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.
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.
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.