Red Mullet: A Gastronome in Marseille

Just a few words of introduction: this scene, from my current novel "Quantom Void" (sic), is one of several in which I have used a slow, more introspective voice, to inject texture and add some syncopation to an otherwise fast-paced and taut thriller.

The action here takes place in Marseille, in the south of France—a city which surely needs very little introduction to the movie buff, who will remember the inimitable Gene Hackman as "Pop" Doyle in the "French Connection". In some ways Marseille has changed some, but essentially it remains itself, it has after all been there for twenty-six centuries...

    Le Rhul is, technically, a restaurant: people go there to eat.

Ultimately, it is a warp in the fabric of space-time, a kind of singularity, for I know of no other place quite like it. It is one of the few places left over from an age when the architecture and planning of a good meal took precedence, in Marseille, over that of any masterpiece of steel or stone. And they have their share of those, the Marseillais, from antiquity through to Le Corbusier and beyond.

It is a venerable institution in which eating is still considered a most serious endeavor, and where no effort or expense is spared to achieve a satisfaction of the senses; its kitchens are fortunate for they are supplied with some of the best fish in the whole Mediterranean sea. But the best fish and the most authentic produce from the surrounding hills are only a point of departure: Le Rhul is about gastronomic transformation.

It is also, by the same token, an institution that will die with its owners— both through lack of suitable subsequent owners, and through the dwindling of a clientèle prepared to expect the very best, and to have the taste and education to be its unrelenting critics.

Here there are no concessions to the vagaries of trend or fashion, and a client is respected exclusively for his knowledge, and for the finesse of his palate: known members of the underworld mix freely with respectable citizens, artists dine next to politicians—the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The only and inflexible requirement is a passion for the very best cuisine. A client’s wealth or status is of no consequence: if he truly understands good food he commands respect, if not he is not encouraged to frequent.

While prices are necessarily steep, they are by no means the highest in town, and it is not unknown for the bill to be distinctly lenient for those with good credentials but of impoverished means. It was on these simple and egalitarian premises that a myth had been built by the present owner’s grandfather at the turn of the 20th century, and it was Monsieur Olivier’s greatest regret that it was destined to die with him.

It was to this unprepossessing pale yellow stucco building, this temple of epicurean delights perched above the Corniche Kennedy and overlooking the bay of Marseille, that Jonathan McKinty was headed. He had discussed his meal earlier with the proprietor on the telephone, as was the established custom, and he was looking forward to losing himself in the experience which awaited him. In these matters nothing was ever left to chance: just one of Monsieur Olivier's many foibles.

Speeding up the steep drive, McKinty gave the conventional two shorts and a long on his car horn. He pulled up sharply by the staircase leading to the terrace where a familiar waiter smiled in welcome, shook his hand with the friendship of old acquaintance, then took McKinty's place at the wheel and drove the car off with brio to the parking lot behind the building.

Jonathan pushed his way through the glass doors, and Monsieur Olivier approached with dignified bearing, made only more so by his sleek, well-dressed corpulence; he appeared to float solemnly, rather than to walk. Proffering his usual grave greeting, with only a vestigial smile, he escorted Jonathan to his favourite corner table without the slightest show of emotion. Olivier's steady countenance was a study in impassivity. McKinty sank slowly into his banquette seat and took in the view through the large plate glass windows.

He had always thought of Marseille as a collection of small villages that had grown up along the shore and finally merged. The twinkling lights of the town warmly tracing the contours of the shoreline against the inky blackness of the bay like a giant parure of diamonds eloquently illustrated his notion. Although it was a familiar sight to Jonathan, and undoubtedly something of a visual cliché, it was one that moved him every time: small pleasures, however banal they may seem to others, were never so to him. The view, to Jonathan's eye, exuded the excitement which came from the tension between the pullulating urban multitudes and the dormant but tangible wilderness of the sea. He liked to think that the shoreline that the city lights so clearly defined had probably changed little in the twenty-six centuries since the Phoenicians had founded this sprawling melting pot of a city.

Jonathan smiled to himself as he recalled Olivier’s grave greeting. Never once, on his many visits, had he seen him show the slightest sign of emotion, nor utter two words when one would do. In this respect he was the opposite of the typical Marseillais, generally so voluble and expansive.

