Eating Badly in New York

Since there seem to be plenty of sources to help one find great food in NYC, I thought it might be useful to maintain  a running log of bad meals.  In part, coming from London, one often arrives with an inferiority complex, so I thought I’d test the assumption that food here is generally better than back home.  I mostly avoided the NYT’s higher-rated places, therefore this post focuses on more humble local joints (not necessarily cheap, especially when you include the 23.875-28.875% tax & tip wedge).

I started this 9 December with 3 entries, let’s see how many times I need update it…

Rego Pita (Rego Park): what was advertised as chicken breast sandwich, was nothing like.  Slimy pieces of thigh, possibly under-cooked (or juicy depending on whether you’re making it or fated to eat it), in a lumpen white doughy pita.  A steal at $10 apparently.

Boulevard Bistrot (Harlem): so I asked the waiter what the turkey meatloaf was made of – white meat or dark meat.  He answered, as if to say ‘you’re an idiot for asking such a stupid question’, that ‘well it comes as ground, how do I know whether its white or dark meat?’.  Or maybe he thought I was asking a politically incorrect question.  Anyway, I went ahead and ordered it, and got 2 rather dessicated slabs back, none of the touted wild mushroom gravy in evidence.  The meat itself, whatever went into it, was about 10% gristle, so I guess it was mostly dark meat – from the claw.  Or perhaps, this was soul food interpreted by a Japanese chef – tsukune (chicken meatballs) intentionally have cartilage in them to give them crunch – and they’re delicious. The beans, peas, and ‘tatoes were good, so maybe I was unlucky as the place looked promising and was recommended.  Total cost: $18

Boulevard Bistrot's freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices
Boulevard Bistrot’s freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices

Shalimar Diner (Rego Park): this is a bit unfair, as the place is sweet, and I will return.  But, again, the poultry was the culprit: instead of gristly meat, this was zero-texture turkey.  Really quite remarkable, 6 or 7 giant slabs of what could be reconstituted soy protein, on a rather good stuffing, all slathered in some unrecognisable flour paste garnished with liquified turkey-fat – I wouldn’t insult the venerable British white sauce by calling it that.  Again, to be fair, that is pretty much what American turkeys taste like, when I remember back to Thanksgivings as a child – and to some extent I’ve been spoiled by excellent free-range poultry in London – turkey, guinea fowl, and chicken.  Good martinis.  Cost: $18 (?)

Shalimar’s soy protein roast

Arunee Thai (Jackson Heights): Elmhurst/JH/Woodside are full of Thai places, and this place is a trendy take on the cuisine (flat long stone bar, nice lights, cocktails).  Lunch specials are $8-8.5, and include soup or salad.  I had a rice noodle with chicken and basil, and it wasn’t bad (though with enough fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic and grease, anything can taste passable).  My main issue was that both the noodles and the soup had chicken with a funky smell, like it had been cooked the day before or maybe two, and was slowly being warmed up for  the lunchtime punters by (what looked like a non-Thai) quick-order chef in the back.  On the whole, then, I thought style had trumped the food; instead, go to the lovely Khao Kang canteen on Woodside Ave instead – much more authentic, just as clean, and 100% Thai staff and mostly Thai clients.

