When chef Lionel Levy, a native of Toulouse, chose Marseille as the venue for his first restaurant in 1999, it was considered a nervy choice by many. Would the brawny port city, gastronomically best known for its bouillabaisse and pizza, take to the adventurous cooking of a young chef trained by Alain Ducasse who wasn’t one of its own? And even more pointedly, how would the locals react to Levy’s witty riffs and reinterpretations of several southern French dishes – a bouillabaisse ‘milkshake’ among them – that they hold dear to their hearts?
Well, suffice to say that Levy went on to not only win a Michelin star for Une Table, Au Sud, his restaurant above a café overlooking Le Vieux Port, but also a solid following of appreciative local regulars. So it came as no surprise when Levy was tapped to become chef at the elegant InterContinental Marseille Hôtel Dieu, the city’s first new luxury lodging in many years, which opened last summer. However, on my way to dinner at Alcyone, the gastronomic restaurant at the hotel with Levy at the helm, I wondered how the chef would adapt to such a momentous change. (Levy’s since sold Une Table, Au Sud, and is head chef for the entire hotel, including its brasserie, Les Fenêtres).
Arriving inhabitually early – it was the only way to snag a table – the charming and alert maître d’hôtel asked if I’d like to see the kitchen, which I did (I suspect he surmised that I was a scribe from my notebook and camera), and when I got a glimpse of the small but well equipped kitchen that’s dedicated to the restaurant, I guessed that Levy would be just fine, since it was more-or-less the same size as his last one and it meant he’d be cooking for an intimate number of covers, as he had done before.
But would catering to an affluent hotel clientele clip his creative wings? I found the answer during an excellent meal in a corner of the intimate but high-ceilinged dining room, with its huge metallic cloud chandelier, at a table that offered a fine view of the harbour below and Notre-Dame de la Garde, the church that’s as emblematic of Marseille as Big Ben is of London or the Empire State Building of New York City.
If the bouillabaisse milkshake had gone from the menu, the deconstructed version which had taken its place was a shrewd and succulent way of contending with the fact that this dish inevitably had to appear somewhere on the carte du jour, since it’s what the world thinks must be eaten in Marseille. Levy’s version was a shallow pool of luscious, camel-coloured and richly flavoured fish soup with mussels, baby clams, squid and grilled and raw rockfish fillets. If it didn’t pack the lusty punch of a real bouillabaisse, it was still an elegant and very satisfying dish.
Since I’d dithered between the “consommé de ‘Bouille-abaisse’” and smoked roasted duck foie gras with shavings of poutargue, or preserved mullet eggs, and a condiment of Bulgarian yogurt, I was delighted when a half portion of same arrived at the table before my main course.
The briny poutargue electrified the earthy foie gras, and the yogurt’s gentle lactic sourness created a fascinating link between the two products. The highlight of this excellent meal, however, were impeccably cooked veal sweetbreads larded with matchsticks of smoked pork belly, accompanied by veal blanquette-filled croquettes and root vegetables. Wearing white gloves, a waiter further guilded this sumptuous composition with fine shavings of fresh black truffle. A dessert of quince prepared in various ways was pleasant, but not especially memorable.
Though the cooking at Alcyone doesn’t yet display the confidence Levy had at his own restaurant, this is normal enough during a ‘teething’ period, and overall it’s a very good restaurant, especially if you snag one of the rare tables with that magical view of the distant city.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Alcyone was the daughter of the god Eolus in Greek mythology.
Alcyone, InterContinental Hotel Marseille, 1 Place Daviel, 13002 Marseille, Tel: +33 4 13 42 43 43. Dinner only. Average meal €135.
Based in Paris, restaurant columnist Alexander Lobrano has published a new book,Hungry for France, along with a new edition of his popular Hungry for Paris. Find these books and more in our bookstore.