Bouillabaisse is a Marseille institution, and if you like seafood and rich Provençal flavours, you will love bouillabaisse. I say that with the conviction of a diner who has only sampled this dish once, at Chez FonFon – one of the best meals not just of my trip, but probably of my life so far. (Yes, really!)
Nestled in the tiny village of Vallon des Auffes, which has since been swallowed into the city of Marseille, Chez FonFon is an easy half hour walk from Vieux Port. This tiny harbour houses picturesque homes, at least one snoozing cat, a flotilla of boats carefully tied to the dock, and a handful of fantastic little restaurants.
(St Ives Grab Bag, Modalu)
The most famous of these is probably Chez FonFon, which has been visited by Johnny Hallyday, Eric Cantona, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Jean Reno, Francis-Ford Coppola, Jacques Chirac, and many others. It was even the subject of one of Keith Floyd’s TV shows, where the chef visited the restaurant to discover their bouillabaisse. (You can see the video here.)
However, Chez FonFon is not one to rest on its laurels, and unlike many other famous destination restaurants, its interior is beautifully modern – airy, breezy and very, very chic.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by the bilingual waiters, both of whom were incredibly kind, patient and funny when serving us. Although the price list is enough to make your eyes water, this is certainly not the kind of establishment that enjoys intimidating its guests. Instead, the staff are warm and friendly, and the service is attentive without being overwhelming.
Once you’re seated, you’ll receive a complimentary plate of tapenade, another Provençal specialty, served with croutons. Then comes a tiny glass of gazpacho to whet your appetite for the main event – the bouillabaisse!
All the guidebooks will tell you that bouillabaisse is easy to find in Marseille, but to beware cheap imitations. Good bouillabaisse should cost at least €50, which coincidentally, is what the dish cost at Chez FonFon. At around £40, this is easily one of the most expensive meals I’ve eaten in my life, but considering it was a special anniversary dinner – and that it was utterly incredible – I’ll state that it was most definitely worth the price.
Bouillabaisse, at its most basic, is supposedly a peasant dish elevated to great heights by the culinary attentions of the French. Like many other peasant dishes turned haute cuisine, it’s based on punchy, deep flavours, coaxed to perfection by care and attention in the kitchen. To begin with, at Chez FonFon, you will be presented with the dish containing the raw, whole fish that will be cooked for you later, and the waiter will name them for you, so you can promptly forget them all, like I did. Then, you are brought a basket of crusty, delectable croutons, and two bowls of wobbly egg based sauce (like mayonnaise), both of which are specialties of the region. The red is rouille, spiked with chilli, and the creamy coloured one is aioli, which is flavoured with garlic.
Then, the waiter will advance with a grand tureen of soup, which he’ll ladle ceremoniously into your bowl – this is the bouillabaisse proper, a soup of fish stock, garlic, onions, tomatoes and olive oil. Other additions to the recipe include fennel, saffron, thyme, bay, and dried orange peel.
As well as this, you are brought the fish, which has been poached in the soup, along with potatoes. This is served on a separate plate, and you spoon your fish and potatoes piece by piece into the hot soup to keep them warm as you go. The fish is what marks a true bouillabaisse from an imposter. Real bouillabaisse must have fish fresh from the calanques – the craggy shores of Provence – where bony rockfish lurk, perfect for lending their gelatinous and flavourful qualities to the stock. In reality, lean fish of many different types are acceptable in a bouillabaisse, and some restaurants even add shellfish into the mix.
Along with the soup, you eat your croutons topped with the two sauces – some say you should pour the soup over the top of the croutons, but I personally prefer to eat them crunchy and slick with sauce. To dip or not to dip… Really, I say it’s up to you.
The bouillabaisse here is an incredibly hearty dish. Don’t even think about ruining your appetite with a starter if you’re ordering some. Once you’ve spooned your way to the bottom of the soup bowl, expect a waiter to appear with the tureen again to top you up – a process which will continue as long as you have room in your stomach.
It goes without saying that if you’re not a fan of seafood, then there’s little point in going to Chez FonFon – but as my husband dislikes fish in every single form with the possible exception of fish fingers doused in ketchup, I had to ensure that there would be some meat on the menu for him before we booked! And there was, in the form of this gorgeous veal fillet in a red wine sauce, complete with ‘lost vegetables’ and a potato gratin.
Then, onto the puds! My husband had a selection of ice creams – salted caramel, coffee and chocolate.
I had a dish called ‘L’original’, accompanied by a glass of muscat from Corsica selected by our waiter. The pudding was comprised of a layer of pears topped with a caramel foam, which was brûléed to create a delicious finish. In the centre was a scoop of that salted caramel ice cream – an absolutely incredible finale.
Thus ended one of the best meals I’ve ever had – and I highly recommend a visit to Chez FonFon if you’re ever lucky enough to go to Marseille. I know I won’t be able to return without booking another visit!
Reservations are essential at Chez FonFon, which is located at 140, Vallon des Auffes in Marseille. Visit the website here. You can contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or make a reservation via La Fourchette.com on their site.