Ever since it was announced that Marseille beat the competition to be crowned a European Capital of Culture in 2013, the city has been racing ahead to transform itself, building a gleaming new state-of-the-art Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, and renovating and opening new hotels and restaurants. This is the final part of a metamorphosis that has seen the city shed its "bad boy" image as a seedy mafioso haunt dating back to the 70s cult US movie The French Connection, into a hot European destination and one of France's most exciting gourmet capitals. Today I'm heading straight for the morning fish market on the Vieux-Port, always my first stop on arriving in Marseille.
As the boats moor on the quayside, the wriggling catch is hauled onto stalls run by colourful fishermen's wives, who are surrounded by a lively crowd of shoppers bargaining for the freshest monk fish, sardines, octopi, conger eels, lobsters, sea bass and John Dory. This is no tacky show for tourists but a brilliant, vibrant market that must never be allowed to disappear. Amid the crowd I spot Gérald Passédat, a local boy who has joined the gastronomic elite of France's three-star Michelin chefs.
"I'm always on the look out for new flavours and smells that I use to create the 'bouillon' for cooking fish, and there is no better place to look than in the city's markets," Gérald says. He explains that visitors often do not realise just how rich the food tradition is in Marseille, from the waters of the Mediterranean to the olive groves of Provence, taking in influences from the original settlers here, Greek traders back in 600BC, to more recent immigrants from the Maghreb.
Gérald promises to take me on a gourmet tour of his hometown. From the port, it is a minute's walk to Rue de Vacon, a daily fruit and vegetable market that resembles a North African souq more than a cute "Marché Provençal", where traders stock everything from olive oil and wild thyme to spicy Moroccan harissa. Neither of us can resist the sticky Algerian pastries and "lokum" (Turkish delight), piled high in an oriental patisserie. The market runs parallel to the main boulevard in Marseille, La Canebière, and we are tempted to stop off at Toinou, the most famous seafood brasserie, whose vast shellfish display has a dozen different oysters, local "oursins" (sea urchins), and bizarre-looking "sea violets", or "sea squirts".
There are many reasons to loiter but Gérald insists we carry on because he wants to show me a fish restaurant, La Boite à Sardine. Only open at midday, this genuine fishmongers doubles as a restaurant, its half-a-dozen tables booked out every day as fish lovers choose between a classic "plateau de fruits de mer" or a live lobster straight off one of the local fishing boats. The tasty dishes of the day range from scallop carpaccio to grilled sea bass, while on Friday, everyone orders Provençal classics such as garlicky aioli, brandade de morue (creamy cod and potatoes), or raw vegetables served with an anchoiade. The place buzzes, orchestrated like a conductor by the genial owner, Fabien.
Gérald has to get back to his restaurant so after lunch I go for a wander around the unofficial town centre of Marseille, its Veiux Port, where the water filled with bobbing fishing smacks and the quayside lined with lively cafe terraces where the residents are noisily discussing politics or football.
I have my own favourite spot here, and chug across the Vieux-Port on the free ferry to La Caravelle, a Marseille institution. Situated on the first floor of the Hotel Belle Vue, their balcony has the perfect sunset view over the city, and drinks are accompanied by a delicious assortment of tapas - grilled sardines, marinated anchovies, black olive tapenade - and some cool jazz music. The menu features classic specialities such as succulent souris d'agneau accompanied by a tasty gratin de pommes de terre.
For dinner, I disappear down the backstreets behind the Caravelle, to try out one more gastronomic address, Restaurant Le Moment. Chef Christian Ernst proposes creative tasting menus from €48 (Dh233), with tempting dishes like scallops grilled on a bed of tart green apples and smoked swordfish, or sea bass roasted with wild fennel, confit onions and sea urchin foam.
If the Vieux-Port is the centre of town, then the heart of Marseille is Le Panier, the oldest neighbourhood, rising up from the water's edge in a steep maze of narrow streets and alleyways. This was once a rundown district, virtually a no-go area for the police, but which has been gentrified over the last few years as old buildings have been renovated, and abandoned shops turned into fashionable boutiques, chic bars and designer restaurants.
