Part two of our quest: Chez Fonfon, the Marseille restaurant where everyone who’s everyone (plus me) has eaten the legendary bouillabaisse.
Calling bouillabaisse soup is like calling the Superbowl a football game. It is an experience, especially in Marseille, and especially at Fonfon (one I urge you to grab if ever you get the chance).
The meal began with a basket of bread, as all French meals do, but this selection announced we were in a new culinary region. In place of the traditional baguette, there were semolina and raisin buns with a selection of Mediterranean spreads on the side.
Then came the main course. With bouillabaisse, there in no need to order an entree; the appetizer is built in. First they brought out toasts and little bowls of aioli and rouille, a creamy, spicy sauce of olive oil, red pepper, and breadcrumbs that is a regional specialty. Then they brought out a white china tureen and, with a good deal or fanfare, ladled steaming broth into my bowl. I was encouraged to begin my meal by spreading the toasts with the sauces and dipping them into the broth.
The broth! I imagine that Jack and Jackie, when they visited Fonfon, had exactly the same broth — why mess with perfection? It tastes of the sea, of shellfish, perhaps, of fish, certainly, of saffron, of tomato, and of history. When you swirl in a spoonful of rouille, as you are encouraged to do, the flavors pop, the broth thickens — the experience grows even more alluring.
Next they bring out the fish — poached quickly in the broth — that will complete the bouillabaisse. At Fonfon they serve rouget, rascasse, and lou de mer: nothing more, nothing less. Some Marseille upstarts add lobster, some even mussels — and indeed most American recipes call for some form of shellfish — but the traditional way is with fish. The highest quality, most generously portioned fish.
After showing me the fish, they took the platter away, quickly filleted them, and returned them to my side. I was then to add fish and potatoes to my broth at my leisure, with perhaps a swirl of rouille for good measure. (In this fashion, the fish never overcooks.) When my broth got low, they brought around the tureen and filled me up. I kept gallantly on but I knew I’d never finish three whole fillets. They could have easily fed us both.
“How long do you suppose a person has sat here with their bouillabaisse?” I laughed, “Would they ever just say ‘that’s it, no more broth for you!’?”
(At other restaurants we saw “bouillabaisse for two” advertised for less than what we paid for this “single” portion — but I suppose that’s one secret to Fonfon’s lasting success.)
Finally sated, we drank the rest of our fabulous wine (so happy I picked a man who knows how to pick ‘em), nibbled on raisins from the bread basket — it was all the dessert I could manage — and finally, emerged back into the sun.
happy as grigs.