Here are the two best things about Sète, a French port town on the Mediterranean :
The Marcel, with chef Fabien Fage at the helm, earning the restaurant a Michelin star
Despite the attractive pictures on the Sète tourism site, today the city is slowly decaying – a shadow of what it once was and could have been. The Sètians we encountered looked like they had just escaped from the carnival – fortunetellers, gamblers, charlatans, ne'er do wells. It was lunchtime and the streets were also filled with badly-behaved school children; one was luring pigeons with crumbs and then trying to kick them. Childhood hijinks, we thought as we moved on to explore a few of the city's streets.
Our walk soon turned to a gallop as we escaped the carnies to trace a route to The Marcel, a Michelin one-star restaurant under the direction of a chef we know from his time in the town Villeneuve-lèz-Avignon, located just across the Rhone from its namesake city. There, at beautifully-situated restaurant Le Prieuré, we had met Fabien Fage on a summer-long investigation of Michelin one-star restaurants. (You may recall that we visited 21 one-star eateries in France during that adventure.) Chef Fage was one of our favourite chefs during our two months of Michelin research. Compact, thoughtful, dark, mysterious, his food was a lesson in Provençal flavours, bringing a weightlessness to fish-based cooking.
It had been about five years since we followed him around his kitchen while he presented us with small parcels of macqueruax and other delicate ingredients he uses in his dishes. Interviewing him, we learned about a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents, his passion for playing bluesy guitar (a passion so strong he was considering giving up stirring for strumming), and a late-night road accident that had almost ended his career.
Here are a couple of the plates we ate at Le Prieuré –
In 2018, Chef Fage left the leafy courtyards of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon to take up his current post in the less idyllic town of Sète, tempted by a restaurant owner with grand plans who offered Chef complete control of the menu. On an unlikely, narrow, nondescript street, set amongst the unruly citizens of the down-and-out port city, hides this oasis of French culinary art – restaurant The Marcel (with the English article).
SPOILER ALERT: We're about to describe another one of those meals-of-a-lifetime meals. Just like our last dinner from Chef Fage.
As all memorable French meals now do, it started with a small bite, un gateaux du chef – a wafer-thin crisp with an airy tuna mousse presenting just a hint of ginger. Eating this morsel you know Chef Fabien puts as much care and attention into this single bite as he does his main courses.
Next, and proceeding our entrées, came an amuse bouche (essentially, another small bite); a tablespoon of an amazing taste explosion that was something like a distillation of the best of cream of mushroom soup. We already felt we had eaten better than any other time on this trip before the entrées were served. (Excuse the quality of the food photos taken in the low lighting conditions the restaurant.)
Hers: Fines tranches de daurade royale marinées au vinaigre et au sake, pickles d’oignans rouge et olives rouges et olives taggiasca
The daurade (fish) was prepared ceviche style, delicately "cooked" in rice vinegar with green olives and lightly pickled onions.
His: Poulpe de "Roc" caramélisé sur un peau croustillante, tomates anciennes compotées et poelés et jus légèrement acidulé à l'huile d'olive.
Hers: Aile de raie snackee a la plancha, chou fleur caramelise, pistaches, capres a queue et citron confit
The raie, the size of a palm of a delicate hand, was tender to the fork, served over a bed of caramelized cauliflower, capers and dots of citrus.
His: Lotte rotie lentement, mitonnée de girolles, artichauts comme une Barigoule au jambon raidi et mousseline d'ail nore d'Iran
Hers: Bananes roties aux epices, cremeux chocolat pur Belize, sorbet coco vanille
This dessert was considered carefully; three dollops of thick, rich chocolate mousse; toasted banana slices in dark spices. Just enough bites to bring one back to earth from the ethereal fish dishes.
His: Peche jaune de nos paysans confite et en sorbet, craquant dragée
For the first time in his long dining life, Mark understood why someone would choose to eat sorbet, which he usually refers to as "flavoured ice".
At lunch service there was a brigade of six chefs in the open kitchen; with three men working on each plate before it was sent out – one to arrange the fish, another to apply the sauce, and a third to add the flourishing dots. In the front of house we counted five servers – the sommelier, the young woman whose job was to deliver the plates and to explain the details of the dish, another to offer bread, a young woman who kept drinks and water glasses filled, and a busboy who cleaned up after all of us. At the same time there were only 18 diners at lunch, making for an amazing staff-to-customer ratio.
Given the astronomical staff costs, our hunch is that Chef Fabian has his eye on a second star. We found his delicate touch in the kitchen better than some of the Michelin 3-star restaurants we've dined at in France. He uses no culinary gimmicks – like the haystacks and smoke favoured by Michelin-darling, David Toutain in Paris (who was recently awarded a second star).
In the Michelin guides one star means, "High quality cooking, worth a stop!" Two stars mean, "Worth a detour." Three stars is, "worth a special trip." Was the 45-minute drive we made to get to The Marcel a detour? A special trip? Whatever the case, in our restaurant guide the cooking at The Marcel is worth a solid two stars. Hell, we might even go back to Sète just to eat there again !
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft
While My Guitar Gently Whisks – A Conversation With Chef Fabien Fage
Read our earlier interview with Fabien Fage, at Le Prieuré –