February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
A busy January has just flashed by and it’s almost the end of an alcohol-free month. In anticipation of that glass of cellar-cool Châteauneuf du Pape that I have lined up for tonight, finally I’m in the mood to write again about good food and wine.
There’s lots to write about so I think I’d better catch up belatedly with the best bits of Christmas and New Year before moving on to the various food projects that have been keeping me busy this month.
We spent Christmas once again in Klosters in the mountainous and picturesque canton of Graubunden in Eastern Switzerland. During the course of 6 days, we ate our way through the Klosters pages of the Gault-Millau guide (4 restaurants collectively clocking up a whacking score of 59 Gault Millau points out of a theoretical maximum of 80), pausing only for a pizza on Christmas Day by way of respite. To be fair, our skiing lunches were pretty austere – Gerstensuppe (barley broth – a local speciality) or Gulaschsuppe for the most part – so we felt justified in going for it in the evenings.
Night 1 Rustico 13 GM points cumulative GM points 13
First up was the aptly named Hotel Rustico where we arrived curious to discover how the much fêted chef Vincent Wong would pull off the fusion of Asian and Swiss cuisine for which he is famous.
The Rustico certainly looked the part:
We were ushered out of the snow into the warmth of the cosy wood-panelled dining room and handed a menu of largely cheesy delicacies – essentially fondue or raclette. The boys were thrilled, but where was the Asian-Swiss fusion cuisine we’d come for?
There was just a hint of this on the menu – I ordered the scallop-filled Capuns (a local ravioli-like speciality of savoury stuffing wrapped in chard leaves traditionally made with meat and breadcrumbs).
It looked pretty enough:
But disappointingly the scallops garnishing the Capuns were overcooked and possibly had arrived deep frozen rather than fresh on the shell and the filling itself was just plain stodgy. A dish that could of have been inspired but sadly the kitchen didn’t pull it off.
The fondue and raclette (not really a speciality of this region) were absolutely fine but we remained mystified as to the restaurant’s reputation for fine cooking.
A bit of research afterwards solved the mystery. We’d gone wrong on two counts. First, my Swiss-German being not so good, I’d booked us into the “Prättigauer Hüschi” rather than the restaurant proper (a bit like booking in for a bar meal rather than the full Monty in a country-house hotel). Second, the Rustico seems to have a bit of a chequered history and has changed hands twice in the last year or so, but the 2012 Gault-Millau guide has failed to reflect this still listing Al and Renée Thöny plus chef Vincent Wong as the management team. In fact Stefan Stocker and Martina Schele took over last year and shortly thereafter handed over to the current proprietors Anja and Jörg Walter. Herr and Frau Walter list AC DC, Swiss folk music and motorbiking amongst their shared interests. Does this perhaps give us a clue as to the direction in which they’ll be taking the hotel and restaurant?
Night 2 Alpina 15 GM points cumulative GM points 28
The Alpina is conveniently situated opposite Klosters’ busy little railway station – a model railway set writ large. It’s a slightly unprepossesing modern chalet-hotel type building that the owners have done their best to clothe with alpine charm. The boys were particularly taken (and I was too actually!) with the polar bear snow sculpture which sits as a pediment above the underground carpark entrance:
We were seated on a prime corner table and presented with the menus. This was a little scary at first as both starters and mains were labelled rather severely as single words.
I opted for “Tomato” and followed it up with “Lamb”.
The obligatory amuse-bouche arrived followed-up mercifully quickly (we were hungry after a day’s skiing) with the starters. The menu writing may have been laconic but the food itself was rather more sumptuous, not to mention playful.
Here’s what “Tomato” turned out to be – a tomato Caipirinha (much more on-trend than a Bloody Mary), tomato mousse and the most intense clear essence of tomato and rabbit:
The restaurant clearly has high aspirations and cooking standards to match. Nevertheless the restaurant had a warm friendly atmosphere and we all felt comfortable. Yes, there’s a touch of pretentiousness about some of the menu wording – chef Christian Kaiser went under the moniker “Pleasure Composer” and the front-of-house team led by Jacques Revel and Patricia Reumschüssel were referred to as “Creators of Happiness” but the staff themselves were so efficient and charming you can forgive the odd purple patch in the prose. The hotel website gives idiosyncratic yet revealing profiles of all the key staff and Herr Revel certainly gets my vote with his love of mushroom-hunting and dislike of animals, “especially cats”!
Next to arrive was my “Lamb” – saddle; liquorice flavours; peas; tomato-sauce; olive oil”
This was a beautifully cooked and subtly flavoured dish but a bit lacking in starch. I had to help myself to some of the boys’ inviting looking potato rösti which set off the lamb a treat.
This is another attractive feature of the restaurant – as well as the high gastronomy on offer there are also simpler dishes to choose from (Wiener Schnitzel; veal sauté Zurich-style with rösti) which suited the boys well and made for a more relaxing meal for us. There’s a separate menu for younger children too which invites children to the upstairs play area once they’ve finished their meal. Someone has clearly thought about the practicalities of dining out with a family.
The pudding menu continued in the same single-word/quadruple dish style. I opted for the massive rumbling cheese trolley which competed with the trains running in and out of the snowy stations. The rest of the table pronounced the “Passion-fruit” as particularly good and big enough to share between two, maybe even three (panna cotta; soup; sorbet; crème brûlée):
And if you don’t fancy splashing out on pudding, just order coffee and finish your meal with the extremely generous plateful of petit fours and chocolates instead.
We’d definitely return for a special night out as the Alpina pulled off the trick of both providing top-class cooking and keeping two hungry not to mention fussy teenage boys happy.
Night 3 Walserhof 17 GM points cumulative GM points 45
In points terms at least, we’d reached the culinary high-point of the week. It felt slightly surreal crossing the threshold of the Walserhof for the first time rather than peering expectantly from the outside through handsomely draped windows into the opulent interior.
