Onsite Review: Great Swiss Hotels Go Gault-Millau

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Basel, Switzerland.
Basel, Switzerland (photo courtesy of Ed Wetschler).

Want to make me happy? Decant a Sanzeno Merlot Ticino Riserva 2011 and set down an amuse bouche of tender lamb cubes and foccacia redolent of rosemary. Then surprise me with a second amuse bouche, this time with a moist salmon roll, fresh radish-caraway salad, and onion jam. That’s how dinner started at La Terrasse, in Interlaken’s Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa. And if you think that sounds splendid, wait ‘till you hear about the actual meal.

In the past 30 years, Switzerland has sprinted from the middle to the front of the pack in Europe’s culinary races. Was this thanks to prosperity, the sophistication that comes with being a four-culture country, or the influence of Switzerland’s world-famous hotel schools? Hard to say, but this I do know: Although my wife, Carol, and I went there to trace my brother’s steps as a medical student in Switzerland, we were constantly distracted by the cuisine. So come with me to some of Europe’s top hotels, and let’s eat.

basel: business, history, art
“Land of contrasts” is an overused phrase, but Basel earns it. The city nurtures both mega-corporations and a medieval core, both scientific types and offbeat Bohemians. Walking streets named after medieval guilds, you pass plaques with the dates houses were built: 1410, 1380, 1280. The depiction of Justice on the facade of the huge, 600-year-old city hall (instead of scales, she carries The Ten Commandments—in Hebrew) stops you short. So does the monumental Muenster (cathedral), a once-Catholic shrine that, like much of Switzerland, turned Protestant. An old-style ferry hitched to a line across the Rhine uses the current rather than an engine to reach the other side, while a streetcar system transports you anywhere else—quickly. The Kunstmuseum (Art Museum) transports you, too, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century.

Napoleon Bonaparte dined at Les Trois Rois, a grande dame that wins high marks from Gault-Millau. We did not eat there, but we did dine at Hotel der Teufelhof. This art hotel features modern guestrooms, paintings (some by Picasso), a guy at the bar who—look closely!—is really a mannequin, and Atelier, an informal restaurant with a terrific chef. It was still venison season, and my chanterelle-infused venison came with the crispiest, lightest dumplings, while a buttery Madeira sauce enriched Carol’s poulet.

bern: bears, cheese, chocolate
Not only is Bern’s Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage site, but this city on the twisting Aare River is the nation’s capital, with a monumental Beaux Arts parliament building and restaurants to sate every diplomat’s tastes. In addition to its sky-high Gothic cathedral and olde City Hall, Bern boasts a medieval clock tower with a complicated Rube Goldberg gear system. Fountains beautify streets, arcades shade sidewalks, the Einstein Museum and House honors young Albert, and seductive aromas waft out of chocolate shops. Speaking of food, Bern is also the gateway to Emmental, whose Schaukaeserei offers insights on what cheese is really all about. Only in Bern can people float down a river encircling a capital city. The tourist office sells dry bags for about $20, so swimmers can bring their clothing with them. From the park on the south side of Old Town, an elevator (small charge) and a staircase lead down to the oldest part of town, with its half-timber townhouses. Across the river is a gorgeous rose garden on a bluff, at the base of which is a sprawling habitat for European bears.

Dignitaries stay at the Bellevue Palace, so we did, too. This is another grand hotel with oodles of history, heated floors in marble baths, Tiffany glass, perfect service, and 16 points from Gault-Millau. Even the breakfast buffet is a gastronomical experience because the coffee, crepes, eggs, sausages, smoked fish, little vegetable salads, cheeses, fruits and yogurts are so excellent.

interlaken: gateway to the alps
One morning Carol and I checked our luggage at Bern’s railroad station to be sent on to Interlaken Ost, while we headed south to the Jungfraujoch, where we stood upon the roof of the Alps and could almost touch the North Face, Eiger and other legendary crags. Returning to Interlaken Ost, we retrieved our bags and checked into the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa.

An updated beauty from the 1850s, the property offers both traditional and spa rooms, a spa, and world-beater restaurants and lounges. That Ticino Riserva was the most sophisticated Merlot I’ve ever tasted, and our appetizers, grilled quail and langoustine with calf tongue and three forms of avocado, almost made us forget the amuse bouches. Almost.

lake geneva: wine, chaplin, and all that jazz
Lord Byron, Charlie Chaplin, Freddie Mercury, Graham Greene, and multiple monarchs loved French-speaking Lake Geneva, our last stop, and for good reason. Not only is Montreux a swell town for museums, music (all kinds) and dining, but the hills are alive with vineyards: villages with 1,000-year-old terraces, a must-visit wine museum (Vinorama), and vintners who offer tastings—especially of crisp, white Chasselas—and even live music.

I suffered momentary buyer’s remorse at the cozy Auberge du Raisin in Cully, when, after ordering wild lake trout, I noticed a waiter roasting chicken in the fireplace. No worries: The trout was astonishingly flavorful (the rustic pate appetizer was outstanding, too). After the dark chocolate mousse with whipped cream and ice cream, I wanted to move into one of Raisin’s rooms.

In lakefront Vevey, Carol and I ate at La Coupole in the Astra Hotel, by the railroad station. This casual restaurant serves big bowls of garlicky moules, but we chose to try two different venison entrees: an elegant venison rib steak in a wild mushroom sauce, and a hearty venison stew with wine sauce, bacon chunks, and chestnuts.

We stayed in Vevey at Hotel des Trois Couronnes & Destination Spa, the only five-star here that’s directly on a beach. This mid-1800s landmark with a fabled clientele offers both traditional and modern rooms, magazine-cover views of Lac Leman, and an expansive indoor pool with underwater classical music. In its Michelin-starred restaurant, we started dinner with a bubbly Domaine de l’Ovaille Yvorne Grand Cru 2013 and Lake Geneva whitefish with cucumbers, olives, and a whiff of fennel and apple. My venison (I couldn’t resist) was enhanced by a rich wine reduction, some pear, celery root, estate-bottled olive oil drizzled on polenta, and a 2011 Quatuor Grand Cru Bordeaux.

getting around
We flew Swiss Air JFK-Zurich, returning Geneva-JFK. Best long-haul flight I’ve had in years. We also used the Swiss Pass. Not only did our passes include railroad travel, but also municipal transportation systems and even museum admissions.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
On the Tracks in France (August 2014)

contact information
Astra Hotel: astra-hotel.ch
Auberge du Raisin: aubergeduraisin.ch
Bellevue Palace: (800) 745-8883; bellevue-palace.ch
Hotel der Teufelhof: teufelhof.com
Hotel des Trois Couronnes & Destination Spa: (800) 745-8883; hoteltroiscouronnes.ch
Swiss Air: (877) 359-7947; swiss.com
Switzerland Tourism: myswitzerland.com
Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa: (800) 745-8883; victoria-jungfrau.ch