MARSEILLE — In Marseille, it’s all about that bouillabaisse.
They take their bouillabaisse very seriously here. That’s because this is the place where it was first realized. And if the only bouillabaisse you know is the kind that is served in American restaurants, you’d find it a bit different in Marseille.
For one thing, the fish is about the freshest you’ll ever be served, right off the boat. And I mean that quite literally, because at some restaurants, like Chez FonFon, the restaurant I selected to experience my bouillabaisse during my visit, the boats pull up right outside the door and offer their catch for sale. Even in the center of the Vieux Port in the heart of Marseille, the boats pull up to vendors who have set up tables next to the dock and hand them buckets of fish, which they clean, slice and offer to their customers, chefs, perhaps, but also home cooks looking for the evening’s meal.
FonFon is known for its bouillabaisse, but it is not one of the high-profile restaurants that line the three sides of the port. There are some good restaurants there, such as Miramar, where my companion and I had a terrific first dinner, but there are also the typical tourist spots with truly uninspired food. (Never assume that just because you’re in France you can’t get a bad meal; been there, ate that.)
FonFon was a short ride along the Corniche, the road that runs next to the sea on the cliffs just south of the city center. But we found it a world away.
When we arrived at our stop, we found a long, winding and steep stairway that led from the elevated roadway down to a small, secluded cove. The inlet was accessed from the sea through high archways. At the opening of the inlet, several youths were jumping off the rocks for a swim. At the cove, all of the fishing boats — dozens of them — were pulled up onto the sloping shore or tethered at the dock.
There were three or four restaurants, FonFon among them, ringing the cove and sitting beneath various dwellings that seem to be impossibly clinging to the cliffs. Locals had wandered down the steep road and were sitting on the concrete dockway sipping wine and beer and chatting. Since we were early for our reservation, we grabbed a couple of the cushions provided by a wine shop, ordered a couple of glasses of wine and joined them. It was pure heaven, one of those perfect moments when you know you’ve found something few other tourists will experience. We loved sitting there and watching the setting sun light up the facades of the brightly painted houses, and it was fun to listen to the laughter and the chatter, even if we could pick out only a word here or there. We knew what they were talking about.
We had hoped we could get one of the window tables overlooking the dock so we could at continue to be a part of the communing, and the restaurant was, at 8:30, empty except for one other couple. We soon learned that the other tables near the windows, pushed together in long rows, were for a large party due to arrive at any moment, which it did: all 33 of them. And that, unfortunately, would color the rest of the evening.
(I had made the reservation weeks earlier online. When I arrived last evening, the host told me that he didn’t have my phone number, only my email address, or he would have called me to tell me about the large party. I tried in my best French to ask why he couldn’t have told me in an email, but I don’t think my sarcasm came through.)
Anyway, were were there, we wanted bouillabaisse and we were seated just before the big party. But they had apparently preordered. And of course what they ordered was the famous fish stew, so it began to flow, and we were immediately in 34th place. We would just have to wait.
We had been served a very nice crostini of mushroom with a bit of truffle, and a pureed melon that was the first amuse bouche I’ve had that was served with a straw. For my entree (which means appetizer; what we call entrees are called plats here) I had a wonderful mushroom soup with little bits of what tasted like foie gras floating in it. Rick had lobster ravioli in a deliciously thick and well seasoned sauce.
In Marseille, bouillabaisse is served in two steps. First the server brings a tureen of the broth and ladles it into your empty bowl. The fish stock is a dark rust color, infused with saffron, fennel and a bit of tomato. I’m sure some could make a meal of the broth along with the garlic croutons (which are more like toasted slices of baguette).
The fish is served on a separate platter along with a couple of large boiled potatoes for the diner to add at will. Also provided are two sauces, an aioli and a rouille, also like a mayonnaise but seasoned with cayenne. These are yours to add as you please, or not at all.
The Marseilles tradition may or may not also include a presentation of the raw fish to the diners. That honor was afforded the large tables but the waiter whisked the platter past us on the way to the kitchen. Almost certainly on the platter were rock fish and conger eel, which are considered staples of a traditional bouillabaisse.
As you eat, the server comes by now and then to ladle more hot broth into your bowl.
The fish stock was very good, and the fish chunks were undoubtedly fresh. And I can’t help but think it all would have been much more pleasant had I not been an afterthought of the servers dealing with the 33-top. (It must be said, the two servers, with the help of the manager, handled the room themselves, by why the heck didn’t they call in some help?).
So, I’ve had my authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille. Check that one off the list. I doubt the memory will last. But the experience before dinner will be a memory I keep for a very long time.