Villa Madie in the Corton Cove near Cassis opened in its current form in 2013, a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. The head chef is Dimitri Droisneau from Normandy, who had previously worked at serious establishments including Le Bristol, Tour d’Argent, Reserve de Beaulieu, Lucas Carton and Ambroisie. The restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars in 2014 and the ultimate third star in 2022. His cuisine is noted for its simplicity, with no dish having more than five elements, a sort of anti-Gagnaire. The chef has a 3,000 square meter vegetable garden and access to fine seafood from the nearby port of Marseille.
Villa Madie is located on a hillside overlooking the pretty seaside town of Cassis, nestling under some rather magnificent cliffs. If you are driving there for dinner then be aware that the gates of the restaurant open at exactly 7:30 p.m. and not a moment before. If you arrive early then you either have to park up in the solitary available bit of space outside the gate and hope that no one has the same idea and boxes you in, or circle aimlessly around through the town’s one way system awaiting the magical anointed moment when the gates are flung back and you can drive down to the restaurant car park. Once through the gates you walk through the dining room on to the terrace, which has a spectacular view over the sea. We were here on a fine day in late August and were able to dine in the open air. There were two tasting menus on offer, a six course one at €210 (£181) and a longer nine course one at €280 (242), which we opted for.
The wine list, as so often in France, is a closely guarded secret until you are actually in the dining room, so no website browsing in advance is possible. This is a pity as the list actually is very fairly priced with some genuine relative bargains on it. The physical list arrives as a series of elegant leather binders in its own portable bookcase, the labels grouped by region. Example bottles were Joan d’Anguera Planella 2005 at €50 for a bottle that you can find in a shop for €16 or so, Fritz Haag Kabinett 2019 at €50 compared to its retail price of €20, or Evelyne et Pascal Clairet Domaine de la Tournelle Arbois Fleur de Savagnin 2016 at €90 compared to its market price of €91. As you move higher in the list there was plenty of interest. I recommend the absolutely glorious Georg Breuer Berg Schlossberg 2016 at €230 compared to its retail price of €201, or a local Provençal wine, the lovely Domaine de Trevallon 2007 at €230 compared to its shop price of €208. There were plenty of posher options, such as Etienne Sauzet Batard Montrachet 2015 at €800 compared to its retail price of €856, or indeed Jacques Selosses Substance champagne at €480 compared to a current market value of €559. Other relative high-end bargains included Arnaud Ente Bourgogne Chardonnay 2016 at €165 compared to its current price at Berry Brothers in London of €309. Those with the means could consider Coche Dury Enseignieres 2007 at a price of €850 compared to its current market price of €2,758, less than a third of what you would pay in a shop, if you could find it. In London we are used to seeing even grand wines like this at three or more times their retail price on restaurant lists, rather than a third their price.
The meal began with an array of canapés. Soup of watermelon, melon, cucumber, almond scented with Thai basil had deep flavour. A raw shrimp with coffee powder was harmless enough but I am not sure what the coffee really added. Better was a dish inspired by the local dish pissaladiere, here appearing as a little pastry stuffed with capers and black olives and a dip of onion mousse, which worked very well. There was also a seaweed crisp with sea bass eggs, which tasted a lot better than it sounded. Served on little logs were crisp polenta with aioli and the best canapé, a tartlet of tomato and marjoram with a touch of pepper and a garnish of basil leaf. This had superbly deep tomato flavour and nicely judged seasoning (average 18/20 canapés). At this point the first bread appeared, a remarkably dull roll that could be dipped in olive oil. This was supermarket level bread, which was odd as the country bread that appeared later was very good.
The first formal course was a deconstructed tuna Nicoise. There were separate elements arrayed in a ring: seared tuna, quail egg, anchovies, courgette flowers, a crisp sphere of tomato and basil and a central blob of vitello tonnato sauce. The little sphere was exceptionally delicate and had gorgeous flavour. This was a very enjoyable take on the classic salad (18/20).
This was followed by sardine with a bouillon of dashi, crisp sardine bones, a mousse of potato and tuna and caviar from France. I am a sardine fan, but I am not sure that the flavour of these was really any better than grilled ones I ate at a simple dockside restaurant in Santorini some years ago. The crisp fish skin was a cheffy touch and the caviar elevated things in a Michelin kind of way, but I don’t think this was a particularly exciting dish (at best 15/20). Next was sea bass with an oyster parcel and a sauce of lemon and kaffir lime. The fish could have arrived a touch warmer but it was cooked accurately, had lovely flavour and the sauce was refreshing (17/20). Better were mussels with morels in a white wine emulsion. This was a less fancy but much more successful dish, the mussels having great flavour and the morels being lovely, while the sauce married the other two elements beautifully (19/20).
This was followed by John Dory with fennel and anise, the fish precisely cooked, the fennel with its liquorice flavour lovely (18/20). Next was carabineros prawn from Spain with a sauce of the prawn head, served with rhubarb strawberry and raspberry. The prawn was superb, the sauce had intense flavour and the richness was balanced by the acidity of the fruit (19/20).The final savoury course was sweetbread with artichoke and capers and a veal jus flavoured with capers. The sweetbread had superb flavour, crisp on the outside and airily delicate inside, the rich sauce balanced by the earthy flavour of the artichokes (19/20).
At this point we had cheese, a fine selection in lovely condition, and if I had stopped eating there I would have very happy with the meal. However this is France, the home of the finest tradition of desserts in the world, so I naturally looked forward to some magnificent three star Michelin level pastry. Sadly what appeared was a cylinder of blueberries in a rather crude crisp pastry ring topped with coriander jus. Yes, you read that right: coriander jus. I actually like coriander quite a lot, divisive flavour though it is, and am very happy to sprinkle some coriander leaves over my curry when at home. However, as a dessert this was a really bad idea, the sharp blueberries not getting enough sweet relief elsewhere in the dish, and the coriander sauce just a green herbivorous mess on top. I hardly know how to score this abomination, but the four very experienced diners at our table looked glumly at their plates as they took a bite and promptly stopped eating. I have no idea what the kitchen was thinking (10/20). After that, the next course, deeply mediocre though it was, was almost a relief. Black garlic ice cream with English custard was combined with Brazilian chocolate and a caramel tuile. The tuile was delicate and the custard fine, but black garlic ice cream was a dismal example of a pastry chef trying to show off their creativity to other chefs rather than producing a dish that most people would actually want to eat (13/20 is kind).
This was a meal of two halves, as a sports commentator might say. The savoury courses were inventive and skilful, with high grade ingredients carefully prepared, the flavours in excellent balance. The red prawn and sweetbread dishes in particular were a joy. A veil is best cast over the desserts, which were poor by any standard. The blueberry and coriander sauce dish was the stuff of nightmares. Service was very good throughout the evening, with a knowledgeable sommelier and friendly staff. The bill came to €615 (£525) per person, but that was due to some serious overindulgence in the upper echelons of the great value wine list. If you ordered the shorter menu and shared a modest bottle of wine, which would be easy to do from this lovely list, then a typical cost per person might be around €240 (£210). Villa Madie has a lot to offer, with its stunning views, excellent savoury courses and terrific wine list. Just skip dessert.