Other reviewers say the hotel is a simple chalet with a relaxed and welcoming feel but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the exterior is low-key rather than glitzy and the welcome is attentive and charming but there’s the feeling that everything, absolutely everything, is carefully planned, checked, rechecked and “just so”. Having so many appraising staff eyes cast over one puts you imperceptibly on edge. With our thick down jackets and teenage boys in tow we felt a bit like the country mice visiting their smarter town cousins. The feeling of unease increased as we were seated too close for comfort adjacent to a couple clearly out for a special meal à deux. Something told me they weren’t going to enjoy fart jokes and football related banter…
The meal began with not one but two slender glass trays per person of amuse-bouches, each laden with triple or quadruple goodies. Here’s the more photogenic of the two:
Quite substantial for an amuse-bouche isn’t it? And strangely retro with all that kiwi fruit garnish and something that tasted suspiciously like prawn cocktail in a glass.
The bread basket proffered next was a thing of beauty – laugenbrötchen (pretzel-type rolls with a shiny salty coating); tiny square rolls topped with pumpkin seeds and finally brown walnut rolls. My goodness, after two helpings of the amuse-bouches and all that bread I was extremely full already.
The menu is full-on cheffy throughout – no comfort dishes sneaked in at the back here. This makes it a tad awkward not to say pricey to feed a pair of tetchy teenagers. Blimey, even at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, one of the world’s top restaurants no less, a lovely waiter leant over and whispered quietly in my ear that the kitchen could rustle up a freshly made pizza for the kids if that would be helpful.
I mused that this was notionally a hotel restaurant and wondered how parents managed to feed their children there, not only that but how it would be possible to eat in the restaurant more than once during a week’s stay given the quantity and richness of the food, and the time it took to eat it.
We’d all chosen the plainest starter we could find, the “Klosterser Chruutchräpfli mit Novaier Alpkäse” a gastronomic take on a local stuffed pasta speciality finished with mountain cheese. This doesn’t look like something from a rustic farmhouse kitchen though does it?
A still life on a plate isn’t it? We were busy admiring our food when Frau Amrein-Juon herself (she leads the front-of-house team and is married to chef Armin Amrein) tut tutted at our waitress and very carefully rotated each plate 180 degrees. That may be the way the chef wants it but frankly we didn’t mind if our plates happened to be upside down and it was rather intrusive to have our meal fiddled with in this way.
I’d ordered a main course based around turbot (the wonderfully named Steinbutt in German) mainly because I wasn’t in the mood for my other possible option, a darkly sticky braised veal cheek. The menu described the turbot as accompanied by Sauerkraut, Quarantina Bianca Genovese 1880 and white truffle. The combination didn’t sound immediately appealing and I had no idea what Quarantina Bianca was – I (wrongly) assumed it was a type of fortified white wine. I didn’t have high expectations for this dish but it turned out to be inspired cooking of the highest order.
This is how the dish looked:
I get quite excited thinking again about the lavish quantities of white truffle that our waitress carefully shaved over the dish. The aroma of white truffle as it hit the hot fish and mingled with the sauerkraut will remain in my memory for some time to come.
It transpires that the Quarantina Bianca is a special old variety of potato grown only in Liguria, Northern Italy. It’s waxy with a firm white rather than yellow flesh. It made the most amazingly flavoured and textured foamy pure white purée so ambrosial that I didn’t associate it with humble mash at all.
I’m not really a pudding person, but nevertheless chose a simply-named Iced Coffee from the section of the menu called “Walserhof favourites”. I’m not usually given to hyperbole about coffee-flavoured desserts either but this was divine, spoon after spoon of the most delicious iced, moussy, creamy concoction that I just had to finish served simply and unashamedly in a sundae glass. And yes, that tuile is sitting on a doilly like the ones your granny used to keep in her drawers:
Overall conclusion? I’d go again just for the Iced Coffee, but probably without teenagers making fart jokes. Definitely a Temple of Gastronomy where you the diner are subservient to The Chef, but goodness, he knows what he’s doing.
Save it for when you’re in the mood (and in funds for that matter) and fast for a week before you go!
Night 4 Chesa Grischuna 14 GM points cumulative GM points 59
The final stage in our gastro tour of Klosters. The Chesa Grischuna is yet another of the small, discreet and charming hotels that Klosters does so well.
No pictures of the dining room or any of the food I’m afraid as the lighting was just too subtle. You’ll just have to imagine a cosy wood-panelled room, linen clad tables, candles and the hum that comes from a room full of contented diners.
We had a lovely meal – in my case veal carpaccio, then vegetarian Capuns (yes, non-traditional Capuns again – see comments on the Rustico above). If at the Walserhof you the diner fall in with the requirements of the chef, here at Chesa Grischuna it’s the other way round – the impeccably polite and efficient waiting staff cater to your every need.
The place is impossibly romantic – I leant over and mentioned to my younger teenage son Arthur that as and when he felt like proposing to a future girlfriend, he could do worse than bring her here. Predictably enough, he turned bright red and commented “shut up Mum!”.
As we departed, we were given a small jar of homemade spiced winter berry jam as a parting gift. Some might think it twee but I was totally bowled over. We left in a warm happy fug and elder son George was persuaded to take our photo by the ice sculpture outside:
Rustico Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Anja and Jörg Walter
00 44 81 410 22 (0)80
Alpina Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Räto and Verena Conzett; Chef: Christian Kaiser
00 44 (0)81 410 24 24
Walserhof Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Armin and Corina Amrein
00 44 (0)81 410 29 29
Chesa Grischuna Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Guler Family; Chef: Michael Bless
00 44 (0)81 422 22 22