It’s about 20 years since I last visited the little village of Crissier, just outside Lausanne, particularly to eat at Giradet, then considered to be the best restaurant in the world. I had been there a couple of times before and was amazed – not only for the finesse of the cuisine, but also for Frédy Giradet’s amazing generosity as to what appeared on his plates. To boot – it really wasn’t THAT expensive (at least not for what you got); in fact we did work out once that it was cheaper to fly to Geneva, train and bus to Crissier, stay in a local hotel garni, and eat sumptuously at Giradet for less than a weekend in a posh country house hotel in the UK! The wonderful assistance we received from Giradet’s English head waiter, John Davey, was an added bonus.
Frédy retired in 1996 to be succeeded by his second, Philippe Rochat, who now, in turn, has been succeeded by HIS second, Benoît Violier. Unfortunately, I never got to taste the cuisine of Philippe Rochat, but a visit last week to a friend living in Vevey, about 20km. away, gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with that restaurant. In a way of history repeating itself, Benoît has just been acclaimed as Cuisinier de l’année, by the Gault Milau restaurant guide, as Giradet was just before the occasion of my first visit.
After taking over the restaurant earlier this year, Benoît went immediately about re-designing his kitchen and restaurant and they re-opened after 5 weeks of work this autumn. The restaurant itself consists of two spacious rooms, with naturally well-spaced tables, beautifully decorated in white setting off the works of art hanging on the beige background walls.
The real work of art, though, was in the cuisine and here we were not disappointed.
As is usual on the continent of Europe, there is a selection of prix fixe menus, ranging from SFR 185 for a “quick lunch” to SFR 390 for a 10 course blow out, but due to advancing age, I’m not sure if I could take that any more! My two companions, several decades younger than me, concurred anyway, so we decided to go à la carte. What swung that decision in a way, was the extraordinary array of game dishes on the menu. It turns out that Benoît is a game fanatic and is never more at home than when cooking game.
The choice on the carte was fantastic – Teal, Snipe, Woodcock, Ptarmigan, Wood Pigeon, Venison, Chamois and Hare, left me drooling and after much humming and ha-ing, I went for the pan fried Alpine Chamois chops with a pepper sauce. I persuaded my young friend to be bold and go for his first taste of woodcock and here it was roasted with a game sauce and accompanied with a giblet tartine. His wife, perhaps a little less adventurous, went for the pièce of grilled Limousin beef with a grey shallot confit.
Our pre-starter was a velouté of caviar and crispy chopped vegetables – a really good palate awakener. A fine selection of home-made breads, spankingly fresh, also got us off to a good start. My starter was an incredible dish – oeufs en surprise à l’italienne aux truffes blanches d’Alba façon Philippe Rochat – a tribute to Benoît’s predecessor. This consisted of two lightly boiled egg yolks covered with concentric rings of spaghetti, looking somewhat like Brünehilde’s breast plates (although considerably smaller, of course) in a jus made from the egg whites studded with 15 generous shavings of white truffle. The delicate consistency of the dish made it truly outstanding. Jean-Daniel’s croustillants de foie gras de canard du Périgord Noir aux cerises séchées, was intensely flavoured and surprisingly crusty on the outside with softness on the inside – no mean feat as I have seen this kind of dish messed up in other places a number of times. His wife, Roxane, chose Cône de champignons Sylvestres du pays de Vaud aux truffes blanches du Piemont, sacristains au cumin – a cone of local wild mushrooms, again garnished with white truffle shavings and little cumin sticks, rich, but light at the same time.
On to the main courses. My Chamois was utterly delicious – perfectly cooked à point, and perfectly accompanied with the pepper sauce enhancing the slight gaminess of the meat. The only criticism here was that it really wasn’t warm enough for my taste, but this could have been because it might have stayed too long at the passe, or also because the policy of the restaurant is to send the dish out from the kitchen without sauces which are then poured on to the plate afterwards by the waiting staff. That’s a bit of a double edged sword – on the one hand it’s a good idea because the sauce isn’t left evaporating on a hot plate in the kitchen before it is sent into the dining room, but on the other hand, if there is a delay in putting the sauce on the dish, there is a risk of it getting too cold.
The woodcock was incredible. Split down the centre lengthwise, you had a perfect mirror effect on the plate. And of course, this made the eating of it that much easier, particularly in getting into the brain. With a whole bird, to get to this delicacy, you had to bite into the head and suck out the brain, but here you were supplied with the tiniest of spoons, so that you could scoop the brain easily out of the cranium which had been perfectly split in half. The breast was again, perfectly cooked à point and the deeply flavoured, gamey sauce was also light and delicate. I must say that I was very grateful to Jean-Daniel for letting me have a taste and so pleased that he found it so delicious as a game-eating novice.
The piéce de boeuf was based on a classic Troisgros invention of simplicity and accuracy of cooking although I felt the texture of the beef to be a little tougher than I expected.
All this was washed down with a bottle of Gamaret 2009 from Nicolas Bonnet, one of the top producers in the Geneva appellation. Gamaret is a hybrid grape produced by crossing Gamay with Reichensteiner and is especially found in French Switzerland. This example had more spicy depth than pure Gamay, quite full in the mouth and an excellent accompaniment to the game as well as the beef.
Desserts were a highlight, both pleasing to the eye as well as the palate. Roxane’s Guyaquil chocolate and coffee fondant was a dense piece of semi-melted chocolate wrapped around an equally dense coffee ice cream and Jean-Daniel’s meringues givrées au citron, orange et pamplemousse was an extraordinary concoction of little meringue balls hollowed out with frozen lemon, grapefruit and orange sorbet within – a simple effect, but oh so complex to produce – a masterpiece which tasted so refreshing and refined. My Baba aux vieux Rhum de Guadeloupe, crème double de la Gruyère à la vanilla de Bourbon, was a lovely light baba soaked in alcohol, but I found the accompaniment of the cream cheese a little on the heavy side and lacking a bit of unctuousness. I drank a glass of Amigne de Vétroz 2009 from Madelaine Gay, a pretty unique varietal found only in the Vétroz area of the Valais. This wine is produced either dry, medium or sweet. Of course I had the sweet version with my dessert, but it didn’t really have enough sweetness to compliment the dessert, which was a pity, but as such afterwards it was a very pleasant digéstif.
To sum up – this is one of the finest restaurants that I have ever been to. The cuisine is accurate, punctilious, and above all, non-fussy. What I mean by this is that it is wysiwyg. (What you see is what you get). Everything on the plate, apart being beautifully presented, is edible and there are no too clever by half inventions or adventures into strange combinations that may or may not work. That’s very comforting. This is really Haute Cuisine with a capital “H”, a fine continuation to the guidelines laid down by Frédy Giradet 40 years ago, a continuation of perfecting traditional standards with modern aplomb.
Of course, this doesn’t come cheap. Our meal for three came to SFR 752 – about £500 or $800, but to sustain this level of quality, a large brigade of chefs are required in the kitchen and we also shouldn’t forget the front of house staff as well. In fact, service was pretty night impeccable – attention to detail without being either overbearing or obsequious was an important contribution to the overall satisfaction of the evening. And the sommelier gave us a great call with the Gamaret.
I’m saving NOW to be able to come back next year!
Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville
1, rue d’Yverdon
Tel: +41 (0)21 634 0505
Value for money: 13