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playing my part at a 3 star michelin restaurant on la côte d’azure

When I told a friend that I had reserved a table at a 3 star Michelin restaurant, she laughed and encouraged me “to spend away my retirement cash.”  I reminded her that our plan to eat lunch at the French Laundry in California would have cost more than what I had estimated for the lunch at the 3 star restaurant in France.  I reasoned that I was saving money by eating in France.  That is silly, of course, because both restaurants are expensive and indulgent, and one wonders, “What is the point?”.

I prefer a bar à vin or a typical bistro that serves three simple courses and where the waiter serves a decent espresso at the end.  I pay attention to what the Michelin guides say about the other restaurants, the ones without the stars.  If a restaurant receives a Bib, I take notice.  ‘Bibs’ are awarded for simple yet skillful cooking: “Bib Gourmand: good quality, good value cooking.”

If a restaurant has “simple fare,” I go.  The words “Assiette MICHELIN : une cuisine de qualité” and “standing simple” are good signs, and I consider a restaurant even better if I see “Belle carte des vins.”

I know then that an “inspecteur” has been there and thought it worth a visit.  It is one way to limit the choices from thousands of restaurants.

Eating in a starred restaurant is like taking part in a play, and you are one of the actors. You do not know your lines but improvise along the way, hoping to say the right thing.  You take your cues from everyone around you, the many waiters, the maître d’, the sommelier, the young woman who brings a tray of fish to your table for you to inspect and whom you will never see again.  It is even more difficult to play a part in a foreign country where speaking the language is difficult.

Recently, I played my part at a 3 star Michelin Le Petit Nice.  Marseille is the second largest city in France, but it has only one 3 star restaurant.  That restaurant is Le Petit Nice.

Before reading further, you might watch a minute or two of an Anthony Bourdain episode “Marseille,” originally broadcast on his series Parts Unknown.  He eats lunch at Le Petit Nice with his traveling companion chef Eric Ripert.  It starts around 07:10.

They order the Ma Bouille Abaisse, as chef Gérald Passédat calls his deconstructed version of the Marseille bouillabaisse.  I ordered the same meal.

The Ma Bouille Abaisse cannot be ordered from the table; it has to be requested with an advance reservation.  When you sit down, the only carte you will be given is the wine list.  Your meal was being prepared well before you had arrived.

What is it?  What is on the menu?  How many courses are served?  I looked at the menu, of course, before going, but it was the waiter(s) who explained as the courses were served.  I will break the meal into six parts, although the Ma Bouille Abaisse is three courses.

First, there was the Avant-Goût which was an appetizer.  Next came the Premier Palier, or coquillages crus et girelles en beignets, sucs de girelles.  The third stage was the  Deuxième Palier with poissons et crustacés au bouillon safrané.  The last course of the Ma Bouille Abaisse is the Troisième Palier, or as the menu says, « Pour arriver en profondeur, trois pièces de poissons cuits entiers, soupe de roche aux favouilles ».  The last two courses, if you will, were Une Douceur and the Mignardises.  I ordered an espresso to drink with the mignardises.

I mentioned earlier that eating in a starred restaurant is like being an actor with a role in a play and not knowing the blocking or the lines.  I was ready to improvise my way to the end.

Course between the Avant-Goût and Premier Palier (I wish I knew what this is. It came first and is incomplete in the photo. Some garnishes of fish eggs were added. After eating it, I was to drink a light fish broth that had a tea bag seeping in it for 2 minutes.)

When I arrived at the restaurant, I could not figure out how to enter.  I had walked there from my apartment in Malmousque along the back streets.  I tried to enter from the back entrance, which had a sign pointing to the delivery door.  A door that I thought I could enter as a person who belongs, having earlier made a reservation and who was about to spend a small fortune and not the milk man, had two buttons.  I pushed them and spoke into the speaker.  No response.  Finally, a voice said, “Push the door.”  I had been trying to open the door by pulling on it.  (Why did I not push in the first place?  I blame the design of the door, and that is another story.) But wait, there’s more!

did I just eat an honest-to-goodness vraie bouillabaisse, or was it simply an expensive soupe de poisson

A fair number of French will tell you in unguarded moments that “Marseille is not France,” and what they mean by that is that it’s too Arab, too Italian, too Corsican, too mixed up with foreignness to be truly and adequately French.  But, anybody who knows me knows that’s exactly the kind of mixed up gene pool I like to swim in and eat in. It is a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices, garlic, saffron and the sea.  –Anthony Bourdain

You can make as dramatic a production as you want out of a bouillabaisse, but remember that it originated as a simple, Mediterranean fisherman’s soup, made from the day’s catch or its unsalable leftovers.  –Julia Child, who lived in Marseille for a year.

. . . there’s a convincing school of thought that says bouillabaisse, unlike its brethren around the Mediterranean, was a rich man’s dish from the beginning. Supporters of this argument point out that bouillabaisse is not made with just any fish but with quite specific varieties, none of which were ever abundant enough to be cheap, and that things like saffron and butter, both essential ingredients, would have been impossible for fisherman to afford until quite recently.  –Traveler’s Lunchbox

On any list of favorite Anthony Bourdain episodes would be his take on Marseille from Parts Unknown.  It is no longer available on Netflix, but it can be watched at  dailymotion.  Around 07:15, Anthony Bourdain and his traveling companion chef Eric Ripert are soon to eat a bouillabaisse à ma façon at Le Petit Nice Passedat, the only three star Michelin restaurant in Marseille.

