My brother Stan lives in the South of France, in an affluent little community called Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, midway between Nice, France and Monte Carlo, Monaco. Russian zillionaires outnumber wealthy Frenchmen in purchasing lofty seaside estates there. His apartment is atop a condo next door to a charming hotel, La Voile D'Or, where I usually stay after experiencing the Cannes Film Festival. When I visit him (too rarely, I am afraid), we have a ritual which encompasses our first night's dinner, always at a legendary restaurant called Le Bacon (le-baa-con) which has nothing to do with bacon and everything to do with bouillabaisse. In 1948 the Sordello family started selling pan bagnat (nicoise tuna sandwiches) from two tables under an awning, and quickly became a little open-air café in Cap d'Antibes on the Cote d'Azur, and then a world-famous eatery there. Mother Alphonsine started serving her fish soup, bouillabaisse, assisted by two sons Etienne and Didi, who still run it. I first went in the mid-50s, and celebrated with them when the Guide Michelin gave them a star in 1979. So my brother and I always dine there on my first evening and have the bouillabaisse, probably the most celebrated (and expensive, at 99 euros a person, or 145 with langoustine) in the universe. Chef Serge Philippin and I discuss in fractured French and English the fine points of the soup... and invariably I'll return the next night for another serving.
Bouillabaisse is the traditional Provençal fish soup originated in the port city of Marseille. It is made with various kinds of shellfish and cooked fish, with some vegetables, flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. Chef Serge includes garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron. He insists that if it doesn't include rascasse (scorpion fish), then it isn't authentic, and he will also add dorade (bream), turbot and monkfish. Various shellfish is a given (clams, mussels and shrimp), and langoustine, or European lobster, is an expensive supplement. He serves it with rouille, which essentially is a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic (lots!) saffron (expensive) and cayenne pepper. At Bacon it is served in two courses. First the broth is poured into a bowl containing a grilled slice of bread and the rouille. Then, the seafood and vegetables are served on a large platter. Yes, a hearty and delicious dinner.
So when a trusted friend from Orange County, Lee Healy, tipped me that two French chefs, Amelia and Florent Marneau of Marché Moderne in South Coast Plaza would be serving an authentic bouillbaisse, I contacted them for confirmation and details. Florent said that yes, he was serving it for five nights, from July 13th through the 17th, at dinner only. "I am having fish flown in each day from Nice, Toulin and Marseilles. It will contain rouget, racasse, vive and galinette, plus scallops, mussels and shrimp. Mine contains fennel and potatoes. My rouille will be served with tomatoes rôti and croutons." I asked the price, and he said it was $50 a person.
His contemporary French bistro (where his wife is the pastry chef) opened in spring of 2007 at The Penthouse in South Coast Plaza (on level 3) with reservations at 714-434-7900, and it has been celebrated by food lovers and critics since. So you know that I will be driving down the 405 Freeway (in the other direction from the upcoming carmageddon) to Bristol Street in Costa Mesa, where I will spend several hours shopping at the highest-grossing planned retail center in the U.S. (annual sales approaching $1.5 billion). I will then settle into a small table at the restaurant, tuck my napkin into my shirt collar (spills and splashes happen), order a Pernod on the rocks, and my fish soup. I'll probably drink a Bandol Rouge by the glass with it.
Go see the fabulous new version of Les Miserables at the Ahmanson before it closes on the 31st. You can be sure that I will raise my glass in silent tribute to those brave French patriots who stormed the fortress of the Bastille on that July 14th in 1789 and laid the foundation for the modern Gallic republic. Without them, we might not have ever had the succulent bouillabaisse!
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