What he really appreciated, he mused gazing at the city lights through the window, was Olivier's absolute and unwavering commitment: it had a truly heroic quality to it. Olivier's passion showed itself in facts rather than words, and nothing short of smooth perfection would satisfy him. For Olivier, food transcended mere eating—it was an expression of his art. Over the years, he had painstakingly trained each member of his staff to achieve just that degree of synergy which truly great cuisine required. With silent pride, he had afforded his guests a view into the immaculate kitchen through a framed plate glass window. Jonathan loved watching the show: he admired the candid white of the uniforms, the perfect synchronicity and economy of movement that spoke of long practice. It was a dance, and it gave him joy to behold it.

As he turned away from the window, Jonathan's gaze swept over the eclectic assembly of his fellow diners. Each table told a story. There were voluble and joyful tables with open countenances, vivacious conversation and ready smiles. There were lonely tables with diners of mature years ruminating on times gone by. There were quietly smiling couples wrapped up in each other and in their food. Some of them were even quite young and fashionably dressed, they would probably finish their evening in a trendy boîte near the Vieux Port.

It amused him to reflect on his own presence here. He was one of the solitary diners tonight, but certainly not a member of the old-timer clique. He wondered what others must make of him, but then those who might be inclined to speculate were otherwise distracted and the others were too self-absorbed to notice. This gave Jonathan a delicious sense of anonymity while at the same time feeling warmly welcome as an habitué. Such was Le Rhul: it could be all things to all people — provided they truly enjoyed and were knowledgeable about fine food. Food, in Olivier and Fanny's little enclave, was the lingua franca of communality. It was the golden thread which linked such a disparate and heterogeneous coterie; an unspoken but very real solidarity!

Fanny put so much effort into making even the youngest patrons feel at their ease, as she was doing now with a fresh young couple who had just sat down, and he simply had to chuckle at the way she heavily discounted their bills. This he had learned from Fanny herself. She had decided to take her lunch in his company one day last spring, and had amused Johanthan throughout with her piquant anecdotes. It had been a hilarious occasion and one that clearly signalled his ultimate acceptance as an insider at Le Rhul.

Down beyond the lobster aquarium, an unlikely looking couple huddled together: two men in unremarkable dark suits — but not businessmen. Something hard and predatory about them spoke of the Marseille underworld, the infamous milieu, as it is known in the local argot. The man facing him was in his late thirties, it seemed to Jonathan, and his wavy blue-black hair was swept back from a tall forehead. He was bent forward towards his dining partner and was talking rapidly and with tense excitement, every now and then flashing the briefest of glances around him. The other man, the one with his broad back to McKinty, had a crew cut so short that all the bumps on his skull were visible; he was chainsmoking Gitanes cigarettes. Plumes of the acrid blue smoke were rising from his left hand, even as he spooned his soupe de favouilles with his right. Idly, McKinty noticed a showy, massive gold signet ring which gleamed dully on the man's pinkie...

As Jonathan turned away, he caught sight of Monsieur Olivier, padding around silently, communicating with his staff with a curt nod or a shrug of his shoulders. He was quite content to leave the small talk and the elaborately flirtatious flattery to his bubbly wife Fanny, whose role and pleasure it was to treat each guest according to her unerring intuition. She possessed an uncanny sense of circumstance, and was always able to gauge just how much interaction each guest was comfortable with. Olivier and Fanny made a striking pair as they separately busied themselves with their respective tasks.

Fanny moved rapidly and erratically—there was something syncopated in her rhythm, as she welcomed each guest in turn with an appropriate remark, or some little solicitude. She left behind her a kaleidoscopic impression of light and movement, like the shimmering afterimage of a glossy bird: she was as blonde, gay and petite as her husband was dark, sombre and corpulent.

No unnecessary questions had been asked: the sommelier presently arrived proudly bearing a half bottle of house-labelled rosé partly wrapped in a snowy white linen napkin. A commis trailed in his wake bearing a well polished silver ice bucket and a bottle of Vichy St. Yorre water, the salty effervescence of which Jonathan particularly enjoyed. The wine was from the vicinity of Bandol, but its exact provenance remained, as many other culinary details, a closely guarded secret which Olivier systematically declined to share, deflecting any enquiry with vague mutterings and a condescending shrug of the shoulders.