Today, that lunch for Bourdain, Menu Bouille Abaisse en 5 services, costs 210€ per person, and one will need to reserve that particular menu item in advance, not after sitting down at the table.

What they eat is not a vraie bouillabaisse–my characterization–but a deconstructed version.  À ma façon, or in other words, the way I make it.  Sometimes well established chefs, in this case in a Michelin star restaurant, will take a staple dish, well-known, and break it down and remake it in a creative, thematic fashion.  To understand what is happening and to understand why, it is probably a good idea to eat a vraie bouillabaisse before making reservations at a Michelin starred restaurant and ordering something à ma façon.

One cannot eat une vraie bouillabaisse for under 50€ in France, or elsewhere.  One can certainly find a bouillabaisse for less and one for more than 200€.  A typical vraie bouillabaisse will cost between 50€ and 60€ for one person in Marseille, or nearby.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.) But wait, there’s more!

going to the chapel at saint-étienne-du-mont

. . . I walked on in the rain. I walked down past the Lycée Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St.-Étienne-du-Mont and the windswept Place du Panthéon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St.-Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St.-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St.-Michel.  —Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition.

I have been going to church lately.  I have not chosen to go on a Sunday.  It has been in the morning during the week, before lunch, or sometimes after lunch and I am walking after having eaten well.

When tourists visit Paris for the first time, they will visit a church.  Often, it will be Notre-Dame de Paris or Sacré-Coeur on the hill in Montmartre or both.

When I enter a cathedral, I look specifically for particular features: the stained glass windows, the chaire, the confessional booths, the nave, the organ, and the chapels.  I admire the architectural features as well, but the afore-mentioned features—several of them—are often more accessible; they can be appreciated up close.

Notice that I wrote “cathedral” instead of “church.”  Notre-Dame de Paris and Sacré-Coeur are examples of Roman Catholic cathedrals.

Churches with the function of “cathedral” are usually specific to those Christian denominations with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches.

I discovered the cathedral Saint-Etienne-du-Mont some years ago.  I had often seen it while walking by the Panthéon on my way to rue Mouffetard or to a favorite bistro à vin, Les Pipos.  I learned that the cathedral had a cemetery with some notable persons buried there, among them Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolution rabble rouser and pamphleteer.  (Today, he would be celebrated for his savage tweets.)

I went to the cathedral in order to walk the cemetery.  However, I learned that it has not existed for a long time, and many who had been buried there were long gone, including Marat.  During the search for Marat, I noticed the cathedral.

While I think of a cathedral, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, for example, as a tourist destination, it is a place of worship.  It is the seat of a bishop, who leads a diocese.  It is therefore a crucial place of worship for Catholics, who gather there to attend daily Masses or to participate in the main liturgical celebrations of the Christian calendar.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Often the center of the cathedral will have three aisles, one through the center, or nave, the primary area of public observance of the Mass, and aisles to the left and right which allow access to the small chapels.  The outside aisles are separated from the nave by pillars.  One can have a sense of walking through an arcade.

But wait, there’s more!

prisoner n° 280–the widow capet–& her défenseur officieux

Lock her up!  Lock her up!  Lock her up!  —Attorney General Jeff Sessions & conservative high students during a speech

Off with his head! Off with his head! Off with his head!  —Queen of Hearts

“How many did they say?” “I do not understand you.” “—At the last post. How many to the Guillotine to-day?” “Fifty-two.” “I said so! A brave number! My fellow-citizen here would have it forty-two; ten more heads are worth having. The Guillotine goes handsomely. I love it. Hi forward. Whoop!”—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

On the way to the guillotine, she collapsed in the tumbrel and cried “You are going to hurt me! Why?!” Terrified, she screamed for mercy and begged the indifferent crowd for help. Her last words to the executioner were: “One more moment, Mr. Executioner, I beg you!”  –Madame du Barry, on 8 December 1793.

Claude François Chauveau-Lagarde.  That was his name, Marie-Antoinette’s lawyer.  He tried to save her from the guillotine.  He nearly lost his head, too.

He is my neighbor.  Around the corner from my apartment and on the other side of the wall of the cimetière de Montparnasse, he rests in Division 1.  The street near Chemin Circulaire in the cemetery, where he is buried, is named allée Chauveau-Lagarde.  His marker says simply, “CI-GIT CHAUVEAU-LAGARDE AVOCAT DE LA REINE AU PROCES DE 1793.’

At a crucial, dramatic moment during the French Revolution, he was asked to defend several men and women who were charged for high crimes before the Revolutionary Tribunal and faced execution by guillotine.  He had a title, which did not exist before the Revolution, of défenseur officieux, or public defender.

Among his ‘clients’ were several women who were major figures in their own right and at their deaths showed great courage, according to contemporary accounts.  For example, he was the advocate for Madame Élisabeth (sister of King Louis XVI), Charlotte Corday (assassin of Jean-Paul Marat), Marie-Antoinette (the last Queen of France), and Madame Roland (a supporter of the French Revolution and influential member of the Girondist faction).

I learned about Chauveau-Lagarde, un défenseur au tribunal révolutionnaire, for the first time, when I visited the Chapelle expiatoire in the Square Louis XVI and saw the exposition Chauveau-Lagarde avocat de Marie-Antoinette. But wait, there’s more!