Sunday, April 29, 2012

Best Places to Eat Bouillabaisse

A classic bouillabaisse in the Marseille style, with the broth and the fish, garnished with lemon and herbs, served separately

Marseille may not be pretty in a traditional Provençal way, but France’s oldest city is not short of appeal. Marseille’s charm lies in its multicultural, Mediterranean vibe, charismatic scruffiness, and that most famous of all Marseille dishes, bouillabaisse – a rich, briny boil-up of the morning’s catch fresh from the port, fragrant, silky, and golden-glistening in the luminous sunshine.

Bouillabaisse was originally a fishermen’s stew – the unsold catch of, usually, the smallest and most unprepossessing fish, cooked up in a pot of bubbling water on the beach. Today it is a more sumptuous dish, enriched with butter and saffron, much more in keeping with the recipe’s origins in legend – concocted by Venus to lull her husband Vulcan to sleep so she could have some fun with Mars.
Lots of variations exist in Provence, but Marseille lays claim to the best: a jamboree of local fish and shellfish, olive oil, onions, garlic, fennel, tomatoes, potatoes, parsley, and the golden ingredient, saffron. The city even has an official Charter of Bouillabaisse listing the ingredients that “must” be used in the dish, including a minimum of four fish from a choice of red mullet, John Dory, rascasse (scorpion fish), monkfish, and conger eel.
Small, bony rockfish and rascasse provide the base for the broth, which is reduced and concentrated – the word bouillabaisse probably derives from bouille abaisse, or “boil and reduce” – until it’s as pungent as Davy Jones’ locker. The soup is served first, bobbing with, traditionally, a single large crouton daubed with garlicky rouille – a ruddy mayonnaise spiked with chili pepper – followed separately by a heaped platter of fish that have been simmered in the broth.
The fish is landed daily at the Vieux Port (old port), where fishermen have been selling their catch for 350 years. Marseille today may be a huge, modern city – multi-ethnic, soccer-crazy, and with one of the most hair-raising traffic systems in France – but it’s rich in history, as vibrant and eclectic as its signature dish.
Not for nothing was it voted European Capital of Culture 2013. Painted by Cézanne, Renoir, and Dufy, it is the home of the Château d’If, where Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned, and of architect Le Corbusier’s seminal Unité d’Habitation.
Rising up behind the Vieux Port, Le Panier is the oldest part of the city, a hub of narrow streets and steps with pale candy-colored houses and a cosmopolitan mood thanks to decades of immigration. Nearby is the souk-like Marché des Capucins, a North Africanflavored market piled with exotic produce and pastries.
On the other side of the harbor, surveying the designer hotels, lounge bars, galleries, and boutiques that have sprung up below, sits Marseille’s “Good Mother” – the magnificent Byzantine church of Notre Dame de la Garde, keeping watch over a city that gave France one of its most classic recipes.
Best Places to Eat Bouillabaisse
Le Petit Nice
Gérald Passédat’s three-star Michelin eatery sits on an idyllic rocky point surveying the blue, blue Mediterranean. The chef is so attached to his surroundings and Marseille’s culinary heritage that he’s devoted an entire tasting menu to bouillabaisse. It’s an extravagantly poetic, and expensive, version of the original, inspired by Passédat’s childhood memories – he was born on this very spot. His dedication to achieving the most intense, authentic flavors begins with the fish stock, boiling down live rock crabs and an assembly of small rockfish (it takes some 6 lb of fresh fish to make a quart of stock) to fashion the fragrant base of the dish. The bouillabaisse menu is then served in three courses, kicking off with a mussel and clam carpaccio with fried strips of girelle (rainbow wrasse), followed by the catch of the day, perfectly cooked in a sea-spiked artichoke broth. Then comes the soup: red scorpion fish, sea bream, and potatoes in a saffron-rich broth, with rouille, of course.
Anse de Maldormé, Corniche JF Kennedy; open for lunch and dinner Tue–Sat (open Mon evening in July and August);
Also in Marseille
The lovely setting of L’Epuisette (www.; expensive) alone makes it worth a visit. Luckily, the bouillabaisse cooked up by Guillaume Sourrieu is just as impressive.
Perched on the jetty in the tiny cove of Vallon des Auffes, this is an impossibly perfect spot for a plate of deluxe fish soup and a platter of squeaky fresh monkfish, red scorpion fish, John Dory, conger eel (all Bouillabaisse Chartersanctioned), and waxy yellow potatoes, infused with the perkiest saffron broth around.
Also in France
Fittingly, it’s a former fisherman’s hut that’s home to Saint-Tropez’s top seafood soup. Chez Camille (; moderate), perched at one end of the bay of Pampelonne, has been dishing up simple seafood since it was mistaken for a beach bistro back in the ’50s by director Roger Vadim and his then-wife, Brigitte Bardot. Locals claim it serves up one of the best bouillabaisses on the Riviera.
Around the World
Whatever the weather in London, you can get a taste of sunshine at Bistro Bruno Loubet at the Zetter Hotel (www.bistrotbrunoloubet.
com; moderate). Ex-Michelin-star chef Bruno Loubet cooks up affordable French food, from rustic favorites like the bouillabaisse with rouille and croutons to classics with a modern bent, such as duck confit with honey and North African spice.
A Day in Marseille
A modern city whose 26 centuries of cultural heritage and, at its heart, a fishing village atmosphere, come together to make Marseille a compelling destination.
MORNING : Set off from Fort Saint-Jean and meander the winding streets of Le Panier, stopping to check out local archaeological finds at La Vielle Charité. Once a poorhouse, it’s now crammed with priceless ancient artifacts. Drop into Marseille’s answer to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the huge Cathédrale de la Major.
AFTERNOON : Contrast old and new at La Joliette docks, where the Euroméditerranée Project is making bold architectural statements, including the shimmering 485-ft (148-m) CMA-CGM Tower designed by Zaha Hadid. If fashion is more your passion, peruse the collection of 20th-century clothes and accessories in the Musée de la Mode.
EVENING : Climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde to take in a sweeping, 360° city view. Meander back to the Vieux Port, grab a seat on the terrace of a quayside bar, order a tall pastis, and watch the sun fade before dinner.

Getting to Nice

Shuttle buses and taxis run from Marseille’s international airport to the city. Trains link to most of France and beyond, with bus services to Provençal towns, including Nice.
Where to stay in Nice
Hôtel Le Corbusier (inexpensive): perfect for 1950s design fans.
Casa Honoré (moderate): a tiny boutique hotel steps from the Old Port.
Le Petit-Nice Passédat (expensive): a fabulous family-run villa.

Boats moored in the Vieux Port, with the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde reaching into the sky in the background

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