To cut the lead seal, uncork the bottle and pour the first sip of wine cost only seconds and few well-practised movements. When the sommelier had performed these rites, he received Jonathan’s wordless approval in the barely perceptible raise of his eyebrow and nod of his head.

Jonathan was left to contemplate the luscious rosy glow of the wine in his glass as the bottle slowly settled with a contented sigh into the icy depths of the bucket. He swirled the cool rosé wine around in his fine but unadorned glass, and inhaled the first notes of its promise. Few wines could complement so perfectly the grilled Rougets de Roche which were about to arrive.

Rougets de Roche—red mullet—had been a favorite of the Roman aristocracy during the days of Empire. Legends abound about this fish, and it is fair to say that it is still regarded by those in the know as one of the finest morsels that the Mediterranean can offer. The best, and indeed the only red mullet which the exigent connoisseur would consider fit for his table, are those smallish examples, no longer than six inches or so, which are painstakingly caught in the vicinity of rocky shores. The small crustaceans which make up the lion's share of the red mullet's diet, abound within the protection of the seaweed-covered rocky bottoms along the shores of the bay of Marseille. It is these crustaceans which impart to the rouget its color and its flavor. The most sought after specimens are a vivid metallic pink: a feast for the eye as much as for the palate.

Presently the waiter arrived, bearing the platter of grilled fish to the table. The aroma of the cooking embers lingered over them: olive and vine prunings. The cook had arranged the five plump little fish on a bed of feathery fennel leaves and had garnished them with glossy red pan-fried cherry tomatoes strewn with pearly pine nuts. Jonathan drew the blade of his knife along the length of the first fish, just where the backbone ran. As he pried the flesh apart the firm white flakes came cleanly away from the bone. It was cooked to perfection, and with fish that small it was no mean feat. He munched contentedly, every now and then taking a sip of Bandol to refresh his palate. The meal had begun.

Later, as the remnants of his first course were cleared, Fanny came to him and drawing a chair close to Jonathan's, she sat beside him. She smiled and studied him through half closed eyes, her head inclined and resting on her open hand. With a slim and well manicured finger she idly stirred the golden breadcrumbs which lay beside the gleaming silver at Jonathan's elbow. It was a curiously tender and very intimate little gesture and he was drawn in closer, a warm little smile crinkling the skin around his eyes.

She wore a crushed silk dress of nameless pink — every shade that pink could muster gleamed and glittered as it caught the light. The dress was stunning in its simplicity and fell away from a very high waist, just below Fanny's tidy and perfect breasts. The volume of the skirts and the silky froufrou that attended even the smallest of her movements told Jonathan that several hidden layers of organdie and tulle had gone into its making. It must have cost a fortune! That kind of simplicity always did.

Fanny pursed her lips, and with teasing mock concern proceeded to elicit from Jonathan what was on his mind. Why was he eating alone, she seemed to enquire. But she was too subtle to ask directly. The game was one of brinksmanship. It was as studied and artificial as the underlying emotions were sincere. No one had ever said that Fanny's was a simple character. Least of all Fanny herself. Her tone alternated between a murmurred half question and a laughing quip which pre-empted any answer he might proffer. Her eyes danced and her pretty laughter was contagious. She took great pleasure in losing herself in her artifice, and was so light and animated that the recipient of her charms might easily wonder, later, if she had indeed said anything at all.

On this particular evening, Jonathan's heart was not in the game however, and when this became apparent to Fanny, she gave him one last smile, with lips as tender and inviting as crushed poppy petals in a June field. Then, abruptly, with a flurry of silks and an impression of blonde and dazzling movement, she was gone. Briefly, a faint fragrant cloud of something expensive by Patou remained. But even that reminder of her presence soon dissipated, and Jonathan suddenly felt alone.

The rougets were followed by a concoction based on Cigale de Mer, a lobster-like crustacean whose ivory flesh is as exquisite as it is rare. It was prepared as médaillons with a light coral-pink mousseline sauce, of which the main ingredients were sea urchin eggs and Champagne; its garnish consisted simply of fine, dark green, wild asparagus spears glistening with melted butter. These choice morsels Jonathan washed down with a half bottle of vintage Krug which had replaced the Bandol in his ice bucket.

