A nice table by a large, freshly washed window has me staring distractedly at the street. Nine and a half small flowers are towering in a tiny vase in one corner of my little temporary empire, while on the other side the menu and wine list have been left untouched. I know what I wish for in the former and will not be needing the latter.
Repetitive music is hissing out of bad ceiling speakers, trying hard to be funky jazz but merely reaching the disgraceful mark of elevator background noise. People are trickling in, small groups on business lunches, regular singles with a newspaper, an elegant couple here and there, speaking softly. I look at the empty seat at my own table and can’t help but letting out a deep sigh. Soon.
The restaurant occupies the entire length of this older building, one long room flanked on one side by the bar and kitchen counter and lined with 15 or 20 tables of various sizes. At the back, squeezed between an elevated back-alley and more windows, a narrow strip of empty space has been pompously labeled as patio and a few more tables fitted in. Large fans are spinning lazily far above me and I can’t imagine they would do much good in the summer heat. But this is May and while "Je fais ce qu’il me plaît", the outside door still had to be closed to protect a pale skinned lady seated behind me.
Dark red moldings interrupt the otherwise boringly beige walls. The floor is old wood, and so are the tables and the bar, behind and above which a decent collection of bottles reflects the place’s open claim to French-hood. I can make out Pernod, Ricard, Greygoose, Campari and a long range of French wines.
My bouillabaisse arrives. Having sampled it here years ago, I remember not to expect rouille, which to me really defeats the purpose. But it was otherwise good, then, and is again today. Unconventional, but good. Served in a plate that is obviously too shallow to pretend being a soup bowl but too deep for anything else. I don’t like having to fight for my soup. But the saffron makes up for the fight, added to the dish itself when I thought I should go in the rouille.
Passers-by shamelessly help themselves mentally into my plate from the street, eyes hungry and imagination running wild. I can’t blame them. One always wonders. Of course, I’ve eaten at least two better bouillabaisses. One was a recent – and rather anachronistic – feast, cooked in Brooklyn, out of time, out of place, but never out of context since a Frenchie was meeting a French cook at heart.
The other is half-buried underneath a decade of chronic traveling and many layers of sorrow – five at least, according to Kübler-Ross. Somewhere in the old Marseilles, under the shadow of the Bonne Mère basilica, in a dark little resto off the beaten path and with no pretension other than continuing a long established tradition, my father had treated me to an exceptional bouillabaisse, one that might forever serve in my mind as a Reference in the field of fish soups.
It had been brought to our vinyl clothed table in no time, being the only dish on that day’s menu, accompanied by the most succulent rouille and croutons, in a bowl that made dipping a spoon in it as enjoyable as a dive into clear tropical water when one’s skin is burning. The flavour was amazing and without a doubt a direct consequence of the presence of a small fleet of tiny fishing boats, "les pointus", resting in their picturesque harbour a few steep streets below.
We’d talked about anything and everything, refaisant le monde, discussing extreme right politics, the Foreign Legion, planes and airlines and airports, Provence, Pagnol and food. And the past. Remembering the rabbits and chickens slowly roasted à la broche on the open air grill my dad has stoned and cemented in the angle of our small L-shaped garden, endlessly spun around on the spit and lovingly basted with a brush, the necessary herbs having been found fresh a few feet away, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves…
We had tried to catch up, to make up for lost time, to fill a gigantic gap. No one ever can. But trying is what matters. Trying and learning from our mistakes. If only the Chef at Cassis could learn that rouille m-u-s-t accompany bouillabaisse for it to be worth a trip down the memory lane and a glimpse of old Marseilles, through time and space…