Mission Chinese (LES): My basic gripe with Mission is that, for all the hype and queues, it just wasn’t that impressive, and more specifically, smothered with enough salt for the passage to hell and back.  It was perhaps unfortunate that I had eaten at the Mission pop-up on Bond Street a couple years back, and thus had something to compare to.  And perhaps lunch for one isn’t where the menu shines.  But still, you gotta have standards: I ordered the fried rice, beef dumplings, mapodofu, and celery dish.  The fried rice was fine, but unexceptional – for all the artisanal smoked bluefish in it, it was a refined Chinese takeaway staple.  Pock-marked Mother’s Chen’s tofu was pretty decent, but lacking in the Sichuan peppercorns which is, somewhat the raison d’etre of Sichuan food – and if the late lamented Grand Sichuan (on the Northern approach to the Manhattan Bridge) used far too much, this had practically none.  No notable trace of chili either – so perhaps it was  toned-down for the Midwestern palate that famously is part of Danny Bowien’s shtick.  The beef dumplings were mush – so whatever shin, tail or ear they used, they definitely cooked it to the consistency of gelatin.  The broth had a scent of dill, which I suppose is a conceptual nod to Ashkenazi-Jewish dumplings, but let’s just say no one, other than third-tier New York food writers, rushes to acclaim that food as a culinary paragon – and this version wasn’t particularly nice.  The celery with hazelnuts sounded interesting, and wasn’t a bad start.  Then, somewhere between the rice and the celery, I started hitting clusters of salt, and nothing was the same after.  Overall – Bowien had, at one time, a good concept, and remains a great showman.  Most importantly, the food was good when it was a scrappy, small, cult operation.  Now, with copious financial backing, and the pressures of being on the painfully trendy LES with its hordes of identikit entry-level office workers in Canada Goose coats, seem to have sapped quality and invention in his kitchen.


Oh I forgot to mention the idiotic website: a screenshot of a 1st gen web-browser that is ‘oh retro…awesome!‘.  Any click, say on the ‘Girl Skateboards’ link takes the hapless viewer to something called Reserve.  Reserve is an app, seemingly entirely in champagne for the inhibited rapper in you, that has to be downloaded.  It is the only way to book at the restaurant.  It might even require the bill to be settled on the app, and only Bowien the God knows what data it collects.  I wandered in off the street, as did the next table, but I’m sure the Canada Goose crowd has Reserve downloaded to their Fitbits, so no trouble there.

One good thing – the white wine – a Portuguese Moscatel was fab.



So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.


I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.


Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

Brilliant Corners, Dalston


I love Tokyo’s ultra-specialised restaurants, from places that only serve sea urchin or fugu fish, to tiny audiophile bars under railroad arches with thousands of dollars worth of kit and records. For whatever reason, London and to a large extent New York, never really picked up into this obsessive groove – probably partially due to real estate prices (not that Tokyo acreage is cheap) and partially, likely lack of custom.

So it’s cheering to see a recent opening in Dalston – Brilliant Corners, (presumably) named after Thelonius Monk album. It’s a venue with 4 massive Klipsch speakers and a rack of old valve amplifiers; customised sound-absorbing wall panels; an awesome selection of natural wines; and very good, albeit simple and reasonably-priced, Japanese food. An odd combination, but the wonderful owners and staff make it work – they’re pumped about what they’re doing and it shows.


The Dalston & Hackney trendy food scene is pretty grim fare – burgers, somewhat gross American junk-food elevated into haute cuisine (£21 friend chicken), served in supposedly stylish, and utterly undifferentiated, shabby-chic venues, with the obligatory tattooed, characteristically Antipodean, and extravagantly bearded cooks/waitstaff/DJ/owner. Even the acheingly hip Cafe Oto’s food is very much second fiddle to the music, booze, coffee, and cakes. The owners of Brilliant Corners are, I think, ex-City, so a far cry from the slightly ghastly food-world insiders, often backed by cashflow-hungry investors, rolling out series of dismal restaurants that cater to the latest fad (whether it be “tapas”, “no bookings”, “Venetian ciccheti”, “Peru”, “street food”, “artisanal pizza”, “hog roasts”, etc.)


So it’s great to see Brilliant Corners’ unpretentious menu, cut rolls and hand rolls, chicken kara-age, or donburi on brown rice. No fancy fish, only salmon, which keeps cost down and keeps the “save the sea” brigade happy. The clean flavours work really well with the excellent natural wines; as it happens, a topical tipple – this weekend is RAW’s natural wine fair at the Truman Brewery, with old favourites like Frank Cornelissen, Stan Radikon, and (hopefully) a contingent of mad Georgians.