Sighing contentedly to himself he gazed again at the winking lights on the sea shore through the perlage of his flûte. This, he mused, was Zen and the art of earthly indulgence. A finger bowl was set on the table, and from its warm silvery depths rose fragrant wafts of jasmine. He made his ablutions and sat back in his chair while the table was deftly cleared.

Olivier himself now arrived bearing an old oiled olive-wood platter in the centre of which lay a large fig leaf, and on that leaf was perched a diminutive and quite repulsively wrinkled little cheese. Presenting Jonathan with a sharp and very rustic horn-handled shepherd's knife, he spooned a puddle of warm and richly dark chestnut honey scented with wild thyme blossoms next to the cheese, poured him a glass of aged Corsican Muscat from a wicker-covered bottle and, with a satisfied nod, left him to it.

The cheese was pure Corsican mountain goat and had aged in some dark damp cave for however long it took to achieve that degree of perfection. It had achieved it. It was fragrant and crumbly, and the gamut of its flavours was legion. More than just a cheese, it was a symphony. To the cheese’s trumpet calls answered the bass notes of the sweet Muscat wine: it was a match made in heaven.

Presently the table was swiftly cleared again and Olivier returned wheeling a guéridon. He lit the spirit burner and placed a copper skillet over the soft blue flame. Into the skillet he spooned both white and brown sugar and with a flick of the wrist spread it evenly. The sugar bubbled then started to color. He added a large knob of butter and swirled it around, leaving a foamy golden trail in its wake.

Next were added freshly squeezed orange juice, a julienne of orange zest, a splash of Cognac and a dose each of Grand Marnier and Cointreau. As the sauce thickened he placed one crêpe at a time into the skillet and deftly folded it over twice. A further splash of Cognac and the skillet was tilted to allow the contents to catch alight.

While they were still ablaze, he lifted out the Crêpes unto the serving dish and spooned the flaming sauce over them with sure and practiced movements. He placed the dish of Crêpes Suzette in front of Jonathan with an eloquent but restrained flourish and drifted silently away. The crêpes were just the right texture and thickness and the sauce was sumptuous: a perfect balance of orange, butter and sweetness.

As Jonathan slowly enjoyed their bittersweet lushness, he allowed himself brief flickering thoughts about what lay in store for him later that evening. He was playing mind games with himself—but he was aware of it. He felt he knew what he was doing; that he was in control. He justified it to himself as just a way of acheiving a certain state of mind. Sure, in spite of all of this he knew that such mind games could end up taking on a life and a will of their own, mildly dangerous even. But he didn't really care.

The moment had now arrived to indulge in the triple pleasures of coffee, brandy and a cigar. Although the proceedings so far had taken place with few theatricals, at this point of the meal some quirk of humor on Olivier's part demanded a dash more outward pomp. Whatever the reasons, and they would remain entombed in Olivier's morose silence, at Le Rhul coffee was as much a piece of cabaret as it was a beverage.

Jonathan, as an habitué, of course knew what was in store. Tonight, in particular, he was looking forward to the elaborate charade—it was peculiarly funny, and a rare glimpse into the hermetic mind of Monsieur Olivier.

The coffee was ground by hand in front of him in a long cylindrical brass grinder by a grinning Moroccan waiter decked out in a red fez and baggy black trousers à la Turque. It struck Jonathan as amusing and also somewhat absurd that the waiter was Moroccan and not Turkish, but he guessed that in Marseille it must have been much easier to come accross the former than the latter.

Nevertheless the meaningless little detail annoyed him at some level which he could not easily define. Maybe he was more tired and jaded than he had at first realized: the very fact that the detail should bother him was in itself an irritation. He caught his own reflection in the plate glass window and noted that his lips were pulled tight in what writers, with an unerring propensity for the cliché, referred to as a wry smile—maybe they were right though, after all how many kinds of smile could there be?

As he watched the waiter's little pantomime, he selected an Antico Toscano from a leather cigar case, and took great pains to cut it in two neatly and efficiently with a worn silver-handled penknife. He moistened the cut end briefly in his mouth and proceeded to light the cigar in slow and leisurely fashion. The dry, rustic acridness of the Italian cigar was the perfect follow-up to his meal: a Havana would have been fine in Normandy, certainly not in Marseille after a meal of Mediterranean fish.

