Une Table Au Sud, Marseille

Crime black spot to culinary hot spot: Marseille is a city reborn. Even so, locals couldn't believe their luck when the great Monsieur Levy came to town
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The only two good things to have come out of Marseilles, it is said, are bouillabaisse and Zinedine Zidane. But the ancient seaport is changing fast. Its hard-bitten, crime-ridden, drug-tainted, corruption-at-the-top image is fading, property values are soaring as well-heeled Parisians and chic, creative types buy anything with a door on it, and money is pouring in to the new biotech industries springing up around the city.

The only two good things to have come out of Marseilles, it is said, are bouillabaisse and Zinedine Zidane. But the ancient seaport is changing fast. Its hard-bitten, crime-ridden, drug-tainted, corruption-at-the-top image is fading, property values are soaring as well-heeled Parisians and chic, creative types buy anything with a door on it, and money is pouring in to the new biotech industries springing up around the city.

In 2001, the TGV began hurtling through Burgundy to Provence, reducing the train journey from Paris to just three hours. Suddenly, Marseilles became a tourist destination in its own right, rather than somewhere to travel through on the way to somewhere nice - like, um, Nice.

One of the aforementioned chic, creative types drawn to Marseilles in the past few years is chef Lionel Levy, a young Alain Ducasse protégé who cooked in Ducasse's three-star Paris restaurant before moving to his then newly opened Spoon in London. When Ducasse learnt Levy wanted to leave the flock, he was surprised. When he learnt he was leaving to move to Marseilles, he was astounded. So, I imagine, was Marseilles.

Une Table Au Sud is a million miles away from the touristy bars and restaurants that line the old harbourside, with their packed terraces, over-cooked bouillabaisse and replicant middle-aged waiters in bow ties.

Au contraire, this relative newcomer has (gasp) no outdoor seating, no (double gasp) middle-aged waiters and no (dead faint) bouillabaisse. Instead, you walk up the spiral staircase to a smart but unfussy room with comfortable chairs, intricate parquetry, large clothed tables, walls of cerise and olive, and curved walnut dividing screens. Those with a table by the window get an extraordinary view across the yacht-infested harbour to the cathedral perched high on a hill on the other side of the water.

Fellow diners run from young Parisian couples to cashmere-draped family groups, all of whom take great interest in what everyone else is eating.

Luckily, it is worth getting interested in. Toulouse-born Levy's menu revolves around the flavours of his adopted Provence and showcases what he calls "instant" cooking, in that it is prepped and cooked freshly to order.

The appetiser is perfectly pitched - a little tumbler of ripe, voluptuous tapenade, the olives crushed rather than puréed, and served with little rags of jambon cru and wisps of crisped baguette.

Then comes the shock of the new, with a little shot glass of foamy cep and lobster-stock mousse, a sliver of raw cep mushroom on top. It's more bubbles than substance, like a tingly sherbet, but the flavours are intense.

Gaspacho is ubiquitous along the coast, particularly in Marseilles. Levy takes it further than most by making a range of gaspacho from three different rare heirloom tomatoes (€14/£9.60), served in a line-up of squat whisky tumblers, with not one of them being red. There is yellow (Blanche de Quebec tomato with white balsamic and strips of red pepper); green (zebra tomato with pumpkin-seed oil and cucumber dice) and orange (persimmon tomato with citrus oil). All three taste lively, tangy, fresh, lightly acidic and very individual.

Levy's tendency towards simplicity is almost iconoclastic in an age of gastronomic illusionism, as practised by the likes of Gagnaire, Passard and Veyrat. But courgette flowers stuffed with prawn and guacamole (€14) are just that: steamed baby courgettes with their flowers bulging with sweet prawn chunks and creamy avocado.

Every table, it seems, is ordering roast squab (€22/ £15), including my own. It's real and rustic, the bird carved into sections and strewn with roasted white and yellow carrots. There is a pine nut and rosemary butter, a scattering of black olive bits and, on the side, a narrow cylinder of pastry filled with the bird's offally bits. The breast is pink and rested so it cuts and chews tenderly, and flavours are soft and relaxed. Adding immeasurably to the pleasures of this particular table is a Domaine La Begude 2001, a big velvety, chunky, complex Bandol.

More Provence-with-a-twist, comes in a platter of red-mullet fillets (€22), fried with marjoram and served with baby aubergine dressed with argan oil and little purple and white taro chips. The fish is nuttily sweet and moist, and I swear it would have been playing in the water along the rocky coast this time yesterday.

There is a lightness to Levy's hand that makes it a pleasure to choose both dessert and cheese. A single large tomato (again) has been stuffed with a Christmassy mix of candied peel and pine nuts (€12/£8.20) and drizzled with a sticky basil-scented caramel. The cheese course (€12) is a charming variety of perfectly judged local goats' milk cheeses of various ages, served on black slate with a couple of fruity compotes.

Lionel Levy is living proof that there is life in Marseille beyond the postcard bouillabaisse. They pay attention to detail (freshly churned butter, stream-lined cutlery, excellent glassware) but nothing is allowed to get in the way of the diners enjoying themselves. Theirs is a modern, confident, restaurant with sleekly professional service, a serious cellar and a determined and individual air. I nominate it as the third good thing Marseilles has done for the world.

16 Une Table Au Sud, 2 Quai de Port, Marseille, tel: 00 33 4 91 90 63 53. open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. around €150 (£100) for two including wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: Other must-try Marsellaise restaurants

Restaurant Les Trois Forts Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port, 36 Boulevarde Charles Livon, tel: 00 33 4 9115 5956 This elegantly ship-shape restaurant on the fourth floor of Marseille's most beautifully located hotel offers a breath-takingly lovely view of the old port. Locally born chef Dominique Frerard does a sophisticated twist on Provençal flavours with his grilled pepper terrine with tapenade, roasted sea bass with stewed fennel and potatoes, and peach and basil soup.

Chez Michel 6 Rue des Catalans, tel: 00 33 4 9152 3063 This sleek and glossy 58-year-old institution is the finest place to go for la veritable bouillabaisse Marsellaise. In fact, if you don't want bouillabaisse, bourride, or the freshest of sea bass, then you are in the wrong place. Michel is endearingly old-fashioned and utterly fanatical about fish.

Coquillages Toinou 3 Cours St Louis, tel: 00 33 491 33 14 94 One of the great joys of Marseille is that great shellfish costs far less than in more fashionable parts of the Cote d'Azur. Toinou is a great favourite; hectic, loud, cheap, and perennially packed with people poring over huge platters of oysters, clams, mussels, sea urchins, crabs and prawns, in full view of the over-worked oyster-openers.

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