Last week my wife and I did our best to eat our way through the French Riviera. Having made bouillibasse myself for almost fifteen years and being somewhat obsessed by it I spent a great deal of time doing research on where I would find the best. The result were restaurants in Mougins (closed in January), Marseilles (L'Epuisette which Johnny Apple raved about) and L'Ane Rouge considered by some to be the best fish restaurant in Nice. We made reservations at L'Epuisette where it is their every day specialty and also at the similarly Michelin starred L'Ane Rouge where several days notice must be given.
I should note that when I make bouillibasse I use a two and a half pound rockfish and a two and a half pound red snapper for the fume after I first saute garlic, leek, fennel and onion in olive oil then adding the several pounds of fish heads and frame followed by white wine, a bouquet garni and water. The bouillibasse itself starts with leek, fennel and celery sauteed in olive oil and butter along with bay leaves, anise seed, saffron, garlic, tomato paste and white wine along with several cups of San Marzano tomatoes and the fish fumet. Mine is non traditional in that I add clams and mussels, then chunks of the fish followed by shrimp and scallops; finally, I add Pernod. I've made my own rouille as well as garlic bread. I say all this because I am quite proud of the "shellfish" bouillibasse I make and believe it is the equal of any I've had in the Washington, D. C. area. This includes Eve, Yannick Cam and a number of other restaurants here.
L'Ane Rouge was far superior to any I have had here or anywhere else.
This was an almost four hour meal that cost E 70 each (US $105) and included twelve different fish including rascasse which, to the best of my knowledge is unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless L'Ane Rouge like Marseille's L'Epuisette owns their own fishing boat and uses that which they catch themselves.
The "traditional bouillibasse" (again this MUST be ordered several days in advance; while there several other tables saw what we were having and asked for the same dish only to be turned down) starts with the serving of three small bowls: one has the house made rouille which is a kind of garlic mayonnaise flavored with a tinge of cayenne, also a bowl of freshly grated Reggiano and a bowl of house made 1/4 inch thick croutons. This is followed by the presentation of a four quart copper pot almost filled with the broth. It is ladelled one spoonful at a time into each bowl. Two minutes after this exercise the server leaves having finished the spooning. The taste of this broth is unlike any I have ever had anywhere else: there is an earthiness to it and almost a light rust or bronze color. It is rich and creamy but not a thick consistency; rather much like velvet. But the flavor! The flavor!!! I am told it is because of the rascasse that the rustic note is introduced. This is not a one or two bite dish where each successive spoonful is downhill after the first. Rather, this starts strong and continues almost infusing a need to slurp every drop for fear of never tasting anything this good again!
But this is only the start.
They then bring out a wooden platter about 18" by 30" which is overloaded with twelve different fish in a huge pile spilling over the sides of the platter along with a mound of mussels in the middle. This is first presented at the table then four servers (not an exaggeration: four) stand aside the platter on a separate table, each fileting a fish. A square, shallow fourteen inch across white ceramic bowl has each filet placed on a side of it. Sliced potatoes which, I believe, were cooked in the broth, are layered in a mound in the middle of it followed by a small pile of really fat mussels on top. The copper pot is brought back out and, at the table, each bowl receives another five or six ladles of broth.
The procedure is to again sip the broth while also spooning or slicing into a filet. Croutons are slathered with rouille with Reggiano scattered on top; all of this is then dipped into the broth and then a bite is taken to compliment the fish. Meanwhile the wooden platter is taken back into the kitchen.
A half hour or so later when we finished the four fish, the potatoes and mussels the platter is brought back out and the procedure repeated with four more fish fileted and presented to us with more potatoes and broth ladelled on top. Forty five minutes after starting this we again finished and the platter was brought out one more time with several more fish and an eel or two.
The point is to taste each fish individually because there is a variance in taste and texture from one to another.
I can imagine that other restaurants (Mougins and L'Epuisette) are as good or almost as good but this was one of the most incredible feasts that I have ever had. Also a very real bargain-if you will-for the price we paid. Unfortunately, it's an experience that you cannot find in America-you have to experience this there. And not in Paris, either. I've had bouillibasse at Le Dome which is considered by most to be the best in that city. It doesn't even approach what you can have here let alone at L'Ane Rouge.
Remarkably, this was not the best meal of the trip. That would be a tie between L'Oasis outside of Cannes and in Theoule Sur Mer at the remarkable seaside L'Etoile des Mers who make a fantastic bourride. The two Michelin starred L'Oasis's website: http://www.oasis-raimbault.com/ But these are a topic for another time.
I've met far too many people who have gone to the French Riviera and returned having had bouillibasse that they were disappointed with. I was also told in Nice and Cannes that true "traditional bouillibasse" made properly has become a rare production and genuinely difficult to find even there. For anyone visiting the Cote d'Azur you should go out of your way to plan for this or the other restaurants. It really is "worth the journey."
For those of you reading this who are on the French Riviera...I am jealous.