When I think of Switzerland, three things generally come to mind: precision, luxury and neutrality. My dinner at Philippe Rochat’s l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, just outside of Lausanne reinforced two out of three of them. I traveled there along with my friend, the Ulterior Epicure, immediately following the Bocuse d’Or 2011 competition in Lyon, France. Also arriving back at the restaurant that same day were the owner and head chef of the restaurant and President of the Swiss Bocuse d’Or team,, Philippe Rochat, the Swiss Bocuse d’Or candidate and Rochat deputy chef de cuisine, Franck Giovannini (he had just placed 6th with a “Best Fish” award after a 3rd place finish in 2007) and Giovaninni’s Bocuse coach and the restaurant’s Chef de Cuisine, Benoit Violler. I was happy to know that the top three of the restaurant were back in their usual places.
I would have guessed that the Hotel de Ville would have been located in a more exclusive area, however, walking there from our rather pedestrian hotel, led us through a rather unimpressive, industrial section. The walk wasn’t long, thankfully, and once we arrived at the restaurant, the scenery was markedly different. The building was opulent, but warm and the entrance was welcoming. We were seated at a large two top table in a spacious oval, off-white-walled room accented with a color scheme of avocado green, burnt orange and dusky yellow right out of the early 1970’s.
Some of the best bread I have ever eaten has come at places where I least want to eat it. The Hotel de Ville was one of those. The bread service was exquisite with a variety of crusty loaves brought around in about as enticing a display basket as I have encountered. It was difficult to refrain from eating too much of it, but I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for the dishes to come.
There were several options for ordering on the menu, all of which left us gasping at the cost. A side effect of Switzerland’s precision, luxury and neutrality is that it is also quite expensive. We swallowed hard and decided to go for the top tier, ten course tasting menu – the Menu d’Hiver at 360 CHF per person (roughly $360pp at the time). With the cost of the meal so high, we kept our wines simple and to a minimum. I drank a glass of Champagne early and a glass of Syrah later in the meal.Did I mention that one of the characteristics I think of first when I think of Switzerland is precision? This first course was a perfect example of Swiss precision. The immaculately layered cracker with foie gras and a vinegared fig gelee was crisp, smoothly soft and gelatinous simultaneously and it still stayed together without crumbling or falling apart when cut into with a fork. It was constructed like a well thought out piece of engineering would have been. I believe I also mentioned luxury as a Swiss trademark. This had that too. The duck foie gras was of top quality and delicious and supported beautifully by the sweet and sour fig. Neutrality? Well, one can’t always be correct. There was nothing neutral about this dish or any of the ones that followed. These were clear statements on the side of deliciousness. As delicious as it was colorful, this ode to the Granny Smith Apple was tart, but not too tart, while hiding a rich and meaty veloute within. The top notch caviar added a wonderful saline balance and pop that played nicely off the crisp apple wafers. While the purple chive blossom atop the caviar did not add much to the flavor of the dish, it didn’t hurt it and provided a lovely color contrast that made the dish that much more pleasing to look at. The next course was much more muted visually than the previous one, but not so on the palate. This was a study in decadence with the local cardoons providing a rich depth supplemented by the grandeur of the black truffles that had been cut into perfect squares and placed just so atop frothy liquid. Again, precision and luxury came to the forefront. Foams may be considered passé or trite by some, but when done well, I think they still hold great appeal. Such was the case with the rose champagne foam that bathed this wonderfully sweet scallop. Here, it provided an additional dash of elegance to go with the dish’s buttery undertones. Rochat’s flavors were bright throughout the meal, but no where more so than with this outstanding sole. Switzerland is as landlocked as a nation can be, but clearly that has not stopped Rochat from getting and offering top quality seafood, such as with this fish. The perfectly steamed sole was enlivened by the wonderful, sweet and tangy citrus tones of the Menton lemons from the French Riviera and a potpourri of uniform slices of a variety of colorful root vegetables making this a dish fully entertaining to all the senses. Until this point the flavors were all clearly European, but the exquisite Shetland langoustines were bathed in a rich curry that while adding exotic flavor notes, showed enough restraint to still allow the natural sweetness and flavor of the langoustine to shine through. Though this was billed as a Madras curry, it did not contain the typical heat that most curries from the south of India tend to have. Madras curries are typically hotter than many other Indian curries, but this one was suitably mild given its pairing with the delicate shellfish. The langoustine had been given a crisp coating of puffed rice. The sauce had good acidity abetted by pickled carrots and a decided mustard flavor. This was my favorite dish of the evening.
I chose a wide selection of types and origens of cheeses. I had the aged Gruyere, Langhe, Valencay, Epoisses, Roquefort and Tomme de Rougemont. Each was impeccable except for the Valencay, which was still young and just a tad chalky.
The bread selection returned at a time when we could freely indulge, eating it with the divine cheeses. I preferred the baguette with the cheese as the other loaf tended to overpower the delicate cheeses.Coffee and chocolate certainly go very well together. This dessert didn’t break any new ground, but it was well balanced and added cacao nibs and the croquant for textural contrast. It was a classic combination and very delicious. Passion fruit, lychee and pineapple combined to make this dessert quite delicious as well. Once again, this was classic French patisserie technique with conservative, albeit tropical flavors that was very nice without being truly novel. It hit all the right notes.
The meal finished with a variety of extremely well crafted and tasty mignardises. Like the rest of the meal, these were more classic than innovative, but then Hotel de Ville is not a restaurant that is about innovation. It is a restaurant that takes the craft of making delicious and beautiful food from within the French culinary tradition and pushes it to the limits of precision and luxury. This is a restaurant to come to and be pampered, a restaurant to sit back, not think too much about the cost, relax and enjoy. It is truly a luxury. Though Rochat, his staff and his restaurant may not be neutral when it comes to food, Rochat’s l’Hotel de Ville, in terms of ingredients, surroundings and service, embodies the definition of a classic restaurant with its precise craft and luxury. The cuisine may be French, but the Hotel de Ville is consummately Swiss.
Some big changes are afoot for this restaurant. Current Chef de Cuisine, Benoit Violler is a new co-owner of the restaurant and will succeed Philippe Rochat as Chef in April of 2012. Franck Giovannini will be the new Chef de Cuisine. Giovannini has also been announced as the new President of the Swiss Bocuse d’Or team for the European competition in 2012 and the Bocuse d’Or in 2013. The Hotel de Ville currently has three Michelin stars.