Wednesday, May 21, 2008

French food and missing chicken at Marseille

During a nice bright spell this afternoon, I stepped out of work with my manager for a lovely lunch at Marseille, on the corner of 9th avenue and 44th street. My brother has consistently raved about Marseille, especially for brunch, but I had never been. It's owned by the same people who own Nizza (see an earlier post for more on THAT!), so on the one hand that portended well in terms of food quality, but on the other hand, I wasn't really sure what to expect from the service. As it turns out, that pre-lunch forecast turned out to be just about correct.

We strolled down 44th street, passing the outdoor tables on the way inside (it was just a touch too cool for al fresco dining, although there were several parties who did choose that option). Even without a reservation, we were seated right away. That was great-- except the waiter led us through the large, bright, bistro-esque dining room to a back corner, where he showed us to a two-top shoved in between another tiny table and a protruding door/entry area. The woman occupying the bench seat at the adjoining table had sprawled all over the two-table bench, and begrudgingly moved her limbs and her possessions out of the way for me to sit down. Unsurprisingly, our corner was dark. What IS it with me, restaurants, and darkness?

Past the outdoor tables...

...Through the spacious dining room....

...To our out-of-the-way corner. This is the view from our table, with me leaning around the outstretched entryway.

The waiter took our drink order (NYC tap, sadly... a boozy lunch this was not to be), and we looked over the menu. Soon, he returned with our water and took our order. I requested the addition of asparagus to a salad, and this was, unfortunately, not allowed, or at least suitably complex as to befuddle him. But a side order of asparagus WAS fair game. Apparently they couldn't take the extra step of putting the asparagus ON the salad, which was what I did when the dishes arrived. Well, whatever. He'd provide, I'd assemble.

While we chatted, the bread basket arrived. This was a small package of two different kinds of thinly sliced white bread, swaddled in a somewhat tired-looking cloth napkin (not sure why they went with that... butcher paper would have been much better and fresher-looking). The accompanying condiment was a dish of sweet butter in a bath of olive oil dotted with rosemary. Now THIS was creative-- I've never actually seen a mixture of butter and olive oil in this context before. Frankly, it presented a challenging conundrum: both the butter and the olive oil were delicious, so I couldn't decide what to put on my bread. I started with the butter, which tasted clear and sweet, and moved on to a bit of olive oil, which had a fruity tang and was much enhanced by the bathing herbs. The bread itself (I only sampled one kind) was a crusty peasant bread with a good, chewy, stretchy crumb. I would have liked a slightly thicker slice, but it was definitely a solid bread basket-- much elevated by the innovative butter/olive oil condiment.

Bread and butter. And oil. Cue my head exploding!

Our food arrived not too long after we had finished our slices of bread. I had ordered the Salade Jardiniere with the dressing on the side, with the addition of a side dish of asparagus, as you may recall. The salad had a bed of mixed greens, a bit heavy on the frisee (but hey, it's French, what are you going to do?), topped with shaved red onion, halved cherry tomatoes, peeled thin cucumber rounds, and haricots verts. They remembered the dressing on the side-- hooray!

Nice vertical reach on this salad

The asparagus came as large asparagus spears with peeled bases, grilled and resting in a small but perceptible lather of butter.

Asparagus, glowing with buttery char

In a crazy and ground-breaking move, I put the asparagus on TOP of the salad and ate it as part of a cohesive meal (part of a complete breakfast!). The salad was fresh, and I really appreciated the thin slicing of the vegetables-- they made usually not-so-palatable veggies, like onion and cucumber, go down easy. The salad dressing was very mediocre, sort of bland and uninspired. I topped the salad with a few hearty shakes from the salt shaker to add some spark; especially without the buttery oomph of the asparagus, the Salade Jardiniere wouldn't have had much flavor.

On to my companion's pick: he selected the grilled chicken sandwich, which came with a small pile of salad greens cradling a few sliced cherry tomatoes. He debated ordering fries, which were ubiquitous throughout the restaurant (and looked really great), but ultimately he passed. A virtuous guy, my manager.

Sandwich from the back

Sandwich from the front. Notice anything?

The first thing we both remarked on about this sandwich was the chicken. It was... small. There seemed to be about twice as much bun as chicken, especially because the bun was so lofty and fluffy. But wait: upon further investigation, we found a hidden cache of stealth chicken!

Tiny little chicken!

HaHA! We found the chicken, uh, tail.

Once we had located the chicken, sticking out the back of the bun, my manager dug in. The sandwich came with roasted red pepper, arugula and bacon, all slathered in aioli (that's Marseillaise mayo, for the uninitiated) on that fluffy brioche roll.

Sandwich innards. Check out that thick blanket of roasted red pepper... and the comprehensive aioli coverage

Despite the, shall we say, misallocated chicken incident, the sandwich was gobbled down eagerly. As the plates were cleaned, my manager deemed the sandwich "tasty, like DELICIOUS tasty." He noted that the flavor of roasted red pepper had managed to permeate the whole sandwich-- bread, chicken, and all-- which was a very good thing, as he liked roasted red peppers. Note to readers: if you don't like roasted red peppers, don't order this sandwich.

Plates were cleared, the bill was brought and paid promptly, and we made our exit. The food at Marseille was definitely top-notch, and the service was competent but brisk. I wish we hadn't been shunted to the dankest corner of the restaurant; as we walked through the dining room on the way out, we both looked longingly at the sunlit, elbow-room-providing tables we could have had. Sigh. Maybe next time-- as I'd definitely come back. Marseille is a really nice place for a lunch on a sunny day, and I imagine it would be a great place for dinner as well-- especially as that would afford an opportunity to try the desserts, which are almost always awesome in French restaurants. The food wasn't the BEST I've ever had, but that may have been at least partially my fault for ordering a plain or bland-ish dish. Based on our experience, however, I'd give Marseille a solid three Offset Spatulas.

Note: Lawrence, the NYCFoodGuy, promised to provide me with an image of a half offset spatula so I can upgrade my ratings system to be more nuanced. So far, he hasn't done so. If he had, I think Marseille would have gotten three and a HALF OSes. But no half spatula picture, no half spatula ratings, so three OSes it is.

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