Sunday, 30 August 2015

Affordable Marseille and Cassis restaurant tips

To bouillabaise or to not bouillabaise, that is the question. Or was certainly my question when planning a trip to Marseille and Cassis. Bouillabaise is a 'must do' according to many blogs and guidebooks - the signature dish of the area. But boy is it pricey - a bouillabaise ceremony starts at about 45Eur, high in price because of the rare fish that need to go in, only found in this part of the Mediterranean.

After consulting our Marseille guru, British-born but Marseille-based restaurant and architecture critic Jonathan Meades (well, we googled his views on it), we decided to skip the tourist traps and see what good things were on offer. 

High on our list was North African food, and we followed a Jonathan Meades tip to Le Souk on the Old Port. In any other city you'd expect there to be little to recommend in such a prominent spot, but Marseille is wonderfully low key like that - no sign of droves of tourists in our late June trip. The menu has all sorts of mezze and grills, but this place is all about the tagines and cous cous. We ordered a delicious mixed mezze platter, but it did too good a job at filling us up before our generous mains.

I went for a sweet'n'sour tagine (pure savoury is also an option): duck with figs, prunes, honey and onion. IT came with two confit duck legs, and the thickest, sweetest, richest sauce you can imagine. The figs and prunes gave it a real intensity, and only pungent meat like duck and lamb feature on the sweet/sour menu because anything else would get lost amongs the flavours. Toasted almonds cut a crunchy, earthy taste through it, contrasting nicely with sprinklings of icing sugar. The cous cous itself was fluffy with a crunch and a lovely plain vessel for this intense dish.

I also tried a classic cous cous stew - which was served in all its component parts - chicken, cous cous, a light and watery broth, with stewed vegetables, soaked sweet raisins and chick peas. It was simpler and lighter and every item sung for itself. Mains cost from 12€ to 18€.

Le Souk Marseille, 98 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille, +33 4 91 91 29 29.

'Neo bistro' is your search term if you're looking for something a bit more modish and cheffy, and when the Euro's as affordable as it is in Summer 2015 you can get some pretty good value in Marseille. I agonised over which neo bistro to try on our trip, but settled for Cafe des Epices, just a block back from the Old Port. The tables are spread over a large square, surrounded by massive potted olive trees. It felt a little less in-the-know than other spots, with a few guidebooks on the tables and a few bigger parties. Our table was at 8pm, and the place was deserted when we arrived, but every table was full by 9, which is worth noting for reservations.

The forumle is set at 45€, includes some delicious bread and olive oil, and a selection fo 4-5 dishes at each course. I had major food envy of my partner's gazpacho-like dish - the most perfect, zingy, cool tomato base laced with top drawer olive oil, with confit tomatoes, stunningly good smoked mozzarella, olives and a parmesan crisp.

My sea bass tartare was fresh and cut with an Asian inspired sesame dressing. It was good, but I wish I'd had the gazpacho.

Not to worry - I won on the mains, with an exceptional lamb and aubergine dish. There was so much lamb, it was basted with a moreish, anchovy, herby sauce. It came with quinoa, which was lifted a couple of levels above with rich sun dried tomatoes, caperberries.

Desserts were nice but not especially memorably, but the main drag was the struggle to get service - we were forgotten about after an intense service start. We were compensated with a large glass of the rose we were drinking, but by the end of the meal we'd probably had enough and would rather have had a little bit docked off the bill. Alas, language barriers!

Café des Epices, 4 Rue du Lacydon, 13002 Marseille, France, +33 4 91 91 22 69.

Our favourite find was the lunch-only, reservations-necessary fish and seafood restaurant on a busy junction not too far from the station. La Boite à Sardine is one of those places you just want to rave from the rooftops about - definitely locals only (telephone only reservations and limited openings help), but the whole thing is just so bloody convivial and conducive to a happy meal. 

The chefs rotate daily on days off from other restaurants, the menu changes up daily with a few consistent numbers - such as deep fried sea anemone and platters of sparklingly fresh prawns with their *unbelievable* aioli, and are introduced to you personally by the knowledgeable waiting staff.

Wine is served in the Disney glasses that mustard comes in and are staples in every French family home, the mark ups are reasonable, and there are some fine wines available at 500ml for your moderately sensible weekday lunch.

As well as the sea anemone and prawns, I devoured a bowl of sweet little clams in a herbalicious sauce, made all the more delicious by the generous scatterings of aniseedy chervil. It came with chick pea chips - shaped like good chunky chip shop chips, but paying a nutty, earthy compliment to the clams. 

To end we shared clafoutis, which was served from a tray, family style, and got hoovered up too quickly to get a photo.

La Boite à Sardine, 2 Boulevard de la Libération, 13001 Marseille, +33 4 91 50 95 95.

Le Bonaparte, Cassis
Cassis is the fanciest seaside village in this part of the South of France. We stayed for three nights, as a base for exploring the wild Calanques national park for stunning beaches and walks. Cassis itself is very pretty and relatively small, but it's jam packed with restaurants bars and shops. It's a proper place to see and be seen, with lots of promenading down the front, and every table in every seafront bar is occupied.

Prices are relatively high in the restaurants and quality is variable. Some are targeted at once-and-never-again tourists, others at monied locals. But find your way down some of the back streets and there are some classic little neighbourhood restaurants that have a loyal following of return customers. Le Bonaparte is one such place, tucked down a side street, with tables spilling out into the little alley. All the tables outside were fully booked on our evening there, so we took a table inside.

There are menus at different prices depending on how fancy you want your mains. The 26€ menu's options worked fine for us, so we both started with fish soup - the real deal, with bread, a garlicky saffron rouille and grated emmental. It was rustic and simple, a big pan of the stuff, which was really just an excuse to have lots of rouille and cheese topped baguette rounds and dip them in the soup.

The 26€ menu afforded the most perfectly cooked and prepared sea bass - crisply grilled, then filleted by the waiter and presented off the bone, lightly seasoned and drizzled with olive oil. It was sheer, delicate perfection. And it came with ratatouille (the best ever) and roasted new potatoes; simple, homely, perfectly cooked.

Le Bonaparte had an excellent wine list, with a good selection of wines from the immediate Cassis area (great for whites, rose and red!), and the staff were very good at recommending one to our taste. Drop by earlier in the day if you plan to go - reservations recommended for a good table.

Le Bonaparte, 14 rue Gén Bonaparte, 13260 Cassis. +33 4 42 01 80 84.

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