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We ate at Ottolenghi’s Islington restaurant last week. I think the last time I queued to get into a restaurant was in 1985 in Sydney and even then I thought I was too old to do that again. But here I was, lined up, with a 15 minute wait for a table. Still, what better place to do that, with a visual feast of food to ogle, and his books to browse. Sarah-Louise complained about the long list of ingredients you need to make his dishes. Often the case, but also often pretty ordinary things you will have about the place anyway. Of the list below, I had everything except chard. As Ottolenghi observes, however, spinach will do fine, just omit the precooking. This is such an easy dish and however unlikely the combination of ingredients may seem, the result is lovely to eat.

Chickpeas with yoghurt

Chickpeas with yoghurt

Ingredients

300g Swiss chard
5 tbsp olive oil
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 tsp caraway seeds
250g cooked chickpeas
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ lemon, juiced
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
Salt and pepper
100g Greek yogurt
1 tbsp olive oil

Method

Wash the chard, separate the stalks from the leaves, blanch the stalks for five minutes and the leaves for two, then chop both into ½cm dice.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan, add the carrots and caraway seeds, and sauté for five minutes. Add the chard and chickpeas, sauté for six minutes, then stir in the garlic, lemon juice, herbs, salt and pepper, remove from the heat and set aside to cool a little. Adjust the seasoning to taste.

When ready to serve, mix the yoghurt with a tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and spoon over the prepared mixture in its serving bowl – whether that be one for the table or a plate for each diner. Perfect at room temperature.

Last year it was one of the picnic meals we had again and again, keeping the yoghurt in a separate container and adding it at the eating stage. Earlier today I realised that this year summer had gone by without a single picnic. Instead we had this today as part of a meal with a simple Indian vegetable curry and rice.

I don’t understand why Syracuse isn’t right up there for food in Melbourne. I’ve always loved it and this time around we managed no more than this modest affair, but could it be more beautifully presented?

My candidate for most exquisite looking breakfast.

My candidate for most exquisite looking breakfast.

And the setting matches:

Syracuse

The first time I decided to upgrade my accommodation was a very long time ago indeed. Staying at a B&B in Eastbourne I decided to lash out the extra 2 pounds for private bath and loo. My-oh-my did I get good value for that 2 pounds. I caught a bug going around the day I arrived and without going into the gory details, I got the 2 pounds back just in toilet paper, never mind the rest. I was so sick that I couldn’t stand up the next day, let alone get down the stairs and off to the bridge tournament.

It’s one of the things that’s stuck in my mind about travelling ever since. In theory as a tourist you are out and about all day and really, what’s the point of investing your travel money on your room? But in practice, you never know. On our way to Marseilles last week, we spent two days in Lyon, which I was really looking forward to, not least due to its reputation for restaurants. Our particular experience went like this: Day one it rained and rained. Day two sickness struck. That could have been two days miserably spent in miserable digs, but we’d made the fortuitous decision to stay at the Sofitel. A nice room, splendid bathroom, good wifi and, with a perfect location not just for going out and about, but also for staying in.

Unfortunately the main restaurant, which sounds worth a visit, was closed for holidays while we were there, but it was also the breakfast room and the views from the floor to ceiling windows was spectacular:

Sofitel Lyon restaurant

Sofitel Lyon restaurant

At night, on the top floor adjacent to the restaurant is the cocktail bar with different sweeping views:

Sofitel Lyon Bar

Sofitel Lyon Bar

We didn’t try out the spa or the fitness equipment, but it was nice to know it was there.

Despite the gods being against us, we managed to get up to the Basilica and the Roman theatre. We are going to have to do that again in kinder circumstances. The only other specific thing we did was take a 30 minute hike to the Paul Bocuse Food Hall. It shouldn’t have taken that long, more like 20 minutes, but the rain slowed us down. Another trip maybe we’ll eat there, it was a pleasure to wander around, that’s for sure. Marseilles, Lyon….both towns for further investigation, sooner than later, I hope.

Day one in Lyon, we got there towards the end of lunch time and, worried about our chances if we went out, we ate at the bistro attached to our hotel: Le Silk, which has no website that I can see. We had traditional French dishes: tartare and fish with vegetables. Generous serves, prices ok. We decided to go back in the evening as we weren’t hungry enough to have a full scale meal in a restaurant and the weather was lousy. Plus I could satisfy a craving that I can’t explain.