While the coffee was coming to the boil in its long-handled conical brass pot under the attentive ministrations of the ersatz Turk, Jonathan poured himself a generous measure of Marc de Garlaban from the heavy antique crystal decanter that had been left on the table at his elbow. That was another thing about Le Rhul, he reflected, every little item of the elaborate set was so carefully selected, so appropriate to the overall illusion...

Strangely this thought seemed pertinent to him, as though it was a reflection on some other, deeper consideration which was laboriously taking place in his subconscious. Not being able to make the connection was mildly disturbing: it was a little like having some name on the tip of one's tongue. Mildly irritating—tantalising even. But no amount of conscious logic was going to yield the answer. That would only come, if it did, when he was least expecting it. And so, again, he tried to clear his mind, to lose himself in the present. Holding his snifter cupped in both hands, Jonathan inhaled the heady bouquet rising from the tawny spirit.

Like most of the establishment’s better wines and spirits, the Marc de Garlaban bore no commercial label. Olivier was fond of his little secrets, and all he would admit to, when pressed, was that it was distilled on a hillside overlooking Aubagne by a friend of his: whether legally or not was something he did not care to dwell on. Whatever its provenance, to its credit it possessed to an uncommon degree the aromatic qualities of that spirit, which combines a bitter vein with the subtlest hint of mountain thyme.

Finally bored with food and drink, Jonathan resumed the idle scrutiny of his fellow diners, immersing himself for a spell in the hubbub of conversation—focusing first on one table, then on another. Quite suddenly he felt restless. He had a desire to move on; to adjourn.

Sufficiently mellowed by his fine though light repast, Jonathan rose, nodded with pursed lips his satisfaction to Olivier and made for the exit without further ado. By the time he had reached the bottom of the stairs, his car was ready and waiting: he had never quite figured out how Olivier managed this. Tonight it struck him that this was surely Fanny's doing, only she had that unerring intuition about people, and she must have detected his suddenly itchy feet. It occurred to him that Olivier would never have been able to read him so easily. To Fanny, however, his abrupt departure must have been a foregone conclusion—the thought tickled him.

Filling his lungs with the chilly night air, he pressed a folded banknote into the waiter's hand, climbed in to his waiting car and drove off. A glance at the temperature gauge confirmed that the engine had been warmed up, so he indulged himself and built up speed along the winding carriageway of the Corniche, heading east towards an address in Mazargues.

The wind off the sea had grown quite strong during his meal and he could see the foam being blown off the white caps of the waves crashing into the stone buttresses along the shore. Jonathan lost himself in the old recording of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" playing loudly from his car's speakers, the lazy 5/8 time a counterpoint to the screaming wail of the finely tuned engine as he double-declutched, quite unnecessarily, to downshift at each sharp bend of the shore road.

The burbling exhaust changed satisfyingly to a throaty roar each time he shifted up again on the straights and put his foot to the boards. He had to hand it to his Senegalese mechanic—the man could keep a car in tune. The drive was fast, exhilarating—liberating. Torrents of cold night air rushed in through the open window. The adrenaline dissipated all of the cobwebs that had dulled his thinking throughout his long and introspective meal. He felt alive, fresh, eager.

Presently he turned through tall cast-iron gates that lay expectantly open, into a dark gravel driveway that curved up to a large stone building of vaguely gothic character. Twin towers stood at its corners, and mullioned windows graced the façade. The building was totally absurd and reminded Jonathan of some horror movie set. It must have been built towards the end of the nineteenth century as the folly of some wealthy soap manufacturer, that much he could easily guess. It was set within large and somewhat overgrown old-fashioned gardens, surrounded on all sides by twelve-foot walls of the same grey stone as the building itself. The plants all seemed too old.

As he pulled up smartly in front of the entrance pavilion he turned off the engine. He heard the heavy gates clang shut. For a moment all was silent, save for the metallic ticking of the car’s engine cooling down after the fast drive.

An owl hooted from within a large yew tree.

Then the first bolt of lightning rent the darkened sky, and a grumbling thunderclap followed close behind.

He had arrived at his destination.

The red mullet, Mullus Surmuletus, looks like this.