“It isn’t easy being the successor to the Pope,” Philippe Rochat is once quoted as saying.
The “Pope,” to whom Rochat referred was, of course, Frédy Girardet, the legendary Swiss chef and early champion of the lighter, more playful nouvelle cuisine. A contemporary of Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, and Joël Robuchon, Girardet is considered by many to be one of the best chefs of the 20th century.
Rochat began working under Girardet in 1960 at Girardet’s eponymous, three Michelin-starred restaurant located inside the old Hotel de Ville (city hall) in Crissier, Switzerland. In 1996, Rochat bought the restaurant from Girardet and, in a year, earned back the third star that was stripped when Girardet left.
Shortly thereafter, the name of the restaurant was changed to Philippe Rochat at the Hotel de Ville. Currently, it is one of three Swiss restaurants to hold three Michelin stars. And it was here that I had a truly magnificent meal in January.
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From Lyon, where we had watched Philippe Rochat judge the fish dishes at the Bocuse d’Or the day before, John Sconzo and I took a train to Lausanne, Switzerland. From there, we took a car to Crissier, about a 20-minute drive.
The restaurant is quaint, if not a bit dated, which is the only criticism I can muster for both the interior and the food.
Otherwise, everything about the place was flawless.
In addition to the a la carte menu, there were two tasting menus. We took the top one, “Menu d’Hiver,” a ten-course dinner that came with a handsome, 360 CHF price tag.*
Here is what we had:
Crackers de Foie Gras
Vinaigre de figue.
Fin Veloute de Pomme Granny Smith
Cardons de Crissier
Au truffe noires du Tricastin.
Noix de Saint-Jacques de Normandie
En Coquille au Champagne rose.
Vapeur de Sole du Croisic
Au Citron de Menton.
Langoustine de Casier des Iles Shetland
Cuite a la coque, reduction coraillee au curry Madras.
Pied de Porc au Jura Glace
Au vieux Madere.
Cotelettes d’Agneau de Lait des Pyranees
Poelees au thym sauvage.
Fromages Frais et Affines
Marbre de Cafe
Arabica et chocolat Guinaja.
Feuillete Caramelise d’Ananas Victoria
Au vieux rhum Charrette.
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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Philippe Rochat’s plating style clearly echos one of my favorite artists, Joan Miró, whose unmistakable designs decorate the restaurant’s plates.
Like Miró’s art, Rochat’s food is incredibly playful and expressive, and possesses a finesse that betrays its simple form. Rochat uses flavor and texture instead of anthropomorphism to inject complexity and life into plain geometry. And, he uses acid the way Miró used color, to brighten and lighten, to contrast and shock.
Foie gras terrine arrived as triangles, set on a flakey cracker crust and topped with a layer of gelatin made of fig vinegar, deeply purple, rewardingly tart. What amazed me is that, when cutting through the three layers, everything stayed together perfectly, including the crisp cracker, which severed cleanly, without shattering. This sort of refined and precise craftsmanship was noticeable throughout the evening.
Square punch-outs of black truffle levitated above tender strips of cardoons bathing in a frothy, milky, warm bath. This dish professed shades of earthy, creamy, and sweet flavors not apparent in its stark appearance.
And shingled Granny Smith apple coins, crisp and neat, ringed an orb of Osetra caviar set on a peridot pavement of apple gelee. Beneath it was a smooth veloute custard with an unexpectedly meaty flavor. A mix of tangy and savory, this was a unintuitive combination that had me tasting and re-tasting. It worked.
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Included in our meal were a couple of exotic detours, neither of which were gawky or gimmicky.
There was a giant coil of langoustine, dusted with puffed rice and coated in a Madras curry sauce spiked with vinegar, which gave it a mustardy edge. It was warm in color and in flavor.
So was one of the desserts, a feuillette topped with caramelized pineapple, boozy with aged rum. This was served with a parfait of passion fruit and pineapple topped with a lychee foam; a refreshing chaser to end it all.
The most memorable course for me was a delicate slice of steamed sole that arrived in a creamy broth perfumed with the incredibly fragrant zest of Menton limes. The fish was flocked with crispy confetti of beet, green apple, carrot, and other root vegetables dressed with lime juice – a pop of color, a pop of acid. This was exquisite, a seamless meeting of smell and taste. The Menton limes were the star of this dish.
I also really enjoyed a sea scallop sauced with a buttery seafood broth laced with rosé Champagne. The scallop arrived in its smiling shell, which was unhinged at the table.
For our main meat courses, there were two options. I took the pig trotter stuffed with what I believe was pulled trotter meat. The soft, melting round came glazed with aged Madeira and freckled with black truffles. This was delicious, if not a bit monotonous after a couple of bites.
We both preferred the suckling lamb cutlets. The wild, funky flavor alone won me over, not to mention how nicely cooked they were.
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You’ll not want to miss the cheese cart at Philippe Rochat, my friend urged a week earlier in Paris. It’s one of the best in the world.
He was right.
Although they offered an international assortment of cheeses, I focused on the local, aged Alpine cheeses on the cart. They were all exceptional, especially the aged Simmenthal.
New to me was a crottin of fresh goat’s milk cheese that was served with a generous drizzle of fruity olive oil and dusted with freshly ground black and pink peppercorns.
The bread cart that arrived with the cheeses was equally stunning, a reminder of just how good Swiss bread is. I asked for seconds, and thirds. It was amazing.
Service was alright; provided by a tuxedoed platoon of alpha-males, drone-like and uniform. The ladies on staff were a bit softer, more smiley and nice. But maybe that’s because I associate them with that happy bread cart, which seemed to be the extent of their domain in the dining room.
Even still, this meal at Philippe Rochat at the Hotel de Ville was one of the more solid European Michelin three-starred experiences I’ve had, and one of the best meals I had on my recent tour of Europe.
There was a consistency to Rochat’s style and a precision and confidence in his cooking that I’ve rarely met elsewhere. The ingredient quality was exceedingly high. Flavors were pure and clean, simple and direct. There were no leaps of glory or feats of fancy. But neither were there any disappointments; not a single flaw. I suppose this isn’t terribly surprising given that we basically had the Swiss Bocuse d’Or team cooking for us that night.
Rochat and his sous chef, Franck Giovannini, the Swiss candidate who placed sixth at this year’s Bocuse d’Or and the bronze winner in 2007, had returned from Lyon that day and were in the kitchen that night. So was Rochat’s chef de cuisine and Giovannini’s coach, B. Wallflower, an M.O.F.
Although I’ve never eaten Girardet’s food, I would say that Rochat has done well as successor to the Pope. I’m happy I made the detour from Lyon to eat here. Given the opportunity, I’d return in a heartbeat.
Hotel de Ville
+41 21 634 05 05
* At the time, the U.S. Dollar and the Swiss Franc were neck and neck, with the Franc outpacing the Dollar by a few cents.