The only Michelin-starred restaurant in Cassis, La Villa Madie has been through tough times since it opened in 2006. But it managed to weather the storms and is today one of the town's more desirable - and relatively affordable - places to eat.
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In February 2014 the Villa Madie was promoted from one star to two in the Michelin restaurant guide. This came as quite a surprise as the previous chef, Jean-Marc Banzo, had left to concentrate on his new restaurant at the Hotel Renaissance in Aix, and his successor, Dimitri Doisneau, had only taken over the kitchen 11 days before the guide appeared. We visited the restaurant in March 2012 while Banzo was still running the show.
La Villa Madie sits slightly on the outskirts of Cassis, on the road to the Plage de Corton and Plage de L'Arène beaches.
Its chef, Jean-Marc Banzo, recalls that this area was something of a wasteland when he first moved in (the property is owned by the Mairie, or Town Hall, and was previously used as a summer residence for policemen).
Happily The Villa Madie has been now transformed into an idyllic, if slightly secluded, spot. This is not for you if you want the bustle and people-watching on the harbour front at restaurants like La Poissonnerie or Chez Gilbert. What it does offer is a pampered, immaculately gastronomic experience.
Inside, La Villa Madie is spread over two levels. The ground floor accommodates the main restaurant, a sleek, pared-down and spacious dining area decorated with modern art and equipped with a superb terrace (pictured) overlooking the sea and Cap Canaille.
An excess of staff fusses busily in the dining room to no great effect so, for a more relaxed and intimate meal, try to get a table outside in the summer or by the plate-glass windows in winter. There's also a small indoor area for pre-prandial apéritifs, though La Villa Madie doesn't have a licence to serve drinks to non-diners.
Upstairs, a more informal space houses La petite Cuisine, a bistro-style operation serving a three-course set lunch which represents fantastic value for food of this quality, especially compared to some of the decidedly overpriced tourist traps on the harbour (the restaurant also offers more expensive five- and seven-course options).
We sampled the "petite cuisine" menu. However, the upstairs area was being renovated during our visit in the spring of 2012 (and, reportedly, a barbeque was being installed there to offer grilled fish and meat as an alternative to the set meal).
So the apartheid between bargain diners and the big spenders was briefly lifted and everyone chowed down together on the ground floor.
Recently reopened after a short midwinter break, the restaurant was full and bustling, with a mainly local clientele that mixed solo businessmen, families with young children and tourists - all greeted with equal style and courtesy.
Banzo was born in Tunisia, into a Sicilian family. But his training is pure classic French, and so is the repertoire at La Villa Madie.
On the à la carte menu you might find wild turbot with sea urchins alongside ultra-traditional meat dishes like pork chop with Puy lentils. Generally speaking, though, La Villa Madie is focussed - though not exclusively - on seafood and fish.
The set menu came with all the trimmings of a top-price meal: crusty, home-baked bread and a tasty little mise en bouche: an espuma of smoked sea bass.
There was a good choice of reasonably priced local Cassis wines by the glass - try the Cuvée Notre Dame des Lumières, which Banzo, pictured, developed with the local wine-maker Nicolas Bontoux specifically for the menu at this restaurant. A list of over 650 wines by the bottle caters to real buffs.
The main meal was, indeed, fishy. The starter (there's no choice of options) was a salad of tender encornets (squid) on a herby couscous salad. It was followed by cabillaud, or cod, Note that in French morue normally refers to salt cod of the kind found in aïoli, while cabillaud is the cod as it comes straight from the slab.
At La Villa Madie, these chunks of fish were fresh and, as they should be, slightly gelatinous. They were accompanied by "vegetable tagliatelle" - which turned out not to be pasta at all but, instead, pretty, colourful ribbons of carrots and leeks.
The dessert, by contrast, was really disappointing: a messy and over-complicated assembly of soggy "citrus biscuit" smothered in too many different garnishes, including bland puréed fruit (possibly, though not necessarily, mango), a brandy snap and cream.
It suggested that the restaurant's strong point is simple dishes which rely on the quality of fresh ingredients and immaculate preparation to make an impact.
Banzo held two Michelin stars as the chef of Le Clos de la Violette (pictured) in Aix en Provence when in 2006 he was offered the Villa Madie on a 25-year lease by the Town Hall of Cassis, presumably in the hope of promoting high-end gastro-tourism in the town. Hopes were high for the new venture, which was co-piloted by the star sommelier, Enrico Bernardo.
At first the duo did not disappoint. In 2008 Banzo won another Michelin star for La Villa Madie. But at the same time he was punished with a downgrade from two stars to one at Le Clos de la Violette.
And since then La Villa Madie itself has gone through a series of crises, triggered by a killer combination of three factors. It began with a high-profile clash between Banzo and Bernardo (who is no longer at the restaurant), swiftly followed by the effects of the recession and Banzo's self-acknowledged failure to realise just how seasonal business could be in Cassis. At the beginning of 2012, there was even talk of selling the restaurant.
So Banzo must have heaved an enormous sigh of relief when a new investor came on board and, shortly afterwards the 2012 Michelin Guide renewed the restaurant's star. Justifiably: La Villa Madie is a valuable addition to the culinary scene in Cassis and long may it continue.
Visited March 2012
Where: La Villa Madie, avenue Revestel, 13260 Cassis. Tel. (+33) 4 96 18 00 00. Fax (+33) 4 96 18 00 01. Website for La Villa Madie