What better neighborhood than Hell’s Kitchen for a restaurant named after a grimy industrial seaport? Walking into Marseille for dinner the other night, I felt I’d floated back in time to a North African version of La Coupole before the Second World War. The immense Art Deco archways and pillars are painted a rusty red; the floor is Moroccan tile, the banquettes oxblood leather, and the well-worn zinc bar is long enough to get the entire fleet nicely plastered. All that’s missing is Yves Montand at the piano singing, ” Je vends des hot dogs à Madison et Central Park”-not to mention an audience of petty thieves, sailors, drug addicts, prostitutes and notorious international gangsters.
But this isn’t the Alcazar nightclub; it’s a former bank in the Film Center building on Ninth Avenue. And when my nose began to prickle shortly after I arrived, it wasn’t from the smoke of Gauloise sans filtres , but the scent of a perfume so pervasive and so appalling that it caused several people to look up from their food. The culprit was a young American woman in a short black dress who swept through the room and bounced down next to me on the banquette. Her date, a Frenchman who had been waiting for her for quite a while, wore a dazed expression. He had the hooded lids and brush-cut hair of a hustler in a film noir, a look belied by the pin he wore in his lapel-a pair of French and American flags, intertwined.
We ordered chilled rosé and some meze for the table, and the waiter set down a silver cup filled with baguettes, along with a bowl of butter whipped to a paste with anchovies, garlic and black olives. The meze are organized by theme (meat, fish, vegetable) and come on narrow rectangular white plates, three small pieces to an order, so they’re hard to divvy up. Too bad, because they’re terrific. The meat plate included a buttery chunk of foie gras with a rich fig balsamic vinegar sauce and a sprinkle of fleur de sel to bring out the flavor; a juicy seared sausage made with shredded hanger steak mixed with lamb; and the pièce de résistance , a Moroccan “cigar” filled with ground hanger steak, short ribs, veal cheeks and chicken livers wrapped in a rice-paper tube and deep-fried. It tasted more Central European than Moroccan.
A meze of marinated seafood included a sublime plump filet of anchovy that almost had the strength to drown out the perfume from the next table; a mussel brochette with pesto; and oysters in a sherry-raspberry vinaigrette, served with what looked like an instrument of refined torture from the Middle Ages, with a ring of long, thin prongs at the end of a filigree silver handle. (I wonder how many of those they’ll have left in inventory by the end of the month.)
Marseille’s dining room, designed by Nancy Mah (who did the Asian themes at Sushi Samba, Ruby Foo’s and Lotus), is very noisy, even though the bar, which has a cobalt-blue back-lit stained-glass panel, is located at the back. The room, with its palette of deep reds and browns, is full of attractive details: silver tubs for the wine (which is stored in a former bank vault), carved mahogany trim on the leather banquettes, red lacquer tabletops and hexagonal yellow light fixtures on the pillars that cast a soft glow.
The food is no less alluring than the décor, inspired by the myriad flavors of the Mediterranean, mostly Morocco (preserved lemons, dates, harissa sauce and glazed tajins of couscous to accompany lamb dishes) but also France, Spain, Tunisia and Greece. Chef Alex Urena was lately at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, and before that he worked for seven years in David Bouley’s restaurants. He also spent the better part of a year at El Bulli, near Barcelona in Spain, with the celebrated Catalan chef Ferran Adria. Urena’s cooking is nowhere as far-out as Adria’s, but it’s certainly provocative, with surprising juxtapositions of sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, hot and cold. I even liked his vegetable terrine. It wasn’t the colorful, tasteless mosaic made with bits of carrot and asparagus you so often see around town, but a triangle of eggplant and zucchini framed with a thick red layer of puréed sun-dried tomatoes and piquillo peppers. I discerned a splash of truffle oil somewhere. Salted cheese-pastry twists, feathery and light, came on the side. The seasonings were perfect.
Also extraordinary was the open-faced seafood lasagna, made with a buttery herbaceous broth floating with shrimp, scallops and crab meat. Rock-shrimp falafel sprinkled with herring roe and served with horseradish crème fraîche looked like little crab cakes. It came with a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes that added a pleasant crunch.
Our main courses came out astonishingly fast, which perhaps explained why my order of bouillabaisse was lukewarm to hot depending on where I stuck my spoon in the bowl. Mr. Urena doesn’t attempt to do an authentic Marseilles version (you can’t get the rascasse here, for a start) but uses just rouget, mussels, cod and shrimp, all perfectly cooked in a pleasant clear, dark broth laced with baby carrots. It comes with aioli, which I expected, and grated Gruyère cheese, which I did not. The effect of the cheese on a couple of mouthfuls was odd; it made the bouillabaisse taste like old socks.
Mr. Urena is very clever at coaxing the flavor out of ingredients. Salmon poached in olive oil in the oven was melting under a thin tapenade crust and set on a bed of Savoy cabbage. The slow cooking did wonders both for taste and texture, and the sauce, made with carrot and ginger, brought the whole dish together. Skate came on a purée of Jerusalem artichokes, with dates and Meyer lemon; chicken was marinated in olive oil, garlic and smoked paprika and complemented by a buttery cashew-nut purée and poached baby beets.
If you come here at lunch, when the restaurant is a great deal quieter, order the duck confit sandwich. It’s a revelation-slightly charred from the grill and served on a crunchy ciabatta roll with cranberries. You can also get veal cheek with Gruyère and horseradish mayonnaise or a simple croque monsieur (just like Marseille in the old days).
Pastry chef Veronica Schwartz makes a wonderful warm-apple compote served with a rolled crisp filled with sour crème fraîche and a great apple-cider sorbet. Her chocolate bunelo with chocolate sorbet, vanilla ice cream and chocolate fudge was irresistible. So was her date sponge cake soaked in toffee and topped with dates and walnuts-just like sticky toffee pudding-which came with a scoop of rich caramel ice cream. In a lighter vein, the citrus and pomegranate soup was remarkable, like mulled wine, floating with segments of grapefruit and topped with an airy foam of meringue. The celery sorbet with the peanut-butter tart was pure El Bulli.
I bet they never ate like this in the old seaport. Nor are they very used to it in Hell’s Kitchen, where only in the last year or two the speciality of the house has gone from Thunderbird to a Provençal rosé. In this rapidly changing neighborhood, Marseille is a delightful addition.
Due to an editing era, the wrong phone number for the Aka Cafe was listed in the Jan. 28 issue. The correct number is 979-6096.
PQ: The meze are organized by theme (meat, fish, vegetable) and are hard to divvy up. Too bad; they are terrific.
630 Ninth Avenue (44th Street)
Dress: Casual Noise Level: High Wine List: 130 bottles, inexpensive, with many interesting choices from Mediterranean regions Credit Cards: All major Price Range: Lunch, main courses, $12 to $20; dinner, $16 to $24 Lunch: Noon to 3 p.m. Dinner: 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
* good ** very good *** excellent **** outstanding no star poor