Michel Portos was born in Marseille's rough northern suburbs, became a superchef at the chic Saint James Hotel in Bordeaux, where he earned two Michelin stars and was named Gault & Millau Chef of the Year. Now he has come home to run Le Malthazar.
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Le Malthazar is a venerable brasserie on a scruffy side-street leading up from the quai du Rive Neuve; it's a five-minute walk from the Old Port. Portos took over the site in the summer of 2012 and it re-opened in mid-September of that year.
His game plan, the chef says, is to drop out of the Michelin rat-race and return to his roots with a more relaxed, playful, and informal restaurant that will, nonetheless, keep standards high. A fantastically bold move and a great idea. But has Portos succeeded?
As well as its former name (inspired by the Balthazar in New York), the Malthazar retains its original, faintly Belle Epoque atmosphere, with small, simple bistro tables (no tablecloths), an attractive tiled floor, long bar counter, a plain, bold, red and blue colour scheme and walls decorated with vintage photographs.
A lot larger than you would think from the tiny, modest façade, the main brasserie plus the glassed-in annexe at the back (there's no outdoor seating) can accommodate 90-100 diners.
The high-ceilinged room has a warm ambiance, without the awful echo of a typical Terence Conran eaterie. But there is a decidedly impersonal feel to the whole operation.
We ring to reserve. No-one answers. The voice mailbox is full and not taking messages. When we eventually get through, the greeting is friendly. Yes, on a weekday lunchtime in mid-November, a table for two is available.
At midday the Malthazar offers a keenly priced two- or three-course set meal. Earlier publicity had promised a choice here between meat and fish; in fact there was no choice of either starter or main course.
Unlike most French brasseries, the daily specials aren't posted outside so that you can decide if you fancy them before you go in. When the menu arrives at your table, they aren't listed there either. The waiter rattles through them, but only after we ask him what they are.
Service is, to put it mildly, brisk. Before we have time to order wine, the starter appears. It's a small, unceremonious dollop of cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup garnished with mushrooms, some fresh, some apparently rehydrated and pretty chewy.
The main course was shoulder of lamb accompanied by a too-salty chick-pea puree and sliced carrots with a Middle-Eastern flavour (cumin and sultanas). All perfectly pleasant, even if both the meat and the vegetables were a bit over-cooked.
There was a choice of dessert: lemon meringue pie or chocolate brownie, both good and unexceptional. The kitchen had run out of the pie well before the end of the lunchtime service.
The à la carte menu contains a mixture of more classic traditional fare like salade niçoise or beef tartare and inventive dishes with oriental and tropical twists. These may be more exciting. What we sampled was a very average, competent and conventional brasserie meal; one that seemed to come straight from a production line, without flair or a personal touch.
It's as though Portos, fed up with the pressures of superstar cuisine, were being deliberately self-effacing. And, at these prices, you can't expect top-drawer Michelin confections.
On the other hand, you could eat equally well or better for less at a half-dozen other spots in Marseille (see our guide to the city's best restaurants for some other suggestions).
Perhaps our meal was atypical; the restaurant certainly teemed with locals on our visit. And the downsides could be excused as early teething troubles. However foodies on French discussion boards have given the Malthazar a resounding thumbs-down so far and I suspect Portos will need to smarten up his act if he wants to keep his clients.
Oh yes, the wine. When we finally had a minute to read the list, we got a shock: it roved across the regions, but had nothing much under the 40-50 €uro mark (a few cheaper bottles were listed, all of them sold out).
No house wine was mentioned but, if you're lucky, the waiter might tip you off that a local wine is available by the glass. That's the one to go for, judging by the rest of the clientele.
Otherwise, the Malthazar doesn't look like quite such a bargain. Still, in the 2013 Michelin Guide, the Malthazar was awarded a Bib Gourmand for "value-for-money cuisine", so what do we know?
Visited November 2012
Where: Le Malthazar, 19 rue Fortia, 13006 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 33 42 46. Website for Le Malthazar restaurant
Postscript: Portos has clearly committed himself to Marseille: in October 2014 he opened a second restaurant in the city. Right on the Old Port by the Town Hall, it's called Le Polpe and, if it lives up to its ambitions, should be a welcome oasis of fine food in a desert of tourist traps.
Le Polpe offers all-day catering, is open seven days a week (both all-too-rare features of the Marseille restaurant scene) and serves only locally sourced ingredients and wines. Designed by François Champsaur, it seats 40 diners inside and 40 more on the terrace, which overlooks Notre Dame de la Garde and the Old Port. At 84 quai du Port, 13000 Marseille.