As good as it gets
Café Massilia charms and delights with a few minor glitches
By Erica Wayne 05/23/2013
T he home page of Café Massilia (the Roman name for Marseille) includes a heartfelt welcome:
“Bienvenue a Cafe Massilia!” states the restaurant’s Web site. “We offer a unique taste of the southern flavors of Provencal France,” including “an infusion of Spanish, Italian and Moroccan cuisine with much use of aromatic herbs, spices, sun-drenched vegetables, meats and seafood — mainly abundant along the region of Cote d’Azur. Inspired yet truly unique, this sets the cuisine of the French Riviera apart from mainstream France.”
Sounds delicious, but there’s more.
“Come and relax in a casual and cozy setting of our restaurant. Celebrate life itself with good food, fine French wines in the company of dear family and good friends,” the site beckons. “Our goal at Cafe Massilia is to provide our customers a unique taste of traditional Provence. Together with our chef and our staff, we welcome you and hope that we would be able to provide an enjoyable, and hopefully, the best casual dining experience.”
Who can resist such Gallic charm? Not us, nor another couple — good friends, who’d been planning a visit with us to Café Massilia for almost a year before we were finally able to arrange a “play date” for Sunday dinner about a month ago.
Some of the items I’d noted on the Web site really appealed: moules frites (black mussels with garlic fries) prepared Provencal, with garlic, tomato and white wine sauce; truite aux amandes (sautéed trout with butter and almonds); and cuisses de grenouille (frogs’ legs sautéed in garlic butter), despite my husband’s insistence on conjuring up images of crutches and wheelchairs small enough for amphibian amputees.
However, the restaurant warns that mussels are limited and diners should call in advance before fixating. And the other two entrees I craved were no longer listed. But this was not Café Massilia’s fault. The menu changes seasonally and had been revamped just before our visit. After pouting a bit, I succumbed to the considerable charm of the surroundings as we decided on dinner from equally attractive offerings.
Café Massilia’s interior is tres intime. The L-shaped dining room can’t possibly hold more than 40 in its assortment of cozy booths and tables. The walls are dark black and cherry red, with droll stencils (our table had a black art-nouveau cat with the caption “ooh la la!”) and lovely framed photos. The tables were also black, with a slate finish and cherry linen. On the back wall was a mirror stenciled with the Eiffel Tower and the word “bonjour.” Soft piano music served as backdrop.
As is often true in Provence, the three-course prix-fixe dinner at Café Massilia is a real bargain, only $23.95 (about $4 cheaper than ordering a la carte). And, even without mussels, trout and frogs’ legs, there were plenty of good choices. Among the appetizers, we chose onion soup, escargot (the only item on the menu with a surcharge — $2), oeufs mayonnaise (devilled eggs with homemade mayo, diced tomatoes, mixed greens and vinaigrette) and a plate of heavy-textured homemade pork and chicken liver pate with croutons, cornichons and a couple of pearl onions.
Here’s where some confusion began. Three of the starters were fine. The snails were minus shells, but they were floating in plenty of garlic butter for dredging. However, the soup that came to the table wasn’t onion but the potage du jour. Almost immediately, our server, who may well have been the proprietor, realized the mistake and hurried to make it right. But when the replacement arrived, the haste showed in the pallid cheese topping — less time under the broiler than the otherwise satisfying soup deserved.
Two of us selected the special poisson du jour, wild yellowtail with diced tomato, potato, onion and Provencal herbs. The third chose chicken breast in a creamy dijonnaise sauce. Most meats come with diner’s choice of orange, bordelaise, dijonnaise, black pepper or blue cheese sauces. And the last picked beef filet with a combination of black pepper and blue cheese.
Again, there was confusion. The fish we were delivered was sole amandine. We decided not to mention it, but the server noticed and insisted on an exchange. We’re glad, since the presentation was more colorful and the yellowtail delectable. Meanwhile, the meat dishes met with complete satisfaction. One of the high points of the meal was that each platter included a hefty square of classic patates au gratin (scalloped), made with I never want to know how much butter and cream.
To finish, we ordered profiteroles, tarte tatin, madeleine en charlotte, with sour cream, strawberry marmalade, whipped cream and fresh strawberries, and the dessert du jour, described as a French cake with chocolate chips, to be served with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
Once again, there was a small glitch. The cake had no chocolate sauce. And the tart was less than fabulous (I consider myself a connoisseur since I order it every chance I get), served lukewarm with too little of the caramel which should result from sugar syrup and butter. The winner was the madeleine. If Proust had sampled it, he might never have had to reminisce about those of his youth.
When our bill arrived, it suffered from the same confusion as the service. Instead of a simple addition of four prix-fixe meals a la carte with a surcharge for the snails and the extra costs of beverages, we got a complicated cost for each item, minus a deduction. The figures didn’t quite add up, but the difference was tiny, so we didn’t quibble.
None of this will keep me from returning. As a matter of fact, Café Massilia’s breakfast and brunch menus include enticing crepes and real French toast — baguette slices dipped in a cinnamon-scented milk and egg bath, seared, baked, topped with banana and apple slices, drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with powdered sugar.
Speaking of Proust, it sounds like my long “recherche du pain perdu” may finally be over.
110 E. Lemon Ave., Monrovia
Beer and wine/
After 25 years of serving as both a staff writer and a freelance restaurant columnist, I’m calling it quits. Prolonged health problems, with diet limitations, have called me out.
I feel pride in having worked for a fine newspaper in a famous city. But now to write only about food that tastes like it comes off a tray in a ward is out of the question.
However, writing with high style, Erica Wayne, a colleague with whom I have shared the column for many years, should keep on tickling interest in dining out in Pasadena.
I have plans to convalesce at my home in Eagle Rock, although I hear that Barely Living Gardens has a pool.
Thanks for your time,