It may sound odd, but as far as I’m concerned, the best time of the year to visit Marseille is during the winter. This is when the city is quiet without its growing tourist throngs, and the Mediterranean sun is more welcome than ever. The strong wind-scoured light at this time of the year makes the city rather beautiful, too. Marseille is a wonderful weekend away from Paris as well, since it’s only three hours away by TGV train and rooms in most of the city’s hotels go for low-season rates. If Marseille is never a particularly self-conscious city even in high season–it’s bluff disinterest in travelers is one of the reasons I like it so much, actually–it’s even more devoid of any social artifice during the winter.
Spending a few days here recently, I loved the fact that no one asked me about my accent when I spoke French, probably because in Marseille, France’s second largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan city, almost everyone has an accent. The only exception was when I went for lunch to my favorite seafood restaurant, La Boîte à Sardine, which recently moved to a new location near the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul at the top of la Canebière, the city’s storied main artery, which runs down hill to Le Vieux Port, or the old harbor where the city was founded as a colony by the Greeks some 2600 years ago. There’s simply no better place in this port town to get a really good reasonably priced feed of just-out-of-the-water seafood, so I popped in early and took a stool at the counter, since I knew they wouldn’t waste a table at this very popular place on a single diner.
I was very much hoping my favorite dish would be on the catch-of-the-day menu—sea anemone beignets, but when I asked the owner, Fabien Rugi, who directs the restaurant from behind the bar in front of the kitchen, he told me that he hadn’t been able to get any the day before and suggested I go have a look at the fish stand (they also sell fish) to see what else might tempt me. Before I could slip off my stool, though, he slid a glass of white wine across the bar and said, “Votre accent–vous n’etes pas d’ici.” No, I told him, I’m not from Marseille. “Vous venez d’ou? Vous etes Belge?” (Where are you from? Are you Belgian?”) No, I told him, I come from across the sea.
There were a few beautiful loup de mer (sea bass) on the stand, but I knew I’d have to order quickly to get my hands on one, since the restaurant was filling up quickly, and the reason it has so many regulars is that Rugi sources his menu from local small-boat fishermen. So I darted back to the bar and ordered some shrimp as a starter and then a loup de mer. Rugi warned that it might be a lot for one person, but I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finishing a large specimen of one of my very favorite fish. The grilled baby squid, spaghetti with langouste (rock lobster), and rougets (red mullet) also tempted, but I held firm.
If I had any doubt as to where I was, the shrimp–plump perfectly cooked crimson curls of juicy sea meat–came with a big spoonful of garlicky aioli as well as a lemon wedge, and I’d just finished my first one when I heard Rugi telling a businessman down the bar from me that he couldn’t have his fish if he didn’t close his iPad and devote his attention to his meal. “I just wanted to read the paper,” the man implored, but Rugi insisted. “Concentrate on your meal instead–how can you really enjoy your food when you’re reading? My fish deserves your full attention.” One way or another, the triangular shaped room hung with fish nets and decorated with nautical bric brac offered ample distractions of one stripe or another. I loved watching chef Celine Bonnieu at work in the kitchen behind the bar, and the high spirits of a table of molls with dolls getting happy on a bottle of Champagne were contagious, too.
Some people might perceive of Rugi, a lean man in a knit cap who’s as light on his feet as a boxer, as being a little high-handed with his customers, but I rather admire it, because he’s incredibly proud of the quality of the fish he serves, and rightly so. And if I often have a magazine with me when I go for a solo meal, I rarely read it, for the simple reasons that I enjoy observing what’s going on around me and I prefer to focus on my food.
When my sautéed sea bass arrived, with sides of deliciously smoky tasting caponata filled with capers, a timbale of Camargue rice and some broccoli florets in lemon butter, the first thing I ate were the gorgeous fish’s succulent meaty cheeks. “Bravo!” I heard and looked up. Rugi was nodding at me with a smile and some curiosity. “They’re the best bit,” he said, referring to the cheeks and topping up my glass even though I hadn’t ordered more wine. “Les Anglo-Saxons never know to eat the cheeks. In fact they don’t really know how to eat fish at all,” he said and shook his head. The curious French habit of referring to English speakers by the name of a long gone early medieval tribe notwithstanding, I felt more flattered than patronized by his remark for the simple reason that it’s often true as concerns people who come from countries that prefer filets to anything whole.
With just a little dribble of green olive oil from a mill in Les Alpilles, the fish was superb–firm and delicately tasting of the sea. I was completely lost in its voluptuousness when a handsome blonde woman edged up to the bar next to me and exchanged ‘Bonjours’ with Rigi. Then she asked him if he served bouillabaisse, and I knew what was coming. “You don’t eat bouillabaisse in a restaurant!” he told the abashed Scandinavian. “It’s really only good when you make it at home!” After the chastened woman withdrew, he picked up a plump red mullet by the tail. “This is what she should eat in Marseille!” he said, to me and the previously scolded businessman a stool down, and we nodded. He was right, of course, but I also couldn’t help but thinking how the cameo I’d just witnessed summed up so much of the impasse between Marseille and the rest of the world. In this city, you see, they’re blunt, they’re proud and they’re honest, and the power of this trinity often startles people who don’t realize it’s well intended. For my part, I like knowing I never have to bring a magazine with me to lunch at La Boîte à Sardine, and if it were just out my door, I’d be tempted to have lunch there every other day at least.
La Boîte à Sardine, 2 boulevard de la Libération, Marseille, Tel. 04-91-50-95-95, Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch only from 11am-3pm. Average 35 Euros. www.laboiteasardine.com