Expand your palette at Massilia, where California meets the south of France

By Angela Matano

Gambas au pastis: King prawns seasoned with anise-flavored aperitif, shallots, tarragon and cream

Massilia 1445 4th St., Santa Monica (310) 319-1905 massilia.com

Is it just me, or is there a dearth of French food hereabouts on the Westside? Massilia, a new restaurant that took over the space formerly held by Border Grill in Santa Monica, aims to rectify this injustice.

But you won’t find stuffy, hard-to-pronounce French cuisine at Massilia. Owner Emmanuel Dossetti, who also owns Zinque in Venice, WeHo and soon DTLA, serves up food with an eye toward coziness: comfort food, Euro-style.

In fact, the name Massilia is Greek for Marseilles, the region in France that Dossetti hails from. Situated on the coast, halfway between Spain and Northern Italy, the large port city exists as a sort of crossroads for this part of the world, with people and food converging from all over.

“Marseilles is a melting pot made up of people from the south of France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. It has all of the Mediterranean influence,” says Dossetti. “Kind of like here in America.”

Keeping the multitude of inspirations in mind, the menu at Massilia makes a lot of sense. Traditional pasta dishes sit alongside Moroccan tagines and Spanish jamon. This unique mix of flavors will be both familiar and unfamiliar to Angelenos used to Chinese food at their donut shops, hamburgers at their Mexican restaurants, and spaghetti at their “American” diners.

“It’s passé to put a restaurant in a box,” Dossetti elaborates. “Now everything is global — not ‘Frenchy,’ but a lot of flavors. Why restrict yourself to one cuisine?”

Of course, growing up in Provence, Dossetti maintains an allegiance to the dressed-down food of that region. As he puts it, “A lot of dishes here are based on socca, a tradition in the
South of France, which is a chickpea dough.”

Socca is great news for those on a gluten-free diet. At Massilia, socca is served as a “chip,” with a side of olive tapenade at dinner, and also as a base for pizza, or flatbread, during lunch.

Another unusual dish, for some Americans perhaps, is Dossetti’s mother’s recipe of rabbit a la moutarde. The rabbit is served with mustard and garlic sauce, over pappardelle — “very Provençal,” says Dossetti.

For those feeling less adventurous, plenty of options fill the menu. Fans of pasta will rejoice in a delicious version of bucatini Amatriciana, which is house-made noodles with tomato sauce and pancetta, or rigatoni Bolognese served with tomato-based sauce and just a hint of rosemary.

In a nod to California cuisine’s emphasis on seasonal produce, mixing flavors and a health-conscious lifestyle, Massilia’s grain bowl includes brown basmati and forbidden rice, tomato, avocado, super greens, parmesan, gruyere and harissa mayo. By my count, Italy, France, Morocco and California all meld perfectly, with Asia joining in as well, and maybe even a bit of Mexico.

The luxe ambience of Massilia, with its mix of velvet and chandeliers, is mos def fancy enough for a romantic date night out. The restaurant really does give you the feeling of being away somewhere on vacation.

Lucky for those of us who live nearby, lunch and weekend brunch will also be served, and during the week you can stop by for a coffee and pastry. It truly is a great place to meet a friend and hang out, the decadence of the interiors somehow avoiding pretension.

In the end, Massilia strives for a new tradition of cuisine — one that could only exist in the wonderland that is the West.

“In France, you absolutely could not mix all of these flavors. It’s so traditional, so classic,” explains Dossetti. “I love the freedom here in California. It feels like you can do anything.”