chez Romain et Marion’s raison d’être.

“We want people to feel honored that they’re dining at an Afghan family’s home,” shares Romain. His mother, Myriam Rahman Ebadi, simmers homey dishes like dâl, turmeric red lentils, and achak, leek ravioli, in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen. Romain mans the front of the house, treating customers with a casual professionalism plus the cheekiness you’d expect from an older brother. Like when he chides customers who leave food with, “I’m near-sighted, but I can still see you haven’t finished your plate.”

Born in Kabul to a French mom and Afghan father, Myriam arrived in Marseille at age 18. Needing work, she suggested, “Let’s open an Afghan restaurant,” but her sisters and husband were worried it would be too hard of an endeavor. After her husband became her ex, the newly liberated Myriam thought the regret of having never tried would be greater than having tried and failed. So, despite “everyone thinking I was crazy,” she finally set up shop in 2007.

Named for the “two loves of my life,” Chez Romain et Marion (the latter the name of Myriam’s daughter) started slowly. Myriam filled the former’s butcher shop (notice the white tiled-walls and metal bar that used to hang carcasses) with thrifted tables and chairs. A handful of Afghan touches – a metal lamp, traditional embroidered cap, and film poster of Les Cavaliers (a 1971 American film shot in Kabul) – have been added over the years.

Romain joined in at the restaurant nine years later. He shares, “My mom told me to stop farting around and come work here,” after seeing how miserable he was at business school. Turns out he had a knack for business on a more personal level. Romain urged his mom to raise the prices, which she had kept super low out of humility (a framed cut-out article on the wall touts the €3.40 deal in 2008 being less than McDonald’s!). He suggested serving three or more customers family style rather than per plate, to speed up serving time and avoid food waste.

Lastly, they extended their hours to be open at night, since Romain had the energy to do so. “Romain brought the Midas touch,” Myriam smiles. Each year together has brought them closer and reinforced their work relationship. “We know what bothers each other, so we avoid bickering,” explains Romain. Myriam chimes in, “We don’t even need to talk.”

Since Chez Romain et Marion “welcomes guests like at family meals,” they serve one dish a day. Monday is kofta, meatballs stewed in tomato sauce. Wednesday is a spinach-fest: spinach and goat-cheese dumplings, steamed spinach and zamarot, tasty green rice cooked in the water that steamed the spinach. Mantou, tender meat-stuffed dumplings, are made for birthdays and weddings in Afghanistan. Here, they are served on Thursday, blanketed in a minty sour cream sauce. Vegetarians will appreciate that there’s always a meat-free option. If you like spice, ask Romain to grab the chili sauce from the refrigerator. It’s actually Tunisian – Afghan cuisine isn’t spicy – which is fitting for Marseille’s large Maghreb community.

After polishing off our plates, Romain asks if we want more. We’re always tempted to go for seconds. Yet, unless we’re really hungry, we have learned that our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs with this filling fare. And we want to save room for coffee and the only dessert, firni, a creamy cardamom custard topped with pistachios. The coffee beans used at Chez Romain et Marion also stem from the Rahman family tree. The local coffee roaster, Brûlerie Moka, is located in a shop formerly run by Romain’s grandmother.

Many of the customers are regulars. Relatively unknown and far from trendy, Romain shares, “[The restaurant’s] biggest strength is word of mouth.” Thankfully, since there hasn’t been a sign out front since the city said the signage wasn’t up to code. But whatever Romain and Myriam are doing seems to be working. Just look at the messages scrawled on the tile wall besides the door. “What marvelous meatballs!”; Can’t wait to come back!”; and, simply, “YUM!” These customers are what keep Myriam and Romain going – especially when the going gets tough.

The Covid-19 pandemic and a huge spike in food costs have forced the mother-son duo to raise their prices three times over the past two years. Before Covid, a plate of food cost €9.50. Now, in 2024, it’s €15. Concerned about alienating their regulars, Romain polled them to find the best solution: the restaurant could stop offering seconds (which come free of charge). They could simplify the menu. Or they could raise the price. One hundred percent of customers polled voted for the latter.

Since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, Marseille has seen an increase in the arrival of Afghan immigrants. Romain points out that these folks “opt to open snack bars over restaurants, since it’s easy money.” Running Chez Romain et Marion day and night with just two people and serving high-quality homemade fare isn’t easy. Nor is it making Myriam and Romain rich. But they have a wealth of fans, as witnessed by the steady stream of regulars. And as one of the rare Afghan tables in Marseille, we’re grateful they welcome us into their home.

Published on April 19, 2024

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