Food isn’t the only reason we eat out.
Sometimes, we simply want an experience that takes our breath away, a shallow thrill that can match our joy, mask our sorrow. On those occasions, logic and reason rarely have a voice.
Gripped by such an moment, I recently found myself wantonly throwing fistfuls of money off a mountain and watching it disappear into thin air.
In retrospect, I don’t regret it for a second.
A considerable undertaking had loomed over me for the last year and a half. With the deadline pushed, and pushed again, regretfully, its shadow followed me to Europe.
But, while in St. Moritz, I dotted and crossed the last of it and sent it off. A weight lifted.
“We must celebrate,” my friend Tallie insisted. A resident of the rich resort town tucked high on a Swiss shelf, she knew just the place.
Up a mountain we went in a cable car, disembarking with skiers and snowboarders from around the world. From there, Tallie and I traced the the side of the mountain, with at least a meter of packed snow beneath us. Crossing multiple ski paths, we arrived, twenty minutes later, at a place simply and aptly named Paradise.
Right off the slopes, this mountainside hütte offered a double-tiered deck with a breathtaking vista of Engadin Valley and the Italian Alps just beyond, frozen and still.
The upper deck was a sea of picnic tables with a bar thick with ski bums. It looked like Spring break.
Below, a more-tanned, more-massaged set enjoyed a calmer clime, dry-aging in the midday sun on padded settees lined with fur.* This is where you’d find Lazenby on Her Majesty’s secret service, shades down, cigar in hand. For the privilege of eating down there with him in first class: a seventy-five Swiss Franc minimum, per person.**
The last day of January, it was gorgeous. The sun beaming, the snow glittering, we peeled off our layers and headed downstairs.
You’re probably thinking what I was thinking at the time: The food here can’t be good, it’s a fly trap for the rich.
You’d be surprised. I was.
The menu was impossibly large, a rambling mix of traditional, Swiss mountain food – like fondues, hearty pastas, and meats from the grill – and alarmingly ambitious dishes with surprisingly high-quality ingredients: coconut soup with free-range chicken and Mangalitsa salami infused with thyme, for example.
I mused that they had truffles – black ones from Perigord and white ones from Alba.
Out of curiosity, I asked to see them.
I expected a morbid scene – petrified turds, dehydrated by the arid mountain air and smelling of dust.
What arrived, however, was grand – healthy specimens with a healthy aroma. I was so excited that I tossed all reason aside and dove headlong into extravagance, ordering a croque monsieur and having white truffles shaved all over it (125 CHF).
The croque monsieur wasn’t really a croque monsieur. This was more of an oversized bruschetta smothered with bechamel and melted gruyère. Meatless, it was dotted with grape tomatoes and sprouts, I suppose only for color.
Despite eating in the cold, the aroma of the white truffle was quite strong, and it was spectacular with the creamy cheese. The dark, whole-grain bread was excellent – toasty and crunchy, with a warm, sturdy crumb. I will never forget that croque monsieur.
Tallie and I each had a spinach salad. The greens were shockingly fresh.
Mine was topped with a poached egg, which was really more soft-boiled (28 CHF). The yolk was intensely orange, unusually rich. That dark, Swiss bread reappeared here, torn and fried until crisp: amazing croutons.
She ordered her salad with roasted guinea fowl. It was excellent as well.
Service here was glacial, the pacing almost too slow. But the servers were extremely friendly, and incredibly young.
By the time we ordered dessert, the sun had slipped below the mountains, an unnaturally high and premature sunset. The temperature plummeted quickly. We moved indoors.
We ignored the restaurant’s signature dessert, the “Creme Schnitte” (or “Cream Slice”), essentially a tall Napoleon. Instead, we ordered crepes (28 CHF).
Despite being much thicker than I expected (these were much more like pancakes), they were great. Rolled and stuffed with whipped cream, they were served warm, sided by stewed apricots and topped with a wonderful scoop of blueberry-thyme ice cream. It was well-made, and delicious too.
How do they transport the ingredients to such a remote location?
In the winter, they get small shipments delivered daily by snow mobiles. In heavy snowfall, they rely on caterpillars, which inch their way up the side of the mountain with provisions. And for their trouble, you pay dearly. The main courses averaged north of sixty Swiss Francs; it wasn’t hard to meet the seventy-five Franc minimum on the lower deck.
Undeniably, el paradiso is a theme restaurant. Its incredible location is its calling card.
But the happy surprise is that the food’s not bad either. Given the amazing view from its tables, the restaurant’s food seems like it’s much better than it needs to be. It may not be the most refined cuisine, but the ingredient quality was high enough, and it’s well-cooked and well-presented. It’s also absurdly overpriced. But, where else can you have white truffles on a croque monsieur while watching the sun set from the rim of the Swiss Alps?
To celebrate a personal triumph, I can’t imagine a more special place, or a more spectacular splurge.
I would return in a heartbeat.
Via Engiadina / Randolins
St. Moritz, 7500 Switzerland
+41 81 833 40 02
* Couples on the lower deck also had the option of taking one of the private couchettes perched along the ledge of the mountain. These were, arguably, the best seats in the house, with a completely unobstructed view.
** At the time, the Swiss Franc was about neck-and-neck with the U.S. Dollar, outpacing it by a few cents.