Standouts from the wine list are Salvo Foti’s gutsy white/gold wine from the shoulders of Etna, and La Stoppa’s orange from Emilia-Romagna, both at £38 by the bottle. A wine I haven’t tried, but described as having “cult status” in Japan, the ultimate accolade in my book, is a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah by Dard & Ribo, at £38. Wines by the glass are a very reasonable £5-6. As with any natural wine, it pays to enquire what the flavour profile will be (“funky”, “barnyard”, “oxidised” are terms often used, rather unflatteringly if enthusiastically, to describe them), and if possible, ask for a taste. At their best, they should have intense flavours in the whites, a tannic grip and enhanced mouthfeel in the oranges, and a fresh grapiness in the reds (at least those based on Gamay). They should be as far as possible from the ghastly mass-market high-alchohol wines endemic to the UK market.

Wine list
Wine list

These aren’t wines for drinking all the time, but they are absolutely worth a try. And….no hangover, owing to the reduced use of sulphites. Anyone living East for a few years will remember the happy 18-month tenure of 259 Hackney Road, that used to sell similar wines, albeit from the Jura or Loire; unfortunately Florian & Milena left, and the wine shop has been replaced by a bubble tea vendor (see “latest fad” above).

Brilliant Corners: 470 Kingsland Road E8 4AE.  Info on Facebook (they don’t seem to have a website)

The Devil in the Hills

The title refers to Cesare Pavese’s novel about life, just following the war, in the hills around Turin. And it is the hills one sees first, coming up from the coast, as we did, from Savona, where the Sanremo-Genoa line splits up through the subalpine valleys.

The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
Barbaresco town
Barbaresco town centre

In writing this, we’re indebted to Edward Behr’s awesome the Art of Eating, as well as Fred Plotkin’s magisterial survey of the food of Italy, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. Both publications, dated as they are, seem invaluable for understanding the food and wine of Italy, and of course, for eating well.

A trip to Piedmont is more about wine than anything. The southern hills, the Langhe, are most famous for the appellations Barolo and Barbaresco, on the southern bank of the Tanaro River. Turin lies an hour away, nestled in its cushion of mountains. The Langhe’s most famous grapes are Nebbiolo (so-called for the fog, nebbia, that blankets these hills), Barbera, and Dolcetto (the “little sweet one”). Nebbiolo sits up there with Sangiovese (the “blood of Jove”), and perhaps, with Aglianico, at least in the opinion of a proud Lucanian, amongst the pantheon of Italian grapes. All the more so because, unlike Pinot Noir or the ubiquitious Cabernets, these vines don’t take easily to the climate, land, or aggressive winemaking of the New World – somehow they mainly flourish in modest bits of Italy.

At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba.  4 meals in 4 nights...
At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba. 4 meals in 4 nights…
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad

To paraphrase Behr, Barolo’s characteristic flavours are “violets, tar, faded roses…leather”, and we’re looking at a pale wine that in age “runs toward orange”. Everywhere in the Langhe, one hears of a division between traditionalist and modernist winemakers, and this goes to the heart of Piemontese winemaking’s 20th-century history. Nebbiolo is a treacherous and fickle grape, autochthonous to Piedmont (first referenced in 1303 AD), highly tannic, phenolic, acidic, and susceptible to frost due to its long ripening period. Its fruit is comparatively delicate. The upshot is that this grape takes at least 3-4 years in the bottle before the tannins soften sufficiently to make it palatable.

A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)

So why put up with the temperamental Nebbiolo grape? Because, its high tannin content serves to protect the wine and slow down oxidation, giving it more time in the bottle to age, allowing complexity (so-called “tertiary flavours” such as tar and leather) to develop, which simply don’t show up in wines that are easily drinkable within 1-2 years of production. There are nebbiolo-based wines that are drinkable 40 years on. Unfortunately, the problem in the past was that by the time the wine developed complexity, the, already ephemeral at bottling, fruit and flower flavours tended to disappear. Producers and consumers were stuck between Scylla and Charbydis: youthful harshness versus a dry, fruitless senescence (and we’re talking about the wine here). “There was never a right time to drink the wine. It was always too late for the fruit and too early for the tannin.”

Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement
Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement

La Barbera is simpler: as the most heavily planted in Piedmont, it produces a darker wine without the tannin, but is still acidic, albeit drinkable earlier than Nebbiolo. But the everyday grape of the Langhe is Dolcetto, light and easy drinking, wine for food, but not really a vino de meditazione. It goes well with the rich cuisine, the raw beef, the cheeses, the boar.

Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu.  Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)
Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu. Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)

In the 1980s, winemaking in the Langhe started to change. Yields were reduced, and vines were pruned aggressively to ensure the grapes were fully ripe before picking, which seemed to reduce the bitter tannic content and maximise the fruit. The cellar technique was also modified – as grape juice ferments in vats, a dense cap of crushed skins forms; the skins, and therefore this cap, contain flavour and colour, but are also highly tannic. Various producers introduced techniques, such as agitating or puncturing the cap, or increasing fermentation temperature, to extract flavours while minimising tannins. Controversially, some introduced equipment, such as rotofermenters, which prevent a cap from forming at all. Finally, instead of the traditional tall botti grandi, which allowed for a slow oxidation and more controlled development of refined flavour, there was a move towards the barriques of new oak. Aromatics in the oak leached into the wine, giving (in the worst case), a distinct vanilla note, but also helped add sweet tannins to replace the bitter tannins which had been prevented from entering the wine by the methods above. To maximise fruit, the modernists drastically cut the ageing time, to as little as 2 or 3 years.

The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra).  Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.
The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra). Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.

Still other producers used yet more interventionist methods, such as reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, and so forth, to achieve a desired flavour profile (in some cases, the so-called “international style” of young, easy-to-drink, fruit-forward wine that is promoted by market forces and wine consultants).

One of the few failed meals - La Finanziera.  Cooking was impeccable - just the ingredients were gross - cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items.  The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too....  In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).
One of the few failed meals – La Finanziera. Cooking was impeccable – just the ingredients were gross – cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items. The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too…. In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).

Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco has led the modernist revolution in Piedmont. At the other end are producers such as the Conterno brothers, Giovanni and Aldo, Bruno Giacosa, and Francesco Rinaldi, who have tried to maintain the traditional ways, with their higher production and ageing costs, and therefore higher retail break-evens. As Behr says in his 2001 articles, it’s far from clear how much the differences in methods translate into consistent differences, or values, in the final product, and indeed, many producers use a mix of modern and traditional techniques.

View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
The cable car up Superga.
The cable car up Superga.

We made a 20km walk, along the banks of the Tanaro, from Alba to Barbaresco, through a boar-hunting zone, hazelnut groves, and acres of treacherous mud. But, in doing so, we got a great sense of the distinctive feel of the Langhe hills, rolling along, seemingly all the way to the Alps (the Matterhorn, known as Monte Cervino, was almost always visible towering over the Val d’Aosta). Most of the properties were quite small, with modest sized compounds, and almost no one about. There was the pervasive smell of roasting hazelnuts, perhaps mixed with chocolate, which is of course the smell of Nutella.

Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington's work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event !  Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington’s work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event ! Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli

All this was a quiet and contemplative prelude to Turin, comparatively busy and chaotic, but nothing like Rome or Genoa. Turin, first capital of the united Italy, spent considerable time as part of France, and feels French in its Cartesian orderliness and grid-layout, the relatively reserved people. Although generally perfectly nice, they had little of the sparkle of Venetians, the rough bawdiness of the Romans, or the sly dark wit of the Palermitans, rather the Torinese eyes have a distinct sense of the fish that has been dead for some days. The city itself seems to have fallen on hard times, with the recession and Fiat’s troubles. But what the city lacks in warmth, it makes up for in splendid art: a world-class Egyptian collection, currently being renovated (but with a considerable portion still on display); several contemporary art galleries. Everyone seemed to be reading, and the city was filled with bookstores, things we hadn’t seen in Genoa, Sanremo, or Alba, where the sea, truffles and winemaking happily occupy one.

An awesome dish of pig's blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.
An awesome dish of pig’s blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.


Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)
Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)

Marseille: Sun, Rockfish, and Pastis

View of the Vieux Port and MuCEM
View of the Vieux Port, CMA-CGM tower, and MuCEM
View from MuCEM
View from MuCEM

Marseille is having its moment in the sun in 2013 – an EU Capital of Culture, like Turku, Genoa, even Istanbul, before it, which led to an enormous investment in architecture, art, and publicity. The result is cheering, certainly if measured by property prices, in a benighted city of decidedly dodgy reputation (setting for the film French Connection). How much of this impact outlasts the annus mirabilis when the tourists go home, remains to be seen.

