Le petit Nice is the only restaurant in Marseille with three Michelin stars. In fact, it's one of only two three-star dining spots in the whole of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur - with prices to match. Is it worth it?
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Le petit Nice is a tremendous success story for the family which has owned and run it for nearly 100 years. Germain Passédat, a baker-pâtissier bought this Greek-style villa from a countess in 1917 (and, rather ostentatiously, plastered his name all over the frontage).
Lucie Passédat, the matriarch, was an opera singer who was photographed by the pioneering film-maker Louis Lumière. Some of these charming, tinted photos are still displayed in the reception area.
Her son, Jean-Paul Passédat, also became an opera singer, then moved into catering. He won his first Michelin star in 1979 and a second in 1981.
In his turn, Jean-Paul's son, Gérard, took over the kitchen in 1990, but had to wait until 2008 for a third star, for his variations on Mediterranean cuisine specialising in unusual ocean species sourced from local fishermen.
The only other three-star Michelin restaurants in South-East France are Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Flocons de Sel in Megève, in the Rhône-Alpes and, since 2013, La Vague d'Or in Saint Tropez.
You reach Le petit Nice down a narrow alleyway off the busy Corniche JF Kennedy (there's a small private car-park). Set well back from the busy thoroughfare, it's on a peaceful promontory with stupendous views. The restaurant is guarded like Fort Knox. You ring to gain entrance both to the car-park and to the restaurant itself.
On fine days, you can take an apéritif on a large, south-east facing garden terrace set around a swimming pool. You have to disable yet another alarm system if you want to get into the locked pool area.
It overlooks a small rocky crag where the Marseillais come to swim and sunbathe. Under local regulations, the coast here has to be publically accessible - you suspect the restaurant would like it too to be closed off.
The house apéritif is a sweet concoction featuring champagne, strawberry liqueur and basil; the more classic drinks come in vast servings.
Along with them - as well you might, since prices are hefty - you get a selection of little nibbles (pictured) neatly served in a white compartmentalised dish.
They might include immaculate whitebait, chopped squid with mango, which is a lot nicer than it sounds, a small spoon of emulsified fish stock and little garnished sable biscuits.
The blond wood dining room is light and airy with large picture windows; almost empty on our visit, it would get very noisy if all the tables were full. A wide range of set menus and à la carte dishes is offered.
The menu is in French only, though there are plenty of English-speakers ready to help out among the army of waiters and sommeliers dancing attention on you in old-school Michelin style.
If you go looking for the WC, someone will rush to accompany you and open the door (the toilet itself is equipped with water jets that will clean your bottom for you too).
The Menu de l'Anse de Maldormé, available at weekday lunch-time only and consisting of four courses with (optional) wine pairings selected by the sommelier, was sampled.
More amuses-bouche appear while you wait for the first course: a sushi like piece of mackerel and a spiced compote of green tomatoes, accompanied by a choice of five home-made breads (all fine, if unexceptional).
The dishes varied slightly from those flagged on the website for Le petit Nice. Roast hermit crab (tourteau) was followed by poisson de palangre (a generic term for deep-sea fish caught with a line: Passedat's speciality) grilled with fennel and accompanied by a crisp, raw fennel and citrus salad.
The meat course, which could be anything ("selon notre inspiration," states the menu), was on this occasion a chop of Sisteron lamb with green beans (over)-cooked in butter.
The lamb was delicious and meltingly tender, but very thickly encased in fat with only a couple of mouthfuls of meat on it.
The advertised Vacherin cheese was replaced by two tiny red-fruit tarts by way of dessert. As with the other courses, portions were minute.
It goes without saying that the food was superb. It was also a little unimaginative. Apart from the odd, unexpected, very subtle seasoning (cocoa in the crab sauce, cinnamon on the lamb), the cuisine was classic, not innovative in any way.
Another disappointment was the wine tasting menu, which featured a good, flinty Ardèche viognier, followed by wines from Corsica, the Languedoc and Bordeaux. Not a sign of Bandol, Cassis or any of the other superb local wines: the only concession to Provence viticulture was a sweet vin cuit with the dessert.
However, the evening and à la carte cuisine, which features Passédat's personal spin on the Marseillais bouillabaisse, are more adventurous and the full wine list is as comprehensive as one would expect.
The overall impression is that the three stars were awarded for the setting and the service as much as for the food. But Marseille teems with good restaurants with amazing views and the service, while attentive - over-attentive, even - was formal and rather cold.
As other diners have remarked, there was no sign of Passédat in the dining room, though he could have hardly been rushed off his feet. In a word, Le petit Nice lives up to its name: it's a sealed enclave of refined, rather bland Côte d'Azur elegance, but sorely lacking in local atmosphere.
Passedat is additionally in charge of catering at the MuCEM, Marseille's prestigious new flagship museum way on the other side of the Old Port, and at a pâtisserie at the recently opened Les Halles de la Major food court in the vaults of Marseille's cathedral. He may well be spreading himself a little thin.
Le petit Nice also incorporates a boutique hotel, which earned its fifth star in 2011. This makes it one of only four five-star hotels in Marseille, the others being the C2 Hotel, which opened in 2014, and the very different, much larger Sofitel Vieux Port and InterContinental Hôtel-Dieu.
Le petit Nice offers 13 rooms and three suites in two separate villas on either side of the alleyway, one decorated in modern, cubist style, the other - the Marina wing - more traditional. Rooms were not available to visit. There are virtually no public areas apart from the restaurant and terrace.
Visited July 2011
Where: Le petit Nice, Anse De Maldormé - Corniche JF Kennedy, 13007 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 59 25 92. Website for Le petit Nice
Find further viewing on Amazon:
Inventing Cuisine - Gerald Passedat [DVD] - Passedat profiled in an instalment of a documentary series portraying France's great chefs.