That is the new Panier, but there is still an edgy undercurrent here, and to sample a genuine slice of local life, nothing can beat the experience of lunch at the legendary Chez Etienne. There is no phone, no reservations, no credit card and, until recently, no prices - especially bad news when visiting Parisians asked for the bill. I am quite shocked to see locals puffing away at cigarettes inside the dining room, a typical example of how the Marseillais consider themselves above the law. The sign outside says "Pizzeria", and although Monsieur Etienne tells everyone his pizzas are the best in town, I have been tipped off that this is also the place to try other local specialities, such as fried supions, delicious tiny squids, followed by pieds et paquets, lambs' feet and intestines cooked for seven hours. This may not be the place for a romantic meal, but the raucous, friendly atmosphere and terrific food guarantees a memorable occasion, and the "addition" only comes to €25 (Dh122).
No gourmet trip to Marseille is complete without sampling a bouillabaisse, the dish that is the symbol of the city. Ask any local where is the best place to taste a genuine bouillabaisse and the immediate reply will be "in someone's home". And although it is on virtually every restaurant menu, the number of places that take the dish seriously can be counted on one hand. The traditional bouillabaisse contains a quite incredible selection of fish - rascasse, congre, grondin, lotte, saint-pierre, dorade and vive. Different recipes may add oursins, etrilles and shellfish, octopus and lobster - and always a good helping of saffron. So the first golden rule is to keep well clear of the tourist restaurants that offer bouillabaisse for €20 (Dh97). Quite simply, the fish will have been frozen and you will eat badly, because the minimum price a restaurant can charge has to be €40 to €70 (Dh194 to Dh340).
Bouillabaisse has its roots in simple Greek fish soups, brought here 2,500 years ago by the Phonecians. The direct origin of today's dish comes straight from the Vieux-Port market, where the fish that were too bony to sell to restaurants were boiled in a pan of seawater together with herbs from the garrigue and olive oil. This poor man's soup has slowly been transformed into one of France's landmark gourmet dishes. But the traditional way to serve bouillabaisse has not changed, with the thick soup served first, with crunchy toasts smeared with garlicky rouille, followed by the different fish accompanied by boiled potatoes. There are a couple of very reliable restaurants on the Old Port: the old-fashioned ambience of Le Miramar, with silver soup tureens and waiters dressed in dinner jackets, or the funky Chez Madie, which also has a great waterside terrace looking out at the towering Notre-Dame de la Garde church.
But I have reserved a table at Marseille's gastronomic temple, Le Petit Nice Passédat, and one of the greatest pleasures of dining here is that you will invariably find Gérald cooking in his kitchen. This is no celebrity chef always dashing off to the TV studio to be a judge on Masterchef or disappearing as guest chef on a luxury cruise liner. In recent years, he has dedicated himself to creating a renaissance of the bouillabaisse, inspiring other chefs to create their own fantasy versions - Lionel Levy at Une Table, au Sud (www.unetableausud.com) proposes a bouillabaisse milkshake, while Sylvain Robert at L'Aromat (www.laromat.com), has invented a bouillabaisse burger.
Sitting down in Passédat's elegant dining room, looking out over the Mediterranean, I ignore the usual tasting menus and order Bouille Abaisse, a complex deconstruction of the original recipe that is served over five different courses. The price, at €160 (Dh780), seems excessive, but this is quite simply one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten. There are many reasons to want to come back to Marseille, but nothing compares to discovering the perfect bouillabaisse.
If you go
Return flights with Air France (www.airfrance.com) to Marseille from Dubai via Paris cost from €628 (Dh3,050), including taxes.
Le Petit Nice Passédat, 1 Corniche du Président John F Kennedy (www.passedat.fr; 00 33 491 592 592); La Boite á Sardine, 7 Boulevard de la Libération (www.laboiteasardine.com; 00 33 491 509 595); Toinou, 3 Cours St-Louis (www.toinou.com; 00 33 491 540 879); La Caravelle, 34 Quai du Port (www.lacaravelle-marseille.fr); Le Moment, 5 Place Sadi Carnot (www.lemoment-marseille.com; 00 33 491 524 749).