Vieux Port: fortunately NOT where we having dinner !
Vieux Port: fortunately NOT where we having dinner !

For now, the city’s natural advantages of 300 days of sunshine, a spectacular azure sea, and lively ethnic mix are augmented by Zaha Hadid’s dramatic tower for the CMA-CGM shipping line. It sits amidst a €6bn regenerated business district in the dreary north of the city; also new are at least 3 ambitious museums, a renovated and pedestrian-friendly port area (with obligatory Norman Foster pavilion), 2 new culture/atelier complexes in old warehouses, and a jam-packed schedule of music, theatre, street tours, talks, and food tastings. The bad boys who rule much of Marseille’s street life have been told to keep a low profile for 2013, and indeed, as in much of Italy, many of them probably have legitimate property and business interests that benefit from the gentrification.

Sunset over MuCEM
Sunset over MuCEM

To be clear, we have visited the city 6 times in the past 10 years, so are somewhat familiar with its seediness, sense of menace, but also the hard-edged friendliness of the Marseillais, who like port dwellers everywhere, wisely maintain a carapace of suspicion and caution. Yet it takes little to bring out generous natures – think Neapolitans, Palermitans, or Glaswegians. Moreover, the mix of where we stayed, the Panier, a hotbed of intrigue, was superb: Algerians, Corsicans, Comorans, Cameroonians, Vietnamese, and pied-noirs, basically getting along, piled in higgledy-piggledy walk-up blocks overlooking the Vieux Port.

Moreover, unlike Nice or, say, Aix, one can largely pass a week without hearing much other than French & Arabic, and most of the well-heeled visitors to the Côte d’Azur wisely give Marseille a wide berth. So you get the sun, food, wine, and sea, at much-lower prices and with no risk of being seated next to the loud cash equities guy from Essex, whom you didn’t much like at work, and positively loathe now that you see his Ferrari that barely fits his girth, his silicone-clad wife tottering on Louboutins, and immaculately turned out brats-in-blazers.

Art Museums

MUCEM – the new complex on the port. Hugely memorable for the walks across narrow bridges that connect the various historical and brand-new buildings. The architecture, an outer wall of cast concrete lattice, and gardens are both lovely public spaces, but also hint at the museum’s core interest in the civilisation, culture, and art of the Mediterranean littoral: latticed balconies are common in Andalucia, North Africa, or Istanbul.

MuCEM's latticed walls
MuCEM’s latticed walls

Vielle Charite – fabulous collection of ethnographic objects from Europe and elsewhere. On this trip, the show of Mexican masks from film-maker Francois Reichenbach’s donation was awesome. Centrepiece of the Panier.

Mexican masks...
Mexican masks…

MAC – the main contemporary arts museum. Combine with a visit to Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse. It’s a bit of a drag to get to, best to take the buses (21 or 22). Could combine with a visit to Sormiou calanque.

Musee des Beaux Arts – did not go, but is near the Friche in an interesting part of town.

FRAC PACA – the humorously-named headquarters of Provence’s regional contemporary art acquisition, display, and education institution. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and is located in the gentrified Joliette area, just north of the Panier. Combine with visit to Zaha Hadid’s tower.

Musee Cantini – an elegant and joyous little space, mostly filled with top-tier 20th century and Modern art, and space for temporary exhibitions downstairs. Located in the posh 6th arrondisement.

Other Art & Culture

Friche – former railyard, converted into ateliers for various artists, musicians, etc., and events spaces.

Public art as social policy tool.....regenerating neighbourhood near the Friche
Public art as social policy tool…..regenerating neighbourhood near the Friche

Kader Attia – lovely collection of white concrete objects placed on the mole of Marseille’s harbour, by the French/Algerian artist.

Cite Radieuse – Le Corbusier-designed apartment block. There is a tiny hotel, restaurant and bar within the building, and the roof is worth a visit.


