Every now and then I ask foodie friends in France . . . or just back from France…to write about one restaurant in Provence they love. When my chef pal Andy Floyd mentioned he had just been to the Le Château de Sormiou, I was all over it–I’ve wanted to go there for years.
As the GM of KitchenTable Cooking School and the Academic Director of the Professional Culinary Arts Program at Colorado Culinary Academy (Denver), Andy has been teaching budding chefs for more than 20 years. For 10 of them, he directed professional programs at Culinary School of the Rockies (Boulder) and took groups of students for month-long trips to cook and to stage in some Provence’s finest restaurants.
As a result, he remains intimately connected to the food world in the South of France.
After a few years away, Andy recently returned for vacation with his wife Lucy and their three kids. Here’s his report about their day at the Le Château . . . not just a restaurant but a true adventure…
No trip to Provence would be complete without a visit to the Calanques between Marseille
On the Edge: Sormiou is one of the lesser known calanques, considered something of a locals’ secret.
and Cassis. The white limestone cliffs and inlets that begin in the heart of Marseille and follow the coast to the picturesque port town of Cassis are the summer playground of the Marseillais.
The approach to the Calanque de Sormiou, where chef Andy Floyd and his family had a great afternoon at the restaurant Le Chateau.
Over the years, I’d visited Cassis many times with my culinary students. A bouillabaisse in the port followed by a boat trip to the awesome Calanque d’En-Vau is de rigueur for anyone visiting the area. But I’d often heard of another very special Calanque, a well-guarded secret of the locals called the Calanque de Sormiou and I was determined to explore this little gem on my recent family trip. But–understatement here–it’s not easy to get to. If you want to avoid the hour-long hike in, your only choice is to rent one of the tiny seaside bungalows or to make reservations at the Le Château Sormiou, the little restaurant with a “to die for” view of the Sormiou Calanque and a fresh-out-of-the-water seafood menu. It’s open from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in September and has been serving customers since 1948.
If you plan to go by car, make sure you reserve way ahead, as you’re vying for access to this amazing spot
After a somewhat tense 4 kilometer drive down a narrow, winding road…you’ll arrive wanting wine quickly. Note, the parking lot is filled mostly with small cars.
with quite few others. When you call Le Château for reservations they’ll ask for your car’s license plate number; this is mandatory or “le gardien” won’t let you through the gate that takes you up and over the limestone mountain into the tight, steep descent into the Calanque. If you don’t know your rental car’s license plate number when you make the reservation, just explain that you’ll provide it closer to your arrival date. (Need I point out that good command of the French language, as well as being able to decipher the subtleties of the Marseillais patois, are a pre-requisite to making your reservation?). Once you’ve booked your table, you’ve overcome the major obstacle to getting to this little gem. Well, one of them at least.
I’ve been to Marseille many times and though I can easily find my way to the main landmarks, I could never have navigated my way to the entrance of this Calanque without a GPS. I felt like I was in a scene from the The French Connection as I exited from a major highway onto an elevated single lane that led me into a construction area and then into an eight-lane boulevard. Then finally, after many disorienting directional changes, I began to see signs for the Calanque de Sormiou. Much relief! We began to leave the bustle of the city into a forested area and then finally the GPS said we had reached our destination…even though we were still 4 km from the entrance.
The entrance to a private little cabanon, off the beach
Once we arrived at the gate, the gardien looked from our car to his clipboard and back. No match, he proclaimed. We weren’t on the list!
Actually, we had planned to come with a friend in her car and when that plan fell through, I called to make the change….but I guess the gardien didn’t get the updated license number. We managed to convince him that we were legit restaurant customers with a reservation and eventually he relented and lifted the gate.
Now we started to question what kind of drive we were about to have, if such a careful selection process was required…and then a few clicks in we began to understand. But we really got the picture once we arrived at the top of Calanque and began to make our way down a one-lane road with pot holes and certain-death drop offs. We prayed that no vehicles would be coming in the other direction and I surveyed the options ahead for any slight widening of the road. We made it down to the parking area (4€ charge) in a state of high stress and in desperate need of a glass or two of rosé. We gathered our beach bags and gear and headed to the restaurant.
Chef Andy and his wife Lucy both had fish soup followed by grilled dorade. The kids ate shrimp and pasta. The meal was excellent…and expensive.
We sat outside on the covered terrace with a gorgeous view of the sea and the Calanque. Within minutes the empty terrace filled with clients. It’s very important to note this is a strictly cash restaurant and there are no ATMs or electricity or running water for that matter. Be prepared! We ordered up a bottle of rosé which came in a cute little plastic bag filled with ice. Lucy and I both settled in on soupe de poisson and a grilled whole dorade with vegetables and potatoes. The kids chose shrimp and pasta but there were a few
The cove and beach that beckon you before and after lunch. Andy says the kids didn’t want to leave.
meat dishes offered as well. If you call ahead, you can order bouillabaisse, the local specialty, priced at 45€ per person, minimum two people. The food was excellent and unquestionably fresh though clearly priced with the captive audience in mind. Our lunch for five, with one bottle of wine, came to around 250€. We changed in their restroom and after giving them a big wad of cash, headed to the beach. Pleasantly, it was a real beach with sand (not rocky, like many coastal beaches here), and the water was perfect. This day was without a doubt the highlight of our trip and the kids really didn’t want to leave.
On the way home, Marseille (and civilization) loom in the distance.
The drive back up the Calanque was little less stressful though a lot busier and we did have to negotiate cars coming down at the same time. As we crested the top of the entrance to the Calanque we were presented with a stunning view of downtown Marseille and reluctantly we drove toward it, tucking away the experience of the special gem we had just uncovered. And yes, we would absolutely do it again!
Le Château Sormiou
Tel: +33 (0) 4 91 25 08 69
GPS: 226 Chemin de Sormiou, 13009 Marseille
Open seven days, first weekend in April to last weekend in Sept.
Lunch served 12 to 3; dinner 7:30 to 9:30.
Reservations required, no email, no credit cards.
The Floyd Family’s Excellent Provence Adventure included this photo opp in the hills facing Les Baux de Provence. Clockwise: Lucy, Paris, Andy, Sophia and Soleil.