Renaud Pierlot was a wine-maker for 17 years near the Mont Sainte Victoire. After selling his vineyard, he decided to open a restaurant where the food was excellent but the wine - paired by the glass with each dish - was the star.
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Vinonéo is the very happy result. It nestles on a quiet, pretty, south-facing square at the foot of Marseille's Old Town or Panier, right between the historic Accoules Church and the Hôtel Dieu and opposite the Daviel Pavillion. It's slightly set back from the harbour though from certain tables you do have a glimpse of the Old Port.
The little dining room (pictured below) is decorated by two young Marseille designers, Pierre Juvigny et Magalie Harant, in a clean, light, warm modern style with orange cushions and lampshades and blond wood furniture: the restaurant won a design award in 2008. There's a terrace outside for sunny days.
A small vase of flowers sits on each table, and a plate of olives appears while you wait for your meal. The menu is in French only but the serving staff speak good English.
Vinonéo has a local reputation for its warm welcome and though Monsieur Pierlot was not on duty on the day we visited, we were very well looked after by his daughter instead.
The lunchtime menu, which changes constantly, is short, simple and inclined towards classic cuisine with imaginative twists. On a visit in late April, cold dishes - various combination salads, cheese and meat platters and steak tartare - predominated, though some hot food was available too.
Pictured, the house salad, prettily presented, was (cold) chicken breast in a tarragon sauce, rocket salad with a zingy touch of crushed coriander, asparagus tips and baby fèves (broad beans) and faisselle (curd cheese) with diced cucumber served in a little glass. Everything was market-fresh and delicious.
We also sampled spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and basil, a well-prepared traditional dish. Though the prices didn't seem particularly cheap at first sight, the food, upon arrival, turned out to come in generous portions and represented remarkable value for money, or qualité-prix as the French say.
Sadly we had no room to try any of the desserts for which Vinonéo is celebrated; they might include, depending on the season, an apple tiramisu or a rhum baba.
But the real masterstroke at Vinonéo is the wine paring. Each dish comes with a suggestion for a wine to accompany it (which you're not obliged to follow) – and it, too, appears in a good-sized serving for less than you would pay for a glass of plonk at a nearby bistro.
The pasta came with an intensely flowery rosé, Sainte Victoire Domaine des Diables 2011. The chicken was unexpectedly teamed with a Saumur Chamigny Domaine des Sanzay 2009, a tannic red which wouldn't normally be to my taste but did go wonderfully well with the dish.
All of Pierlot's choices are surprising and revealing: the cheese platter is likely to be paired with a white wine and, if you order the charcuterie (cooked meat), you get a mystery wine which you have to guess at served in a black glass.
You can order wine by the bottle too, of course, and there are hundreds to choose from (though Vinonéo is not licensed to serve drinks without food).
A prix fixe is offered at lunchtime during the week. In the evenings the menu changes and food comes in (cheaper) half portions - a little like Spanish raciones - to encourage people to experiment and share.
Visited April 2012
Where: Vinonéo, 6 place Daviel, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 90 40 26.