Views of the Le Corbu's Cite Radieuse
Views of the Le Corbu’s Cite Radieuse

Eglise St Laurent – in addition to the better known Notre Dame de la Garde and La Major, this is an ancient Romanesque structure, built on the site of a temple of Apollo.


Chez Etienne – best pizza in Marseille (wood oven, and I prefer the anchovy, olive, garlic and tomato version), located in the Panier. Awesome steak.

Meats ! Chez Etienne
Meats ! Chez Etienne

Boit de sardine – excellent fish at great prices. Bookings advised, lunch only.

Boite's take on fish and chips (actually the unfortunately named panisse, a fritter of chickpea flower, like in Sicily)
Boite’s take on fish and chips (actually the unfortunately named panisse, a fritter of chickpea flower, like in Sicily)
He was once a monkfish...
He was once a monkfish…

Chez Vincent – very good Italian (and pizza)

La Kahesa – very good Tunisian near the port, wonderful service, with takeaway. Brik is the star starter.

Part des anges – well-known and touristy, but one of the best wine bars around, with decent prices for excellent wines, particularly Provencal.

Les Buvards – more obscure wine bar, specialising in biodynamic and organic wines. Less interesting selection by-the-glass, but worth a visit if you’re into natural wine.

Le Lunch – restaurant in the Sormiou calanque, fairly high prices but that pays for a wonderful setting (albeit with no potable water !) and an ambitious / innovative cuisine.

Chateau – more traditional restaurant in the same calanque, specialists in traditional Marseille specialties, including bouillabaise.

Le madie des galinettes – stalwart of the Vieux Port fish restaurants, slightly upscale and with very good food to match. Great bouillabaise and a fair price, particularly for the location.

Pizza st jean – excellent takeaway pizza in the Panier.

Pizza and couscous for tea...
Pizza and couscous for tea…
Another tea in the panier - chicken from Noaille's halal butchers, wine from Les Buvards
Another tea in the panier – chicken from Noaille’s halal butchers, wine from Les Buvards

Pizza in Noailles market – Naples style folded up pizza slices (electric ovens) served out of shacks on the side of the main market at Noailles. Remain alert, as it’s hectic, crowded, and tourists stand out, even more than elsewhere. Local drunks warned agains the bad boys that lurk in Noailles metro station.

Bar de Marine – good for aperitifs, outdoor seating on the Vieux Port (south side), great view of the setting sun.

L’Unic – apparently a late-night institution on the Vieux Port (southeast corner)

La Caravelle – slightly upscale second floor bar overlooking the Vieux Port, quite a nice setting, small and mostly indoors, with more than a few tourists.


We don’t shop, but Maison Empereur (near Noailles) is a large and elegant haberdashery that has a wonderful collection of everything from mussel pots, to espadrilles, to soap. Awesome place.

Licorne soap factory: in the Cours Julien, this is one of the main brands of the ubiquitous olive oil soap. Nearby, Cantinetta is meant to have great Italian food.


Vallons des Auffes – more a contradiction-in-terms, a working fishing port that’s pretty much in central Marseille, rather than a true calanque. This is a lovely spot to watch the sea and sun, and an easy walk from the Vieux Port. Chez Fonfon has an excellent, if pricey, bouillabaisse.

Memorial to WWI on France's eastern front, Vallons-des-Auffes
Memorial to WWI on France’s eastern front, Vallons-des-Auffes

Le Sormiou – a more remote calanque within the national park, surrounded by cliffs, the scrub (garrigue), and pine trees. About 1 hour moderate difficlty walk from the Sormiou-Cayolle stop on the 23 bus which leaves Rond Point du Prado (Metro 2). Eat at Chateau or Lunch.

The trail to the calanque of Sormiou
The trail to the calanque of Sormiou

Carry Le Rouet & Sausset-les-pins – two moderate sized sea-side villages with restaurants in both, and a easy 4km trail along the coast that connects them. Both are on the Miramas line out of SNCF Gare St Charles.

Frioul, If – didn’t go to these islands which dominate the coastline of Marseille

Other Resources

Chef Rowley Leigh in the FT:

The Guardian’s generous coverage:

NY Times: