The North African caste of central Marseille had us jonesing for a great couscous before we left town. We investigated a number of casual and posh spots before we simply took the suggestion of our landlady and of the server at La Marsa. Everyone seemed to agree that we should go to La Fémina (1 rue du Musée, 04 91 54 03 56). Founded in 1921, it is one of the most established North African restaurants in Marseille.
North African doesn’t mean Arab, though, explained Mustapha Kachetel, the fourth generation to operate the restaurant. His family are Berbers from the mountainous Kabyle region of northern Algeria. There’s no question that the food is authentic—the recipes come from his great-grandmother.
The family orientation continues—a fifth generation is already working at the restaurant. The room is an escapist fantasy of Algerian exoticism. The billowing silks overhead seem to suggest the tents of an itinerant people, while the beautiful ceramics, farm and household implements, and other Algerian artifacts in the décor denote a settled and civilized way of life. Service is not exactly formal, but it is definitely ceremonial. Our server donned a floppy straw hat (typical of the region, if the plethora of photos on the walls are to be believed) and served every course with a flourish.
Couscous is the house specialty at La Fémina. They offer two styles. In addition to the usual wheat semolina, the kitchen also prepares a barley couscous. Traditional to Kabyle, the barley produces a couscous with a heartier flavor and slightly denser texture than wheat. The vegetables of the tagine are stewed for a long time with warm North African spices and are served in a deep bowl on the side. Each bowl of couscous is accompanied by a protein side plate—a choice of lamb, chicken, meatballs, beef or lamb skewers, sausage, or fish. A small bowl of potent harissa lets diners spike their plates to taste. We thought a bottle of Provençal rosé made a perfect foil.