I’d noticed club sandwich on the menu with a warning that it took 20 minutes to prepare. The thought was irresistible. Apparently I talk of club sandwiches with the same lust that the average man might summon up for a blonde at the bar. Lust? Club sandwich?

Put like that, I had to confess it was true. I don’t understand the origin of this lust, but it is undeniably there. I can only suppose that some time in my life long ago I ate a perfect club sandwich with the best fries at a divine five star hotel and it is etched into my subconscious ever since. I can’t consciously summon up this experience, but clearly it is there somewhere. Probably when my dementia gets a bit worse it will be a memory unlocked that I talk about constantly whilst forgetting ever to eat any more.

The theory was that we would share a Caesar salad and a club sandwich and then I could stop obsessing about the idea. In practice we got a really REALLY disappointing meal. The Caesar salad was mediocre. And the club sandwich wasn’t even properly hot – shouldn’t it be hot? I imagined hot. I imagined it would have hot egg in it, for example, whereas the egg was cold. And the bacon wasn’t in the sandwich, it was a garnish on top, 2 strips of it.

I don’t know where I stand now on the whole subject of the club sandwich. My lust was completely and utterly unsatisfied. But I feel shy of trying the whole thing again. I feel like the guy at the bar who risked a lot to get his leg over with the blonde only to find that it just wasn’t worth it. What did I risk? Well, the opportunity cost of my embarrassingly uncontrolled desire was a proper French meal. As I keep saying lately in these post: another time….

Marseilles: final thoughts

We were both rather shocked by Marseilles at first sight, by the dirt, the lack of safety, the rundownedness of the architecture. But by the end I think we’d pretty much agreed we have to go back. The rejuvenation and revamping of the Fort Jean area was, I believe, one of the big undertakings by Marseilles for its celebration in 2013 as a designated European City of Culture. It really is incredible, spotlessly clean and stunning combination of the old and the new. We didn’t go to anything in the museum as we didn’t have the time, it was our last morning before catching a train for the next leg of our trip. I understand that the islands and boat tours generally are great to do and that too is for another time. Really, other than eat well, we were very bad tourists, even by our own standards, which couldn’t be much lower. It would also be a good possie for day trips, including Avignon.

Another new project that came to fruition at this time is the newly opened Intercontinental. We sat about here for a drink one afternoon:

Marseilles Intercontinental

Marseilles Intercontinental

It’s good to see that big business can have such a positive role, in this case, preserving a magnificent building the history of which goes back to the 1100s when it opened as a hospital and continued on in that role until 2006.

Intercontinental Marseille

Intercontinental Marseille

All in all, my initial conclusion is that Marseilles is a perplexing mixture of grubbiness and grandeur. I look forward to exploring the contradictions further, another time.

I still don’t know if we failed an IQ test or not when we booked a hotel in Marseilles.

My first three thoughts were to stay at the Sofitel. I’m kind of glad we didn’t. We kept trying to find it, thinking we’d drop in for a posh cup of tea, and the only time we actually managed was when we went to Fort Jean. So we were standing high up, looking out over the sheer drop to the water:

Fort Jean

And I spot it just across from us. All I need is a rope to scale down the wall and a taxi-boat down the bottom, it’ll only take a few minutes to get over there. I’m guessing this is the only way of getting to the Marseilles Sofitel. We tried a more pedestrian route twice with no success whatsoever.

Fortunately, (since there are no taxi-boats in Marseilles) we had decided instead to stay at Grand Hotel Beauvau Marseille Vieux Port. Here’s where we may have failed the IQ test. We were tossing up whether to spend extra to get a Port view window or to save it for restaurants and went for the latter. As you can see from my last post, we ate well, so I don’t begrudge the decision to go for the room with no view.

This is an old, quaint hotel which rests partly on the laurels of its history. Chopin and George Sands, amongst other nineteenth century luminaries, had stayed there and indeed, etched into the wood of the antique desk in our room was a heart with ‘C&G 4ever’ scratched into it. There was also a very VERY old cigar butt with lipstick on it at the back of the desk drawer. This place is nothing if not authentic. But the view of Marseilles, port or any other bit of it was pretty much exactly the same as the one of Marseilles I have right now….and I’m penning this in Geneva.

The good thing about a room with a window looking onto nothing at all, was that it prompted us to hang out of an evening in the hotel’s cocktail bar. This picture is from the hotel’s site, but it is exactly where we sat and what we saw:

The Grand Hotel’s Bar

Who needs a room with a view, when a bar with a view will do just as well?

