“Marseille c’est un joyeux bordel.” Marseille is a joyful mess.
Our friend Nathalie, who grew up in Marseille, is responsible for my favorite description of France’s second city. The Mediterranean metropolis is chaotic and crowded and full of life. And the Noailles neighborhood by the Vieux Port is a perfect microcosm of that energy.
Narrow streets pulse with a diverse mix of people both local and tourist, vendors advertise their wares in bustling outdoor markets, shop facades heave with stacks of handmade straw baskets. And then there’s the food.
Noailles has been called the “belly of Marseille” for the variety of cuisines you can find there. On Rue D’Aubagne, the main artery of the neighborhood, you can find a pizzeria next door to a Tunisian bakery that’s next door to a boutique grocery store that’s next door to an Ivorian restaurant, and so on.
This is where 27-year-old chef Ella Aflalo chose to open her first restaurant, Yima. After studying at the prestigious Paul Bocuse culinary school in Lyon, and working in several Michelin-starred kitchens across France, she decided to pivot towards a more down-to-earth “bistronomie,” using her training to dress up the Mediterranean dishes she grew up with.
The restaurant serves lunch from Thursday to Saturday. We arrived just after noon on a Friday and there were only 2-3 tables available, all outside. The July sun was scorching, and the waiter brought out two massive straw hats for a couple of women who were sitting directly in it.
We cooled off with some lemonade infused with orange blossom, and ordered three dishes to share, making sure to ask for recommendations first. Our waiter said that the roasted sweet potato was their flagship dish.
When it came out we could tell why. First off, it’s stunning, filled with different colors and textures — the deep orange potato topped with lush white cream, ochre-colored smoked harissa, pink pomegranate seeds, fresh greens and tangy sumac. And the flavors blend together beautifully, combining culinary traditions from all sides of the Mediterranean.
“I wasn’t expecting this dish to be such a hit,” Aflalo says. “But I feel like it’s a good representation of the idea of Yima as a restaurant. It brings together all the flavors of the Mediterranean into a colorful, lively dish.”
It’s the only dish that hasn’t been swapped from the menu since Yima opened in March 2019. Normally, Aflalo will change the menu every 4-6 weeks based on what fresh, seasonal produce is available. She says around 90 percent of the ingredients are organic, and nearly all are locally sourced.
We also ordered the zucchini flower beignets on a bed of zucchini-mint cream, topped with crispy capers and greens. And finally, the Challah toast with burrata, poutargue (salted and cured fish roe), fennel, zaatar and candied lemons. What struck me about all of these dishes was the creative blend of flavors.
This food is not bland. It’s colorful and loud, but without being too over-the-top or inaccessible.
Inside, like in many kitchens, Aflalo and her staff took part in a highly choreographed dance where organization is crucial to filling each order on time. But unlike many kitchens, Yima’s is exclusively run by women, a personal choice for Aflalo.
“Yima’s cuisine is inspired by mothers, so for me it makes sense to have women in our kitchen,” she says. “The restaurant world can be very masculine, so I made the choice to hire women of different backgrounds, often young women who are just starting their careers.”
Yima is her temple dedicated to the family traditions that shaped her as a chef, and also a vessel for transmitting the savoir-faire she’s picked up along the way. Stop by if you’re in Marseille – your taste buds will thank you.