marseille cafe des mediterraneesThe Café des Méditerranées boasts one of the finest locations and some of the best food in the area around the MuCEM to the south of Marseille's Old Port - and all this at bargain prices.

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We first visited this café based in the Villa Méditerranée in spring 2016. As we hovered by the door inspecting the menu, a couple of regulars urged us in.

They'd eaten there just the day before, when they had liked a certain dish so much that they were already back for seconds. And, as we soon found out, they weren't wrong.

But first the setting. The Café des Méditerranées is right on the waterfront. A handful of tables are parked outside the door, but the best spots are inside, in the light-drenched dining room.

This is a long, thin space whose plate-glass windows offer fantastic views onto the sea, the MuCEM and the Fort Saint Jean, as well as the ancient Église Saint Laurent and the 19th century Palais du Pharo: a panorama of some of Marseille's most beautiful buildings, of all eras.

marseille cafe des mediterranees counterIts dominant feature is a stunning zinc counter, pictured. It's faced with azulejos - blue and white ceramic Portuguese tiles - sourced from a store just round the corner in the Old Town.

Apart from that the decor is simple and the short daily menu is chalked up on a slate.

The Café des Méditerranées used to be a fairly basic snack bar but that changed after the arrival in early 2016 of a new chef, Xavier Zapata.

Though it's still called a café, and retains a mellow atmosphere, this is now very definitely a "proper" restaurant that's fast building up a local reputation.

Zapata is employed by a local association called Cumin whose mission is to promote gastronomy and produce from all around the Med, from Spain through Italy to North Africa and the Middle East. He does it brilliantly.

The menu offers six or seven starters and we followed our waitress' suggestion to order three or four of these for a mezze-type tasting.

There are plenty of vegetarian options. The choice changes daily but included, on our visit, a vegetarian mini-coucous, artichokes and fennel with shaved parmesan and aromatic cheese from local Le Rove goats, supplied by a particular farmer whose wares you won't find anywhere else in Marseille.

The star, pictured (in the foreground), was a sort of soup based on almond milk with a slight salty-fishy tang and a crouton of spicy Calabrian sausage. It was strange but undeniably delicious - and the reason for our new friends' return visit.

marseille cafe des mediterranees mezzeWe didn't sample the main courses but these included more traditional meat, fish and pasta dishes, so if anyone in your party isn't feeling too adventurous, he or she will still find something to suit.

Certainly the small boy on the next table didn't look like a big connoisseur of seaweed-scented almond milk soup, but he made short work of his rigatoni.

We're not usually into desserts but these were so irresistible that we ordered three (for two people). The Seville orange cheesecake and dark chocolate mousse were the business. But the most memorable was a white chocolate creme with rhubarb compote and a little garnish of preserved olives - yes, olives. The sweet-salt combo was exquisite.

The dessert portions in particular were enormous - and the bill extraordinarily low: around 40 €uros for an excellent, filling meal of four mezze and three desserts plus a carafe of very nice Coteaux Varois wine.

A final word in praise of the service, which was both friendly and thoroughly professional. The staff was proactive in offering advice, without being pushy. You can access the restaurant, by the way, even when the Villa Méditerranée itself is closed.

Footnote: Things change quickly in Marseille. When we went back to the Café des Méditerranées for a second helping in autumn 2016, Zapata had just moved on a couple of weeks previously, lured by a tempting job offer on the Corniche. His successor was Pierre Gianetti, also a respected chef, formerly of the restaurant Un Grain de Sel.

So far the concept and style of cuisine remained unchanged: you could order either a selection of small mezze or a traditional main course. We sampled tasty braised leeks with cod and poutargue (mullet roe, a speciality of nearby Martigues) and more of that delectable chocolate mousse. The Café des Méditerranées is still one to watch.

Visited April 2016, October 2016

Where: Café des Méditerranées, Villa Méditerranée, Esplanade du J4, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 6 46 04 58 97. Website for the Café des Méditerranées

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence

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