There’s nothing like giving one’s stomach a say in things. I’d heard that Marseilles is the place to go for food in France these days and we certainly didn’t eat badly.

Les Arcenaulx had an irresistible attraction for me, being a white tablecloth restaurant set in the surrounds of old books. It was hot in Marseilles, so we appreciated that the seasonal nature of the 3 course menu took that into account. Tempura zucchini flowers and ceviche kicked things off, next a main fish course saw the fish turned into Japanese rolls, but accompanied by roasted, room temperature vegetables; chocolate tart and cheese to finish. Excellent bread was served and a little appetiser, the nature of which has escaped me. I would not have used the term ‘tempura’, the flowers were battered, nice, but nothing like the lightness of tempura. I wish we’d had time to go back here for afternoon tea, but that will have to be another time. There are both antiquarian and news bookshops on the premises and as you can see from the website pictures, one of which I have copied below, it is a stylish place. Food was 38Eu/head.

Arcenaulx in Marseilles

Next day we tried one of the young set who are producing something more like a good quality Australian bistro feel. I cannot help thinking that the chef at L’Aromat may end up regretting his irreverent take on the dish that makes Marseilles famous, bouillabaisse. Served as a starter, you receive lined up on a plate, a shot glass of soup to be drunk through a straw, a neat little bouillabaisse burger and chickpea chips. I imagine the Marseilles establishment is not amused. It worked well, but will they ever be able to take it off the menu? The tourists, at any rate, would be outraged. I had zucchini flowers again, this time stuffed with rabbit. Completely different dish from the one the day before and super good. We both had the fish of the day done in a take on pistou soup, not bad, not great either – I don’t really see that pistou and fish go together. We both finished with one of those slightly runny in the middle warm chocolate puddings which was offered (and declined) with Nutella cream.

It might sound like this was a rather limited menu, but that was far from the case. For a 3 course menu there was a choice of 5 starters, 5 mains and 7 desserts. If I may preserve the French of the occasion, we had:

  • Fleurs de courgette farcies à l’effiloché de lapin confit à l’huile d’olive, jus émulsionné et râpé de truffes d’été

  • Hamburger de bouillabaisse,ses frites en panisse, soupe de poissons en verrine
  • La pêche du jour gratinée au basilic, compression d’une soupe au pistou, cigare à la vieille mimolette x 2
  • Moelleux tiède chocolat au cœur coulant, chantilly Nutella et crème glacée à la vanille x 2
  • Bread was excellent, as was the appetiser, again its nature escapes me. This was another place I’d like to visit again.

    Day three was crunch day. Proper bouillabaisse or not? This is a dish that started off life as a way for poor people to utilise fish scraps, think the Marseilles equivalent of Americans on foodstamps. These days it is utterly gentrified. One can get cheap versions, but with the price of fish no longer being cheap and the filthy surrounds of the port area, I didn’t want to eat this – or anything else – without going upmarket. The long and the short of it is that you can pay anywhere from about 20EU to 100EU for a bowl of fish soup in this town.

    We decided on Fonfon, one of those typically recommended and it was easy to see why. Nice water setting, casually dressed staff who nonetheless were informative and helpful, and impeccable seafood. The fish to be used in the bouillabaisse was brought out on a platter and named. This dish consisted of the stock served with aoili and rouille. After a while the fish – now scrupulously deboned – and potatoes were brought out to be added to the soup as you pleased. At the same time diligent staff topped up your bowl with more soup. 50EU for a bowl of soup? Worth every cent! I wasn’t up to something so large, despite having taken a 2 hour walk to get to the restaurant, one hour of which was getting lost. I can’t see my dish on the menu, but a really lovely piece of fish which was supposedly done in some sort of Thai way. If so, the Thai nature of it was so discreetly done that I failed to notice it. Delicate and exactly what I needed. I did not like the bread, but it had olives in it so I wouldn’t. When I go back to Marseilles, this is the place I’ll choose for my boillabaisse.

    I’d read that Le Glacier du Roi was the place to go to for icecream in Marseilles. It was good, but as to whether it’s the best, clearly more research is needed.

    Near there is Cup of Tea. A good selection of teas. We had a piece of quiche too, accompanied by a salad so dismal that the best I can say about it is that at least it didn’t have grated carrot and sweetcorn with it, being merely bad lettuce and bad tomato. The quiche itself was okay. I’d go back for the tea.

    Did somebody say ‘When in Marseilles do as the Romans do’? It’s a long story, but we went to an Italian restaurant La Cantine. We shouldn’t have done that.

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