catch of the day
Like my former stomping ground, Seattle, Marseille has a surprising dearth of decent fish restaurants for a city centered on the fishing industry. There are tourist traps that dish overpriced bouillabaisse and bistros that serve fish drowning in fanciful sauces. Yet, when fish is freshly plucked from the sea, it simply needs a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a dash of salt and pepper. Luckily, there is Boîte á Sardine.
Enigmatic owner Fabien Rugi is as passionate about fish as the marseillais are for l’OM. When I ask him why he became a fishmonger, he enthusiastically responds, “Jacques Cousteau,” the John Glenn for French kids who grow up along the sea. After doing his Bac Pro in etudes coquillages (aka seafood studies) he opened a fish stand, but when business began to falter as supermarchés grew, the Boîte á Sardine was born.
Although the walls are lined with sardine tins (boîtes) from around the world, this whimsical spot serves some of the freshest fish in town. Each morning, Fabien visits his select group of small fishermen that he’s known for years. In their mutually beneficial relationship, he supports the seasoned bunch by buying their whole lot, and in return, he gets access to fish that no one else has in town. The only downside is that on inclement weather days, the menu can be limited, but I’d rather have quality over quantity.
Depending on the day, you can devour flash-fried sea anemones, sautéed razor clams, and raw oysters - served with their shells on top because Fabien thinks they are “prettier that way.” (note: make like the French and eat your huîtres with a piece of buttered bread, which comes from nearby organic baker Bar á Pain.) Each visit is a lesson in French seafood lexicon, like when galére, a local delicacy that resembles a slippery lobster, was scrawled on the chalkboard menu.
Diners can dive into Provençal style calamari tossed with garlic and parsley and marinated anchovies, so succulent they will convert anti-anchovy eaters into full-blown fans. Come with friends to order whole fish, like we did with this gorgeous 3-kilo daurade (sea bream) one night. As Fabien vouches, co-owner and chef Céline Bonnieu knows how to cook every fish and crustacean in the Mediterranean.
The smiling staff sporting mariniéres is happy to suggest a bottle from the fish-friendly, all-white wine list -- an organic picpoul de pinet from Château Petit Roubié or a Corsican vermentino from Domaine Fiumicicoli. There’s a dessert made fresh each day – like panna cottta topped with caramel or a brousse (local goat cheese) served with farm-fresh strawberries. If you’re lucky, limoncello is sometimes on hand for a digestif.
The dining room is a visual feast, nautical kitsch made cool by Fabien’s window-stylist wife, Shéhérezade. Lifeguard vests are draped on chairs, bright yellow buoys hang from the ceiling, and the bar stools are made with giant hooks sourced from the shipyards in nearby La Ciotat. That ship pipe on the bar next to the cash register? It’s a tip jar.
Boîte á Sardine was the first place I ate in Marseille. Not knowing a soul in the city, I came solo, but was immediately welcomed by Fabien, a man of enormous energy in spite of his razor-clam-thin physique. He sat me at a communal table where my seatmates swapped their fried anchovies for my whelks in aioli. Since then, I have returned with local and out-of-town friends, eager to share this spot that makes me and my stomach smile.
I partly owe my presence in Marseille to the Boîte – for when I returned to write an article about it and the Marseille food scene, I fell for the port city. Are you ready to get hooked?
tip Fabien and Shéhérezade have an bright blue food truck that matches their intials, Fishe & Shipes that is spotted at local festivals about town. It can be booked for parties too.
fyi Only open for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays so plan to whittle away an afternoon at lunch.
nearby Bar à Pain, Nour d’Égypte
hours Dinner: Th- F 19h30 – 21h30 | Lunch: Tu - Sa 12-15
2 boulevard de la Libération