Gerard Passedat, chef at Le petit Nice, MarseilleLe petit Nice is the only restaurant in Marseille with three Michelin stars. In fact, it's one of only three three-star dining spots in the whole of Provence - with sky-high prices to match them. Is it worth it? logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

Le petit Nice is a tremendous success story for the family which has owned and run it for over 100 years. Germain Passedat, a baker-pâtissier, bought this Greek-style villa from a countess in 1917 (and, rather ostentatiously, plastered his name all over the frontage).

Lucie Passedat, 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 Passedat, 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. He earned it for his inventive variations on Mediterranean cuisine specialising in unusual ocean species sourced from local fishermen.

The only other three-star Michelin restaurants in Provence are MonteCristo in Le Castellet and La Vague d'Or in Saint Tropez.

You reach Le petit Nice down a narrow alleyway off the busy Corniche JF Kennedy coastal road. There's a small private car-park for diners and guests: it's also a hotel.

Set well back from the busy thoroughfare, it sits 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.

Le petit Nice terraceOn 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 French law, the coast here has to be publically accessible - you suspect the restaurant would like it too to be closed off.

In the distance are the Prado beaches and the Island of Maïre. Contrary to some guide-books, there are no views of the Old Port or the Frioul Islands - these are hidden behind a rocky outcrop.

The dazzlingly all-white dining room is light and airy with very large picture windows. It was almost empty on our first visit, much busier - though still apparently not quite full - the second time round.

A wide range of à la carte dishes is offered, including Passedat's personal spin on the Marseillais bouillabaisse, as well as various elaborate tasting menus.

The main thing to be ready for is that the restaurant is overwhelmingly focussed on the sea. Everything is fish-based (except for the vegetables, cheeses and desserts, of course). Carnivores need not apply, though they can order up a meat dish by prior arrangement.

sea urchinExpect exotic local specialities such as sea anemone, poutargue (mullet roe from nearby Martigues) and, in season, sea urchins, pictured, as well as a wide range of fish determined by the catch of the day. The menu rather preciously lists the individual fishermen who specialise in each item.

It 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 one of those fancy ones equipped with water jets that will clean your bottom for you too).

Amuse-bouche at Le petit NiceWe have eaten twice at Le petit Nice, once for lunch and once, some years later, for dinner.

On our first visit we sampled the house apéritif, 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.

We sampled the lunchtime set menu, available on weekdays only and consisting of four courses with (optional) wine pairings selected by the sommelier.

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. It came grilled and accompanied by a crisp, raw fennel and citrus salad.

marseille le petit nice dining roomOn that visit, some years ago, the set menu still included a meat course, though this seems later to have been discontinued. It could be anything ("selon notre inspiration," states the menu), and was on that 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.

Our second visit, for dinner, was rather different. The food was more elaborate and exotic. For instance, we noticed a wider range of oriental-style seasonings, perhaps in response to the enormous growth in the numbers of Asian visitors to Provence.

Everything came with multiple complex accompaniments and was intricately, at times fussily presented. With one bouillon, for instance, we were presented with a coffret containing a choice of four different herby "tea-bags" to season it.

On both visits we were disappointed by the paired wine tasting menu. It featured very good wines from all over France, but barely a sign of Bandol, Cassis or any of the other superb vineyards from the region.

The only concession to Provence viticulture was - at lunch - a sweet vin cuit with the dessert. It seemed odd, given the emphasis on regional food produce. Cassis white wines, in particular, are fabulous with fish.

marseille le petit nice aerial viewThe 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. 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 lacking in local atmosphere.

As other diners have remarked, there was no sign of the head chef in the kitchen or dining room on either of our visits, though his chubby, friendly little French bulldog was omnipresent.

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 also supervises the kitchens at the Les Docks shopping complex in Joliette, Château La Coste near Aix en Provence and even the Hôtel Lutetia in Paris. He may be spreading himself a little thin.

The boutique hotel at Le petit Nice boutique hotel 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 a handful of rooms and suites in two separate villas on either side of the alleyway, one decorated in modern style, the other - the Marina wing - more traditional. There are virtually no public areas apart from the restaurant, swimming pool and terrace.

Visited July 2011 and June 2018

Where: Le petit Nice, Anse De Maldormé - Corniche JF Kennedy, 13007 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 59 25 92. Website for Le petit Nice

Click here to find more of Marseille's best restaurants

Find further viewing on Amazon:

Inventing Cuisine - Gerald Passedat [DVD] - Passedat profiled in an instalment of a documentary series portraying France's great chefs.



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