Bouillabaisse: Meant for the Poor, Now for the Rich
the invisible restaurant critic
Dear Mr. Gold:
It's that time of year, cold and dark early, which means there is nothing more inviting than that wave of heat and spice when you enter a great Italian trattoria. I'm hunting for the best bouillabaisse in town, in a joint that is as unpretentious as it is family-run. Affordable so I can bring the family, yet refined enough so I can taste its authenticity of ingredients. Willing to brave the 10 east at rush hour if you point me in the right direction.
--Michael Carey, via Facebook
Dear Mr. Carey:
I'm not sure that what you're looking for exists. In its original form, bouillabaisse was a dish of the poor, a thrifty soup of bony, gelatin-rich Mediterranean trash fish that Marseilles fishermen would bring home after they had sold all the good stuff to brokers, then cook over an open fire with garlic, fennel, olive oil and saffron. An "authentic" version includes rascasse, sea robin and conger -- cheap at the source, once cheap anyway, but incredibly expensive once they are flown here, which they rarely are. I'm not sure I've seen rascasse here since the 1990s, and even then it was served as a $35 entree.
So California bouillabaisse is a strange creature, an invention of poverty nearly always sold as a luxury dish, plumped out with lobster and scallops and halibut, served meagerly instead of in abundance. There used to be honest bourgeois versions of the dish around -- my dad used to order it at the old Belle-Vue in Santa Monica almost every Friday afternoon -- and Musso & Frank still serves it on Fridays. I remember a decent Friday bouillabaisse at Delphine. Alain Giraud has often served bouillabaisse at the restaurants where he has been a chef, but at his new Maison Giraud in the Pacific Palisades it seems to have been downgraded to a mere Provençal fish soup, as delicious as it is likely to be. So I'm leaning at the moment toward sending you to Fig & Olive, the swank Provençal lounge-restaurant on Melrose Place. It's not precisely a family place, and it may be too fancy by half, but the bouillabaisse tastes like bouillabaisse, which is sometimes all you can ask.
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