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Photo: Roland Bello

Marseilles: a Bouillabaisse Odyssey

Marseilles has one of Europe’s most picturesque harbors, a vibrant street life, and a pretty cool soccer team. Its number one tourist attraction, however, is a Provençal fish boil teeming with up to six kinds of poisson, served in two courses and enlivened by the garlicky smack of rouille, a terracotta-hued mayonnaise. I mean, of course: bouillabaisse.

The dish has been Marseilles’s edible emblem for a century and a half, ever since the city, flush from its new transatlantic port, became a requisite stop on the romantic travelers’ trail. Much like today, visitors inevitably indulged in a bouillabaisse orgy at posh establishments along the corniche or in the Vieux Port. Stendhal, Zola, and Dumas all smacked their lips. Curnonsky, the king of French epicures, called bouillabaisse la soupe d’or. Although myths of its creation involve florid grandiosities—Venus feeding the stuff to Vulcan to distract him from her dalliances with Mars—the dish probably started life humbly, cooked up on a beach in a rustic fishermen’s cauldron, using scaly rockfish not suitable for market. Since then it has evolved into a ritualized and expensive affair, properly rendered by only a handful of restaurants.

I first schooled myself in bouillabaisse marseillaise a few years ago. I tried the purist version at the rather unwelcoming Chez Michel. I was charmed by the wondrous bouillon at L’Escale, in the Mistral, where the Mediterranean seethed against the windows. I also spent hours chatting with the venerable Pierre Minguella, former head of the Bouillabaisse Charter, an association of local restaurateurs dedicated to preserving quality and tradition. The bouillabaisse at Monsieur Minguella’s timeworn Le Miramar—now under new management—was so copious that after a few slurps I was drowning. "Courage," Minguella had murmured, pushing more conger eel onto my plate. La vraie bouillabaisse, I’d realized, was not for the fainthearted.

It took me months to recover from that first binge. But recently, craving an encore, I boarded the TGV in Paris for a three-hour ride to Marseilles. Following a chorus of recommendations, I booked a table at the Michelin-starred L’Épuisette, half a mile from the center of the city. Situated on a bluff at the mouth of an inlet in the salty fishing port of Vallon des Auffes, L’Épuisette merits a trip for its setting alone. White canvas across its chalet-like ceiling evokes cabanons, those iconic Provençal beach cabins associated with bouillabaisse feasts. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame waves lapping against chalky cliffs and fishing boats bobbing at anchor.

Here, Chef Guillaume Sourrieu prepares a by-the-book bouillabaisse that’s oceans away from our gentrified notions of the Provençal seaside. Like Marseilles itself, it’s brash, intense, and suffused with the briny tang of the Mediterranean. The ritual begins with the broth, a ruddy high-octane potion powered by small rockfish and rascasse, the ugly scorpion fish whose gelatinous scales and bones lend that requisite oomph. Infused with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, fennel, and saffron, the bouillon is vigorously boiled down—bouillabaisse possibly derives from bouille abaisse, or roughly, boil and reduce—until it tastes more like sea floor than soup. Smear a crouton with rouille, float it in the bouillon, and slurp away, gathering up courage for the giant platter of fish yet to come.

According to the Bouillabaisse Charter, at least four indigenous species must be used for the dish. Sourrieu’s regulation catch included the indispensable rascasse, eel-like vive, galinette (red gurnard), monkfish worthy of its "poor man’s lobster" moniker, and the lightly flaky and noble St. Pierre (John Dory), all of them perfectly poached. Accompanying the meal were terrifically buttery yellow potatoes that had been boiled in the broth. A better bouillabaisse was hard to imagine.

Curious for a taste of the future, the following day I found myself lunching on a deconstructed rendition at Une Table au Sud. At this modern dining room overlooking the Vieux Port, the gifted young Ducasse protégé Lionel Levy creates fireworks with dishes like salmon tartare laced with lime zest and scattered with sweet praline crumbs. "I wanted to lighten up bouillabaisse, make it more interactive," Levy told me later. His new-wave creation was presented with great drama on a black tray. A cloud of rouille-infused mashed potatoes shared a bowl with a loup de mer filet and seafood gelée that dissolved under a stream of hot fennel broth. More fish—a minimalist chunk of roasted sea bream—came on the side; ethereal Parmesan palmiers stood in for the croutons. It was a cool, clever effort, but I rather missed my courage quotient, the sensation of being plunged breathless into the depths of the sea. The drastic overfishing of the Mediterranean might put bouillabaisse on an endangered-dishes list. So catch the real thing while you can.


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