Sensational seafood at two top-notch Marseille eateries

An exquisite “edible rockpool” and a bouillabaisse ritual akin to fine art are worthy of a change of course to Marseille’s Vieux-Port

Mussels, cockles, oyster and lobster, doused in a limpid broth at Le Petit Nice
Mussels, cockles, oyster and lobster, doused in a limpid broth at Le Petit Nice | Image: Richard Haughton

As I stood on the quayside of Marseille’s Vieux-Port amid a bewildering profusion of bars, cafés and restaurants, I realised just how much I rely on a global network of gastronomic spies to make sure the places I visit are up to snuff. And to find out who is cooking up a storm in any port, Geoffrey Murray is my man. The executive chef aboard über-luxe cruise ship The World, Geoffrey is a man who definitely knows his oignons; so, while he negotiated with a fishmonger from Central Casting for a few kilos of red mullet, I asked him where I should eat in Marseille.

For bouillabaisse, said Geoffrey, I should ignore the nearby plethora of fish soup emporia, and head instead to Chez Michel, next to the Plage des Catalans; and, for top-notch gastronomy, to Le Petit Nice, Gérald Passedat’s three-star temple to fish cookery overlooking the Mediterranean further south.

Chez Michel is a smartly old-fashioned kind of place, where the ritual of bouillabaisse – once made from the rockfish that fishermen couldn’t sell, now the €75 house special – becomes high art. The various species of raw fish are presented first for diners’ approval, then the kitchen gets to work: the resultant steaming, rusty broth, golden croutons, rouille and aïoli are as fine as you will find anywhere, the delicate fillets of rockfish cut neatly into fillets and served separately.

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Passedat serves bouillabaisse too, in an elegant, three-course extravaganza, but I tried his tasting menu. It was sublime, the best all-fish meal I have ever eaten; come to think of it, it is one of the best meals of any kind I have ever eaten.

Lunch started on the terrace with a glass of Passedat’s own champagne and some stunning little amuse-bouches: a pebble topped with a quenelle of daurade mousse, specked with herbs and espelette pepper, a playful crystallised “fish” perched atop; seabass in crisp brik pastry with a vibrant, verdant sauce; fish beignets with tarragon and olive; and a lovely chunk of tuna dusted with hazelnut.

Then to a table overlooking the sea below, and a series of dishes that delighted both the eye and the palate, with not a dud among them: a featherlight courgette mousse with black truffle; petals of tuna on a soft jelly studded with leeks, dressed with bergamot and Menton lemon vinaigrette; a perfect tranche of sea bream paired with aubergine sandwiched with fennel and vanilla, a bay leaf jauntily stuck in the fish like a boat’s sail; and – best of all – a kind of edible rockpool: mussels, cockles, oyster and lobster, doused in a limpid broth so redolent of the littoral that you could almost hear the seagulls.

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I passed on the cheese, although I would happily have had it taken to the beach and spent the afternoon munching through it. And, naturellement, raising a glass to Mr Murray: sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know.

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