Dinner from the sea to the table at the port of L’Estaque in Marseille – Culinary Backstreets


Perched on the northern border of Marseille on the shores of the Mediterranean, the port of L’Estaque was once teeming with fishermen. From the 17th century, the locals fishermen would catch sardines, tuna, mackerel and rock fish (The redfish essential for the city’s emblematic bouillabaisse.) In the 1960s, these independent fishermen were swallowed up by the boom in industrial fishing, which led to a decline in the fish population, especially sardines.

Although there are now more pleasure boats than those in the port trays (traditional wooden fishing boats), the fishing heritage of L’Estaque is not completely dried up. In 1976, Marseille’s fish market moved from the Old Port to the Port of Saumaty, just south of the village. And, since 1997, L’Estaque has been home to one of the city’s best fresh fish restaurants by the sea: l’Hippocampe.

Just north of the main street in L’Estaque, Hippocampe is hidden from the busy street. A staircase leads you there feet in the water, the French expression for eating by the water which translates to “feet in the water”. A seaside table at Hippocampe feels like floating in Lou Saran’s tiny harbor – a man sitting next to us spent more time marveling at the fish swimming below than interacting with his table companion.

Often times, seaside restaurants are synonymous with mediocre food and high prices, as if the epic sight makes your taste buds – and your wallet – irrelevant. Fortunately, this is not the case at Hippocampe, where you devour delicious fish, incredible pizzas and homemade desserts for a remarkably reasonable price.

Our favorite fish dish is plancha de la mer, a plate well stocked with mussels, scallops, langoustines, squid and a whole fish of the day. The hearty plate can feed two – generous portions are the norm at this family-friendly place. Other popular boating offerings include fried mussels, salmon tartare and prawns flambéed with pastis.

Many opt for the whole fish – presented on a silver platter before being cooked and then expertly carved next to the table by the chatty waiters. Depending on the day, you will have the choice between a large Saint-Pierre, Wolf (European sea bass), the pink pageot, Where sea ​​bream, the star of many Marseille menus. Their freshness is guaranteed since they come directly from the source.

Roger Purroy, a marayeur (fishmonger) at the Port of Saumaty, owns Hippocampe with his wife Andrée. Nicknamed Dede, the sensible sexagenarian neighborhood girl cooking in neighborhood kitchens since the age of 15. The hardworking couple opened their table by the sea to carry the family torch – Dédé’s parents owned the nearby restaurant La Réserve (shown in black and white on Hippocampe’s menu).

The freshness of their fish is guaranteed since they come directly from the source.

Considering the culinary and piscicultural prowess of Roger and Dédé, it is not surprising that Hippocampe is known for its bouillabaisse. Dédé uses a traditional recipe that his mother adopted from her grandmother (it’s a well-kept secret). With its laborious preparation, you need to order in advance. Ghislain, a cook turned manager, also explains how bouillabaisse is “better in winter” because their generous portion of fish (four to five pounds plus shellfish!) Makes the stew even more filling.

He also praises the pizzas, for which they are “famous all over the city”. The seasoned pizzaiolo produces perfectly charred pies in a wood-fired oven. Favorites include anchovy, basil and mozzarella, or the Corsican-influenced classic of figatelli sausage and bush cheese. It is a Marseille tradition to serve pizza and fish under the same roof, with locals ordering a pizza as an aperitif to share.

Try to make room for the fantastic desserts, which, like the hot rolls at each table, are homemade. The lemon pie has a tangy lemon curd filling topped with a cloud-shaped meringue and caramel sauce. Although stuffed, we still licked our plate clean.

Shaded in summer and open in winter, the outdoor patio is flanked by a concrete balustrade sculpted with the restaurant’s mascot – seahorse is seahorse in French. Inside, the whitewashed ceiling and navy blue accents evoke the interiors of the old boats floating alongside. From a few tables, we can see the Good Mother in the distance, reminding us that far from the city center, we are still in Marseille.

Despite its intimate character, Hippocampe can accommodate a hundred guests. Reservations are essential, however, as the tables are always filled with a friendly mix of regulars, people who work in the neighborhood, groups on festive outings and guests who come from as far away as Nice. We like to take the ferry from the Old Port for a sea-to-table lunch.

Roger and Dédé don’t have a website and never advertise – word of mouth keeps them busy. Because when you run a good fish restaurant on the water, you don’t need to buy more bait.

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