AM Alexandre Mazzia restaurant cardChef Alexandre Mazzia's eagerly anticipated restaurant in Marseille is simply called AM - and it's one of the best, quite possibly the best and certainly the most remarkable in town. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

AM opened in June 2014. When we visited it two months later, French critics, food bloggers and gastronomes were already raving about it in the sort of lyrical, over-the-top way that only the French do so well.

"Expressionist".... "emotional"... "poetry in the kitchen"... "visionary"... "a taste magician": these were the sort of phrases being bandied excitedly about. This time, though, we thought they might just be accurate, for a change.

We'd admired Mazzia's inventive and surprising food while he was head chef at Le Ventre de L'Architecte, the restaurant in Le Corbusier's Radiant Ciity.

And we were keen to see what he'd do once he had the freedom of owning his own place. We were so impressed that we come back regularly for repeat helpings.

Other, wiser heads have been impressed too. Just a few weeks after our first visit, Mazzia was acclaimed by the prestigious gourmet guide Gault & Millau as one of eight chefs tipped to be "Tomorrow's Greats" ("Les Grands de Demain"). "Alexandre Mazzia has a true vision," said Côme de Cherisey, the director of Gault & Millau.

AM par Alexandre Mazzia in Marseille restaurant dining roomThe following year Mazzia received his first Michelin star and won the Gault & Millau d'Or award for the best restaurant in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. And in the 2019 Gault & Millau restaurant guide Mazzia bagged the ultimate accolade: he was named Chef of the Year.

So what, you ask, is it actually like? AM serves 22 covers, plus two in-demand bar seats at a counter overlooking the open, black-walled kitchen.

The dining room, pictured, is simple with a touch of Le Corbu brutalism: bare, textured concrete walls, generously spaced, beautiful blond oak tables and charcoal grey and cream fixtures.

The atmosphere is zen: although the space is sparsely furnished, it's not echoing or noisy. Activity in the kitchen - where no fewer than ten chefs are at work - is relaxed, graceful, like a well-choreographed dance. No superchef tantrums! Lit by perfumed candles, the WC in the basement is (like a number of the courses) very black.

The restaurant is well away from the main tourist area. It's hidden down a residential side-street in Marseille's upscale eighth arrondissement, near the Prado roundabout and metro stop - not too far from the Vélodrome and the Radiant City, in fact.

There's no passing trade: you have to know about this place with its discreet, rather nondescript facade and seek it out. And that's exactly the way that Mazzia wants it.

You've got no view of the sea or the Old Port either (the plate glass windows look on to a modern apartment block) and no outdoor terrace. No distractions. The food here is the focus. And what food!

AM has no à la carte or conventional three-course set menu to confuse things. Instead a small, minimalist charcoal grey card, pictured top left, sits quietly on the table. It proposes an unspecified and mysterious tasting menu. You can choose between three tariffs, but after that you're entirely in Mazzia's hands.

At lunchtime the tasting menus would give you either about six or about a dozen or more "courses" of exquisite little confections. The exact number varies and, on our most recent visit, we tasted no fewer than 18 different dishes. In the evening the prices rise and "the journey is longer", as the maitre d' rather charmingly puts it.

Some of the portions are tiny. Unless you're ravenous, though, you shouldn't feel hungry at the end of the meal: these are intense and unusual experiences that leave all your senses satisfied.

Mazzia spent the first 14 years of his life in the Congo, studied with Pierre Hermé, Alain Passard and Michel Bras and has lived in Japan. So his cuisine is marked by an exotic mix of classical French, African and Asian influences.

AM Alexandre Mazzia red mulletOn all our visits the meal focussed on vegetable, fish and shellfish courses. The first time, we were served just one meat course (suckling pig, with aubergine, meat bouillon and combava). On other visits there was no meat at all.

So AM is not one of those restaurants that relies on flashy, expensive ingredients such as truffles or foie gras to make an impact.

Many of the components were simple, like couscous or mackerel. It's the creativity that transforms them. You're paying for a highly labour-intensive cuisine.

On each of our four visits, we sampled one of the more expensive of the lunchtime tasting menus. The line-up changes all the time, of course, but here's an idea of what it might feature.

A creamy broth perfumed with smoked haddock and peppered with hazelnuts and cocoa grains; red mullet on broccoli puree with chocolate and cherry, pictured; charred satay tuna in tapioca speckled with bright green flying fish eggs, accompanied by wasabi ice-cream with lobster oil; succulent white sea bream with aubergine, raspberry and harissa...

On a couple of visits we ate smoked eel with chocolate. Desserts might come with avocado, mustard, espelette pepper or chorizo oil.

Even the bread and butter are unusual: for example, jet-black carbonised vegetable bread and butter scented with combava, an oriental citrus fruit.

Every assembly contains at least five or six elements and is presented differently: sometimes on a mother-of-pearl shell, at others on a marble or wooden slab or a little grass pad. But you never feel - as you do in some restaurants which plaster everything in sight with miniature pansies and balsamic vinegar - that the presentation and garnishes are fussy or irrelevant.

AM Alexandre Mazzia restaurant exteriorEach combination has been lovingly designed and applied and even the weirdest sounding ones are delicious.

The waiting staff rattle off the ingredients at high speed as they announce each dish and might not tell you in advance about the chilli spiking that juicy cherry.

This doesn't seem to matter much, though. Sometimes it's good not to know everything about a dish and to discover it blind.

In any case it goes without saying that you shouldn't come to AM if you don't like unusual food combinations, or if you're after a nice big juicy steak frites or a hearty Marseille bouillabaisse.

The restaurant has sourced wines that you can order by the bottle to drink all through the meal. Alternatively you can opt for a tasting menu to accompany different courses. Minimalism also rules here. There was one single, very expensive rosé on our first visit and none at all when we returned.

You wouldn't expect to see a cheap house wine at AM, and there isn't one. Their steep prices do push up the bill and we noticed that a number of of our fellow-diners - mostly locals and apparently regulars - were ordering a single glass or simply juice or water.

Casual and friendly but efficient, the staff make you feel at home immediately: you're neither neglected nor smothered with unwanted attention.

For instance, the wine we ordered on our first visit seemed fine, but the sommelier decided it wasn't up to scratch and insisted on replacing it - and without making us feel like idiots for having approved it in the first place!

For all the minute attention to detail in the decor (even the chairs have been specially designed), the atmosphere is more that of an informal brasserie than a top-notch, avant-garde gastronomic restaurant. That's a compliment.

AM Alexandre Mazzia at workMazzia himself, pictured, worked in full view and - unlike some top chefs we could mention who are nowhere to be seen in their own restaurants - somehow found the time to greet and talk to diners and even serve some of the dishes at the tables himself.

In short, AM par Alexandre Mazzia was a revelation, a giant leap forward from the chef's previous work at Le Ventre de l'Architecte.

When we first started going, it was an absolute bargain. In August 2014 the cheapest of the set lunches was 35 €uros, the same as you would expect to pay in many pretentious restaurants for a much more conventional meal of far lower quality and ambition.

Remarkably, when we returned a year, and even three years later, the price was exactly the same - despite all the prizes Mazzia had received in the meantime. But now, with its Chef of the Year award, AM has become much more expensive. Though we're still saving up for another return visit!

News for Alexandre MazziaIn 2017 Mazzia launched a new venture: a brasserie called Pointe Noire, in the Old Town of Aix en Provence, which he has opened with his brother, Jean-Laurent.

The name is a tip of the hat to the brothers' African roots: Pointe Noire is the city in the Congo where they were both born. Click here to read more about this restaurant and our other picks of the best in Aix en Provence.

Visited August 2014, September 2015, September 2016 and October 2017.

Where: AM, 9 rue François Rocco, 13008 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 24 83 63. Website for AM par Alexandre Mazzia.

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